Scorched car wrecks and bullet casings litter the streets of Almaty, the main city of Kazakhstan where residents were in shock Thursday after protests that turned into a riot.
With dozens of deaths and more than a thousand injured in the violence, which began with anger over rising gas prices, the country has experienced its worst crisis in years in recent days.
Protesters stormed and set fire to several administrative buildings, including Almaty town hall and the presidential residence, the latter still smoking when AFP correspondents saw her on Thursday.
Willow, a 58-year-old protester, said she was terrified when security forces opened fire on the crowd on Wednesday. “We saw deaths. Immediately, a dozen were killed,” she testifies.
Overnight, social networks were inundated with videos in which bursts of automatic weapons were heard and people running screaming, authorities launched a “counterterrorism operation” in the city.
Thursday afternoon, the police reported 18 dead in their ranks and hundreds of injured. “Dozens” of protesters were killed by police trying to take administrative buildings and police stations, authorities said.
On the outskirts of the presidential residence, onlookers walked in a dazed state on Thursday, taking photographs of puddles of blood and casings in the courtyard.
“I didn’t know our people could be so terrifying,” says Samal, a 29-year-old schoolteacher.
– Anger at corruption –
Rich in natural resources, Kazakhstan had until then been seen as one of the most stable states in Central Asia.
This former Soviet republic was ruled with an iron fist for three decades by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who handed over the reins of the country in 2019 to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, while retaining great influence.
The latter promised reforms, but Kazakhstan has seen little change since.
Protesters interviewed by AFP explained that anger had long been roaring in the country and, in recent days, slogans such as “Out, old man!” targeted 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev. A once unthinkable scene.
The detractors of the former president accuse him of having allowed widespread corruption in Kazakhstan, while ensuring his personal enrichment and that of his family who own luxurious residences abroad.
“Our Kazakhstan has been transformed into a private company of the Nazarbayevs,” said Willow, adding that the protesters only wanted the “overthrow of corruption”.
First attempting to calm the protest by sacking the government and conceding a drop in gas prices, Tokayev then chose force by calling on Moscow and its troops for help. Nearly 2,000 people have been arrested.
A state of emergency and a nationwide nighttime curfew were in place, but residents of Almaty strolled through Town Hall Square on Thursday as sporadic gunfire was heard.
On one of Almaty’s main thoroughfares, smoke billowed from offices housing several media outlets and wrecks of cars littered the streets.
Many businesses were looted, including a hunting store whose weapons were taken, presumably by demonstrators eager to confront the police.
In the gutter, AFP journalists saw empty ammunition boxes and several streets were blocked by police checkpoints.
Now, residents fear that an even more severe form of authoritarianism is taking hold of the country.
“We had a kind of pseudo-freedom,” says Soultan, 29 years old. “Now even that is over.”