ZHANAOZEN, Kazakhstan -- My arrival in Zhanaozen, a city in Kazakhstan's southwestern Manghystau Oblast, coincided with a holiday of sorts: the Day of Knowledge, September 1.
Students clutching bouquets of flowers hurried toward school for the first day of classes. Tiny first-graders held on tightly to their parents' hands, trying to keep up.
The day was very hot, with temperatures hovering at 40 degrees Celsius. A steady wind was blowing, covering the entire city in a layer of dust. I found it irritating, but the locals had long since grown used to it and didn't even notice.
A bus dropped passengers off at a terminal located on the outskirts of the city. Several men ran up to us and offered to take us to the center for 150 tenges, just over $1. I got in a car and asked the driver to take me to the central square, where oil workers from the OzenMunaiGaz oil company have been staging a strike for nearly four months.
The driver was quiet at first, but when he learned that I was a reporter, he began to talk about the strike. "I don't understand why people are being treated this way," he said. "Experienced oil workers are protesting on the square. They're defending their rights. And bad things are happening to them."
He mentioned Zhaqsylyq Turbaev, a striker who was killed by unknown assailants on August 2. Then there is Zhansaule Qarabalaeva, the 18-year-old daughter of another striker, who was found dead with a fractured skull on the outskirts of Zhanaozen on August 24, three days after she disappeared. Officials say they are investigating the incidents.
"I think these murders are connected," said the taxi driver, a Zhanaozen native. "And I think they're in response to the protests."
Workers Struggle For Recognition
Since May, oil workers in Zhanaozen and Aqtau, another city in Manghystau Oblast, have been striking to protest unfair pay and demand better recognition for local labor unions, which are largely ignored by oil company management. Manghystau, which includes Kazakhstan's energy-rich Caspian coast, is believed to account for 70 percent of the country's oil output, which itself amounts to more than 10 percent of the country's GDP.
The country has seen rapid growth due to its large energy reserves. Kazakhstan's GDP per capita in 2010 reached an estimated $11,000 -- more than twice that of another energy-rich neighbor, Turkmenistan, and far outstripping the rest of its Central Asian brethren. But living standards in the region are poor, a far cry from the relative opulence of Almaty and the capital, Astana.
The strikes began strong, with more than 10,000 workers participating in the walkout. Since then, however, numbers have dwindled to just over 1,000. Authorities at Zhanaozen's OzenMunaiGaz and Aqtau's KarazhanbasMunai energy works -- both of which have ties to the state -- have repeatedly taken advantage of Kazakhstan's flimsy labor protection, firing hundreds of the striking workers for absenteeism and hiring new employees in their place. A number of the labor activists who have supported the group have been detained and even given lengthy prison sentences.
Timur Kulibaev, the billionaire son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the chairman of the board of Samruk-Kazyna, the fund that operates KazMunaiGaz, the state-run oil and gas conglomerate that runs KarazhanbasMunai and OzenMunaiGaz, recently announced that all of the striking workers would be barred from ever returning to their jobs, saying they had "violated labor laws."
'People Are Sent To Spy On Us'
When I arrived on September 1, the strike was in its 96th day. I got to the square and sat on a bench to get out my Dictaphone and video camera. Two young men ran up to me from the workers and peppered me with questions: Who was I? Where had I come from? What did I want? Their mood was aggressive and they looked at me with distrust. I showed them my work documents and they relaxed.
"All sorts of people keep turning up here -- including people who are sent to spy on us," one of them said. "That's why we're checking so carefully."
My impression, however, was that the entire square was under the strikers' control. Several police officers observed the scene from a distance. Other residents strolled along nearby streets, but kept well clear of the square.
The two men led me toward a green, leafy spot. There are very few trees in Zhanaozen, whose climate is almost desert-like, and the square had no more than a dozen. Under each, oil workers sat on rolled-out carpets, seeking a brief respite from the sweltering heat.
But dozens of other miners continued to brave the heat and scorching sun in the unprotected center of the square. Asked why they didn't move to the shade, they answered that it was the principle of the thing: the center of the square, the heart of the strike, should never be empty.
"The heat doesn't bother us," said one of the strikers, Qaiyrzhan Shaghyrbaev. "At the oil works we worked under much worse conditions. Extreme temperatures, toxic runoff. So this is easy to deal with. We can stay here for a hundred days more, or even longer. We won't retreat."
'Our Money Went Somewhere'
The strikes have drawn limited but unwelcome attention from the international community, with European Parliament members calling on the authorities to address the strikers' demands, and the British pop star Sting cancelling a concert
in Astana in response to a request by Amnesty International.
Nazarbaev's government has largely shrugged off the criticism, saying the strikes are an internal matter. But officials may soon be forced to act: KazMunaiGaz has acknowledged that the strikes have already forced a 6 percent drop in the company's oil output, an admission that may heighten jitters among Kazakhstan's valued foreign investors.
For now, however, the state has maintained a hard-line stance on the protests. The striking workers have seen their organizers steadily removed from the protest. One by one, they've been detained and charged with "inciting social discord." One, lawyer and community organizer Aqzhanat Aminov, received a one-year suspended sentence. Another, Natalya Sokolova, a lawyer working with KarazhanbasMunai in Aqtau, was sentenced to six years in prison.
International rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House decried Sokolova's sentence, with the former saying Kazakh authorities "shouldn't misuse the criminal law to quash labor union activity."
After the forced departure of Aminov and Sokolova, Natalya Azhighalieva took up the leadership baton. Azhighalieva -- who herself was detained on September 8 -- was seen by many of the striking workers as fearless and charismatic, and had successfully mediated a number of disputes. On September 1, she told me what she saw as the true reasons for the strike.
"We didn't demand, and are not demanding, a higher salary, which is what everyone thinks," she said. "All we want is fair compensation for the deception we've endured for the past 2 1/2 years."
Natalya Azhighalieva is the latest strike leader to be detained by the police.
In January 2009, the Kazakh government issued a decree outlining pay raises for oil and gas employees working in dangerous conditions. The funds were duly allocated. But local managers then refused to proceed with the hikes, and blocked workers from negotiations on implementing the decree. In the meantime, Azhighalieva said, the extra funds simply vanished.
"Our money landed somewhere," she said. "And we're talking about millions, if not billions. Who will answer for this? And why are we, the simple workers, the ones who are said to be acting extreme?"
The response to the conflict from local and national officials has been muted. Activists involved in the strike say they repeatedly appealed to company management and government officials for information and support, but were met with a resounding silence.
When they found out that Prime Minister Karim Masimov was an active social networker, they contacted him through Twitter -- no mean feat in a region with limited Internet penetration where many people must depend on their mobile phones for an Internet connection.
"Some opposition party members taught us to use Twitter. They came from Almaty and taught us a lot," said one striker, Bolsyn Zhumabekova. "Now we're writing to Masimov on Twitter. But, like always, there's been no reaction. And he was the one who signed off on the decree in the first place."
A Meeting With Kosherbaev
More than 100 days of striking, combined with 40-degree heat and growing uncertainty about the future, has had a wearing effect on the workers' nerves. It's not only strangers they view with suspicion. Relations between the striking workers themselves have become complicated, with every petty dispute seeming to devolve into bigger squabbles and sharper language. But even so, the strikers say that when it comes to the general threat they all face, they stand united as a group.
September 1 was not only the first day of school and the 96th day of the strike. Ironically, it was also the day marking the 50th anniversary of the launch of oil production in Zhanaozen. For the occasion, the governor of Manghystau, Qyrymbek Kosherbaev, had traveled to the city to attend a commemoration at a local House of Culture. But a number of oil workers hoped to interrupt the festivities, gathering outside the building and shouting, "Kosherbaev, come out on the square!" "Kosherbaev, remember the people!"
Police cordoned off the building and prevented the oil workers from getting any closer. Several of the more assertive demonstrators were dragged away from the scene. The mood grew tense, and at times it seemed even the slightest provocation could have quickly escalated into violence. At first glance, the balance of power was uneven. It seemed a simple matter for the police to disperse the protesters, if they so chose. But their eyes betrayed a certain indecisiveness and fear. Because bit by bit, more and more Zhanaozen residents were arriving at the scene.
Qyrymbek Kosherbaev said there was little the regional administration could do.
"All those people -- they're our brothers, friends, colleagues," said one of the oil workers afterward. "Many of them are without work. They're joining us out of solidarity, and they will always be ready to support us in case of a threat by the authorities. There are 1,000-some strikers on the square. But behind them are tens of thousands of Zhanaozen residents."
The event at the House of Culture continued for three hours. After it ended, Kosherbaev emerged and walked toward the striking workers. He urged them to find new jobs at other oil companies, saying it was beyond his power to restore their previous posts at OzenMunaiGaz.
A rumble of protest rose up from the assembled workers, drowning out the mayor's words. Frustrated, he waved his hand and turned to get into his car. Cries of "Get out! Vacate your chair!" followed him.
WATCH: An angry protester confronts Qrymbek Kosherbaev:
Suddenly, an elderly woman broke free from the crowd and ran toward the mayor, asking him for help finding work for her children. Kosherbaev told the woman to speak to his deputy. But by then, other people in the crowd had approached the elderly woman, and began shouting in anger.
"Do you have any shame?" "Is that how you solve your personal problems?" "We all have problems, but here we have a common goal." "Get out of here, you traitor!"
Frightened, the woman quickly walked away. After that, with the mood heated, the oil workers called on each other to stay loyal to the strike, in no uncertain terms.
"If someone is looking to solve only their own personal problems, leave immediately," yelled a person in the crowd, drawing whistles of support.
"Kosherbaev won't help us, but we'll sit here till the end!" shouted another, earning another rumble of approval from the crowd.
One of the strikers, Qaiyrzhan Shaghyrbaev, acknowledged that disputes and conflicts among the strikers had become frequent. But he said they were always over minor matters. After watching the gathering outside the House of Culture, I became convinced that while four months on strike under the open sky may have exhausted the workers physically, it hadn't sapped their spirit. They were still strong.
Nor were they prepared to sit back. They have warned the authorities that if their problems aren't resolved by September 15, they are prepared to take more decisive action.
No one was willing to talk about their intentions in detail. But one young oil worker, Sapar Oskenov, reiterated that the strike was fueled on people power. "There are people behind each of us. Children, wives, parents, relatives, and other sympathizers," he said. "They're ready to support us at any minute. So it's worth it for the authorities and employers to think this over."
The Strength Of Family Ties
Being on strike is hard enough. Being on strike when you're your family's only provider is even harder.
"People's children are sitting at home with nothing to eat," said one of the strikers, Kunsulu Otarbaeva. "Several of them have been left by their wives. The problems at work are creating problems in the family. The guys' nerves are shot. But they're keeping themselves together for the sake of principle and equality."
Some of the strikers say they haven't been able to send their children to school because of their financial straits. In Zhanaozen, there are rumors that as many as 900 children of oil workers are currently missing school.
Kunsulu Otarbaeva said strikers' families have also suffered.
City officials deny the rumors, saying attendance has been full at all Zhanaozen schools. Iskkaq Kulytai, the head of the city education department, even offered to drive me to each of the city's 22 schools to check attendance lists myself.
Local members of Nur Otan, the party of President Nazarbaev, are watching the situation with some unease, caught between party loyalties and local sympathies. Many suspended their membership after Sokolova's sentencing, and one, Ghalym Baizhanov, the party's local deputy representative, said he believed nearly 50 children are out of school as a result of the strike. Nur Otan, he said, was "taking steps" to help ensure those pupils could return to school.
'We're Oil Workers, Not Janitors'
Baizhanov said Nur Otan had also sought to help the striking oil workers, but complained the strikers had rejected their offers of support.
"There are more than 630 vacancies in the oil and gas sector in our oblast," he said. "The Kezbi drilling company just sent us a notification of about 250 vacancies, for example. The company is ready to accept these striking workers, but they've flatly refused. We can't send them back to their posts at OzenMunaiGaz, unfortunately."
But Sapar Uskenov sees it differently. He said he and his fellow strikers hadn't asked Nur Otan, Manghystau Mayor Kosherbaev, or anyone one else for help finding work.
"We didn't ask for work," he said. "They're offering us work as janitors or wagon inspectors. What do we need that for? We had jobs, and we were fired illegally. We're drillers, oil workers -- not janitors."
In Aqtau, Children Striking Too
After leaving Zhanaozen, I traveled on to Aqtau, located right on the Caspian coast. There, any doubts about the fate of strikers' children on the first day of school were dispelled by the fact that many of the oil workers had brought their children with them to the strike outside the headquarters of the KarazhanbasMunai energy works.
There are far fewer strikers in Aqtau, just 200 or so. And in contrast to the more mobilized group in Zhanaozen, these workers are not spending entire 24-hour cycles on the square. They gather in the morning, and part ways in the evening.
The presence of the children at the strike had prompted immediate threats from local education authorities, who had warned that any mothers or fathers who willfully withheld their children from school would have their parental rights legally revoked.
"They took away our work, our pay, and now they want to take away our children as well? When will this chaos end?" asked one woman, a note of desperation in her voice.
The KarazhanbasMunai workers have the same demands as their fellow strikers in Zhanaozen, and like them, they say they are prepared to continue the protest until the issue is resolved.
One of the strikers, Bakhytzhan Orazbekov, said he was outraged by the fact that he was cheated out of more than two years' worth of extra pay.
Saghyn Aitbaev says that if not for Sokolova, "they would have just continued to deceive us."
"The money landed somewhere in the pockets of the company administration," he said. "There's corruption everywhere. Right now our jobs are being filled by new people, people who had to pay bribes to get those positions. Every vacancy is worth close to $2,000. Can you imagine how much money they're making?"
Another of the workers' demands is the release of Natalya Sokolova. The strikers think of her as the first person to alert them to the companies' failure to pay up, and the first to call on them to defend their legal rights.
"Sokolova gathered us together and told us that they had been deceiving us for the entire time, and that we needed to seek justice and the money that had been allocated to us," said Saghyn Aitbaev, a 62-year-old KamAZ driver for KarazhanbasMunai. "If it hadn't been for her, they would have just continued to deceive us."
Local officials have been quoted in press reports as suggesting the strikers were not quite as helpless as they suggest, and that they were tacitly receiving support from Kazakh clans and "big people" in Astana with a stake in Kazakhstan's massive energy industry.
"Judge for yourself. Sokolova worked for KarazhanbasMunai for a long time. But it was a long time before she said anything about the decree and the raise in pay," said an official in the mayoral administration, who asked that his name not be used.
"Really? She didn't know about it before then? She was a lawyer for a trade union, and she should have known about that perfectly well, but she stayed silent. Then suddenly one fine day she decided to tell all the oil workers about it and push them to go on strike."
The official went on to suggest that Sokolova had been acting at the behest of opposition groups operating among the political elite in Astana. "They used Sokolova, and then they made a victim out of her," he said.