Despair Drives Wave of Suicides in Kazakstan

People set themselves on fire in extreme and very public form of protest.

Despair Drives Wave of Suicides in Kazakstan

People set themselves on fire in extreme and very public form of protest.

When the bailiffs arrived to evict Kenjegul Alinkulova from her home, she doused herself in petrol and set herself alight.

Alinkulova, a 45-year-old and a mother of five, decided suicide was the only way to save the family home in Almaty, Kazakstan’s second city. The property had been seized by court order after her husband was convicted of a fraud offence, and officials had refused to delay eviction until the final appeal hearing was over.

Alinkulova survived and was taken to hospital with extensive burns. The eviction went ahead anyway.

The incident, on September 1, is unusual in itself as self-immolation is not a common suicide method in Kazakstan, and at most a couple of cases are recorded a year.

But this was in fact the sixth recorded suicide attempt of its kind in the space of six months. One was fatal.

Over many years, self-immolation has become a sadly well-known suicide method adopted by women facing domestic difficulties in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and neighbouring Afghanistan. In Kazakstan, it is a new and quite different phenomenon, involving both men and women.

While each of the six recent cases was an individual cry for help, there appeared to be a common theme – a sense of powerless in the face of injustice or economic problems. Five appeared to be attempts to attract attention to an injustice, and the sixth involved a man facing repossession of his home because he could not keep up his mortgage payments.

In June, Saule Utepbergenova, 50, died after setting herself on fire at the offices of Kazakstan’s ruling Nur Otan party in the capital Astana. She had gone there to ask for help after her 19-year-old son lost his appeal against a ten-year jail sentence for drugs charges.

In another case relating to the legal system the same month, a man called Aidar Saparov attempted to set himself on fire in the western region of Aktobe. Saparov was protesting against what he alleges is the inaction of police over the murder of his son. After the suicide attempt, he told reporters that the killers were still at large and police had detained the wrong people.

Two months earlier, Sandugash Tagabergenova, a market trader in Almaty, tried to set fire to herself after losing a court case over her eviction from her small shop. Her suicide attempt failed because the lighter did not work, and police and journalists who came on the scene prevented any further attempt at self-harm.

“I have three small children, and now I don’t know how I can take care of them and also pursue the legal battle for my property,” she said.

Hasan Parpiev, 46, from the southern city of Taraz, survived a suicide attempt with 65 per cent burns, which he undertook in May after bailiffs arrived at his home because he had run into arrears with his mortgage.

Finally, Alexander Puzdrikov from Uralsk in western Kazakstan was arrested in August after a passer-by preventing him setting fire to himself. Puzdrikov was distressed about his inability to obtain social housing, to which he is entitled as someone who grew up in a children’s home. (For more on this issue, see Kazak Police Threaten Dissidents With Psychiatric Confinement.)

Charged with public disorder and resisting police, he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Yesenbek Ukteshbaev, who heads a housing rights pressure group, blamed the government for ignore the social and economic legacy of global financial crisis.

“The state has no desire to tackle the problems facing ordinary people,” he said. “People resort to extreme measures out of a sense of hopelessness.”

Almaty-based psychologist Maya Schepina said it was dangerous to generalise and accuse the authorities of things for which they were not entirely responsible.

“To make sense of it all, each case needs to be considered separately. Of course, socially, it marks a Rubicon, but not everyone is susceptible to suicide, still less self- immolation,” she said. “It’s 50 per cent social problems and 50 per cent personal responsibility. Even if it’s an act of protest, it doesn’t solve the problem.”

A policeman in Almaty who gave his first name as Yerlan described how the force responded when people attempted to take their own lives in public.

“We’re a punitive agency, not a counselling one. If someone wants to jump off a bridge, what can we do? Should we say don’t jump? It’s his life, after all,” he said.

Yerlan, who is part of a unit deployed to film public protests, said that self-immolation cases were traumatic for the police, who were first on the scene.

“What things you get to see!” he said. “I wish someone would arrange counselling for us.”

Almaty businessman Tahirjan Ahmetov said people should band together to articulate common grievances rather than suffer alone and be driven to desperate remedies.

Ahmetov should know – in 2008, unable to secure the eviction of a former business partner who was occupying a jointly-owned property, he cut off his own little finger. When this failed to secure the desired legal outcome, he cut off another finger the following year.

“If I hadn’t done it, nothing would have changed,” he said. His attempt to gather others to support his cause failed, and he says this kind of apathy in the face of injustice is regrettable.

“If there had been more of us, there would have been no need to do what I did,” he added.

Andrei Grishin is staff member of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human rights and Rule of Law.

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