ALMATY -- A cemetery said to be only for coronavirus victims in the southwestern Kazakh city of Almaty and the surrounding region appears to hold many more bodies than the area's number of reported COVID-19 deaths.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on May 25 filmed workers in protective gear burying two bodies in the cemetery, which contained 32 fresh graves.
To date, authorities in Almaty have reported only 10 deaths attributed to COVID-19, and the surrounding Almaty region has recorded none.
The cemetery -- located in a remote area near the village of Karaoi, about 50 kilometers from Almaty -- is divided by a dirt road with 13 Muslim graves on one side and 17 Christian graves on the other.
The graves are marked with simple wooden crosses or posts bearing the Islamic crescent, with names and dates of death indicating that the deceased perished in April and May. Most of those buried were over 60 years old.
RFE/RL confirmed after speaking to relatives attending one of the burials that one of the bodies belonged to a 73-year-old woman who was only recently diagnosed with COVID-19 but who has not been officially identified as a coronavirus victim.
Nadezhda, an Almaty resident who gave only her first name, said her mother fell ill in mid-May, tested negative for the virus, and was initially diagnosed with pneumonia. However, the elderly woman's condition continued to deteriorate and on May 23 the family sent for an ambulance.
When relatives arrived at the hospital, they were told that the woman had high blood pressure. Only on the day of the burial, on May 25, was the family given a document showing that the woman had contracted COVID-19.
Nadezhda's brother Nikolai, who also only gave his first name, showed the document to RFE/RL.
The cemetery is the same one that the state organization responsible for the epidemiological situation in Almaty recently said had been specifically set up for coronavirus victims.
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Assel Qalyqova, acting head of the city's department for quality control and safety of products and services, described the establishment of the cemetery in a report that was aired on May 21 on the local television channel.
The report features drone footage that shows the cemetery divided by the dirt road, with Muslim graves on one side and Christian graves on the other.
When asked by RFE/RL why the cemetery appears to contain the graves of 22 people not listed in official coronavirus statistics, Health Ministry official Timur Sultangaziev only partially addressed the question in a session broadcast on the ministry's Facebook page.
He said that the ministry "had not given any order to create special graves for those who died of the coronavirus." Regional authorities, he said, "can decide for themselves."
Questions sent to the chief sanitary doctor of Almaty, Zhandarbek Bekshin, during his online briefing on May 25 were not answered.
According to official Health Ministry data, 8,531 coronavirus infections had been recorded countrywide as of May 25, with 35 deaths.