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Toddler Tragedy Galvanizes Kazakh City

Residents of Temirtau rally near the site where 2-year-old Yegor Khmil fell through an uncovered manhole and drowned.

Residents of Temirtau rally near the site where 2-year-old Yegor Khmil fell through an uncovered manhole and drowned.

TEMIRTAU, Kazakhstan -- Two-year-old Yegor Khmil was out for an evening stroll with his mother in the east-central Kazakh city of Temirtau on May 24 when he fell through an open manhole and into the drainage system. Despite frantic efforts, his mother was unable to save him. Divers recovered his tiny body from a reservoir three days later.

More than 1,000 locals, many carrying stuffed toys and flowers, gathered for Yegor's funeral on May 28. Many expressed anger at municipal authorities who had been warned that scrap-metal scavengers had been stealing manhole covers but did little to stop the thievery.

Shortly before the tragedy, Mayor Nurken Sultanov was asked at a press conference what he thought of the problem of open manholes. Sultanov responded that it was city residents themselves who were stealing the covers and that the authorities were fed up with replacing them. Sultanov then challenged journalists to come up with a solution to the problem.

At Yegor's funeral, activists from the youth wing of the Zhas Otan party gathered signatures on a petition calling on the authorities to shut down scrap-metal dealers who accept manhole covers and other infrastructure. Within an hour, several hundred Temirtau residents had signed on.

"We believe the city authorities are to blame for Yegor's death. We've been asking them to close the scrap-metal dealers for more than a year now," said a relative of Yegor's who asked not to be identified.

The funeral was not the first outpouring of anger and grief. Two days after Yegor's accident, as many as 1,000 residents came out into the streets for a protest called Yellow Ribbons, while hundreds of others brought toys, flowers, and sweets to a site near where the tragedy occurred. People donned yellow ribbons to show their sympathy for Yegor's family.

Organizers called for the resignation of the mayor and said another demonstration will be held on June 1, International Children's Day. A support demonstration is expected in the capital, Astana.

"At first the police and officials tried to chase us off, saying we were holding an unsanctioned demonstration, that we needed permission," a rally organizer who identified herself as Yelena said. "But we told them that this was just a cry from the heart in support of the child's family, that it could have happened to any other child. Can it be that you need permission to express your opinion and support this family?"

At a press conference after Yegor's body was found, local authorities urged the public not to panic, saying that unspecified measures would be taken. At the same time, they caused further anger by saying that parents must watch out for their children and that some of the responsibility has to remain with the parents.

On May 28, prosecutors in Temirau announced that a criminal investigation had been opened into the case and that investigators would be looking into the activities of workers and managers of Okzhetpes, the municipal water company.

Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague

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