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Squatter Conflict Escalates in Kazakstan

Residents of a poor part of Almaty scheduled for demolition continue protesting to demand they be allowed to stay where they are.
By Igor Kindopp
Shantytown residents Kazakstan’s second city Almaty have launched a hunger strike in an attempt to force the authorities to climb down on a plan to demolish hundreds of homes.



The city administration has made several attempts this year to clear away townships that have sprung up around the edges of the former capital in recent years, but has encountered stiff resistance from residents.



For more than a month, the focus of attention has been Bakai. On several occasions, squads of riot police have entered the area as protection for court officials serving eviction orders and teams of demolition men. Each time they have managed to destroy only a few homes before being repulsed by angry locals.



There were similar scenes in Shanyrak and Aigerim, two other illegal townships, in March and April.



In the latest incident on May 31, nearly 400 policemen cordoned off parts of Bakai while the demolition squad took down four houses.



Locals were taken by surprise, as many were attending a party in a nearby field to mark Children’s Day in Kazakstan. Ainur Kurmanov, the leader of Kazakstan Socialist Resistance, a group which has been supporting the residents’ protests, said, “It was all ruined because people ran to the demolition site immediately after they got the news, 40 to 60 minutes into the celebrations.”



According to Kurmanov, residents angered at the lack of advance warning confronted the security forces.



“Police were breaking into houses. After crashing through the door, they threw all the inhabitants’ belongings into the street. Once they had done four houses, they went up the hill, and after destroying one more house there, they moved to the other side of the village.”



By this time, a crowd had gathered and some - mainly teenagers - began throwing stones, sticks and bottles at the police. The protesters foiled attempts to demolish a sixth house, said Kurmanov.



“There were many different clashes between locals and police. One of the police units began dispersing a crowd of women gathered nearby... using special [riot] equipment,” he continued. “Some of the women were injured and in the chaos a pram with a small baby inside was overturned.”



The heat was turned up when rumours spread that three young children had died after being trapped inside one of the buildings that were demolished. After the story was repeated on an opposition website, Almaty police quickly put out a statement saying the reports of deaths were untrue.



The police statement said that while the fifth house was being taken down in line with the court order, “local residents began behaving aggressively” and police were forced to step in.



The case of Bakai and other shantytowns subject to demolition orders has been taken up by opposition groups, and their representatives used a parliamentary session held the same day to present their concerns to the legislature. In response, 36 of the 77 members of parliament wrote to Kazakstan’s chief prosecutor requesting a halt to the demolitions.



But a motion by deputy Amalbek Tshanov to hold a formal debate on the issue and question Almaty mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov and Kazak interior minister Baurjan Muhametjanov has yet to be acted on.



Tensions increased further on June 4, when about 25 activists from Bakai residents began a hunger strike; the number rose to 40 the following day.



Their main demand is to be granted legal rights to the land on which they have built houses.



"We want to legalise our rights to these land plots, because like all citizens of this republic we have equal rights to land,” a female hunger striker, who did not want to be named, told IWPR. “We are not breaking any laws and we have only taken this step in order to achieve justice.”



Residents say many of them have been living in Bakai for a decade. Some had acquired residence papers before 1999, when the land on which Bakai and other townships stand was acquired by the city of Almaty. But their documents were never recognised by the authorities, who have ruled that the land is illegally occupied and subject to redevelopment.



Because the area does not technically exist in the eyes of the municipal authorities, there are no public utilities such as water, electricity and gas.



Alikhan Ramazanov, the head of Alga, the successor to the opposition Democratic Movement of Kazakstan, said Bakai residents had heard their land was to be redeveloped into a motor-racing track.



The strength of the residents’ legal position remains unclear, but it appears that they may be fighting a losing battle as the Almaty authorities have shown little sign of backing down.



“Many international standards were violated during the demolition of homes in Bakai,” said Zhemis Turmagambetova, the director of the Human Rights Charter group.



In an attempt to clarify the situation, IWPR approached the Almaty city administration, but was told that all queries had to be made in writing to the land affairs department and would only receive a response after they had been reviewed, which might take 30 days.



“At the moment, the situation is up in the air, and demolition attempts may be resumed,” said Kurmanov.



Gulmira Arbabaeva is a correspondent for the Panorama newspaper. Igor Kindopp is an independent journalist in Almaty.

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