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Leaving Kazakhstan's Poison Village

  • Bruce Pannier

The first four families from Kazakhstan's northwestern town of Beryozovka have been relocated.

It was just over a year ago that students in Beryozovka started passing out in school. Over the course of the next two weeks, 26 students had to be taken from the school to the hospital after losing consciousness.

Beryozovka residents already knew what the cause was, they had been complaining for years about the nearby Karachaganak gas and condensate field.

And for all those years Kazakh officials dismissed the claim that Karachaganak, with an estimated 1.3 trillion cubic meters of gas and more than 1 billion tons of oil and oil condensate, could be the cause of the health problems of Beryozovka residents who live some five kilometers from the hydrocarbon field.

Authorities in Kazakhstan sponsored their own study and according to the results of that study, residents were outside the hazardous zone of Karachaganak's toxic emissions, which include hydrogen sulfide, methylene chloride, carbon disulfide, and more than 20 other poisonous substances.

But with students and other residents of Beryozovka passing out on a regular basis, state authorities conceded in December 2014 that unintentional emissions during the last part of November were responsible for the outbreak of fainting.

And, authorities agreed to relocate the more than 1,600 residents of Beryozovka, which was what the villagers had been demanding since 2002.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, has been reporting on the plight of Beryozovka. Sanat Urnaliev is the Azattyq correspondent who has been making the journey to Beryozovka and Azattyq just posted a six-minute video report that she made after the first four families were resettled.

WATCH: RFE/RL Kazakh Service Reports From Beryozovka (no subtitles)

Beryozovka has generated controversy for more than a decade so it probably should not be a surprise that the program that will empty the village of inhabitants started with a controversy.

Urnaliev's video begins with Beryozovka resident Nina Korolenko complaining that authorities had promised to first relocate the children who were affected by the toxic fumes. Korolenko says officials planned the resettlement process in secret and none of the families of affected children were among the first people given new homes in the neighboring town of Aqsay.

The video report takes us to the home of Albina Iskakova, one of the students who fell ill last year. Iskakova says she still faints once or twice a week.

Her mother Aliya Mukangalieva says Albina takes medication and receives injections but all the same her daughter continues to sporadically lose consciousness. Mukangalieva says for a while the school called whenever Albina fainted, but it has occurred often enough during the past year that teachers no longer call when it happens.

Mukangalieva echoes Korolenko's comments, saying she also was not informed of the impending resettlement.

Urnaliev's report makes clear that families with an invalid were the first to be moved and the Azattyq correspondent visits the new flat of Klara Imasheva in Aqsay. Imasheva's husband is an invalid. Imasheva, a former state employee, advises those still in Beryozovka to be patient.

That is the same message Beryozovka Mayor Zhubanysh Khayrullin gives Beryozovka residents in the video, promising up to 80 more families will be relocated before the end of December.

There is a telling moment in the clip when Urnaliev goes to one of the ecological monitoring stations set up near Beryozovka to measure toxic levels in the air and alert village inhabitants if concentrations exceed permissible limits. With black smoke clearly rising from the Karachaganak site Urnaliev calls the phone number written on signs at the monitoring station and asks if the smoke is a planned discharge. The person answering the call says Uranliev needs to call the public relations department. "I can't give you any details," the voice says.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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