«They went into the fire with zero protection, without even proper boots»

How wildfires in the Abay region exposed pervasive corruption in Kazakhstan


14/06/2023
11:04 7280 0

Today marks a week since wildfires started ravaging the unique relict pine forest in the Abay region. What began as a minor nuisance, «underestimated» by country emergency services, quickly became a vast catastrophe. The fire obliterated hundreds of square kilometres of forests — and at least 15 foresters died trying to contain the cataclysm. 

 

The circumstances of their deaths were harrowing for the people of Kazakhstan. Superiors sent them into the fiery hell unprepared, on broken vehicles and without proper boots or equipment. Some even had to use their own transport — since the state organisation responsible for the forest lacked almost everything. 

 

Government officials reacted appropriately after a few days and several deaths. Their initial passivity became the main reason why the fire was able to spread. But it’s unclear whether someone will be adequately punished for this negligence.

 

Read all the details regarding the Kazakhstani wildfires in our material. 

 

 

How the wildfires in Abay developed

Initially, the fire appeared on the 8th of June. By noon it covered a territory of fewer than 3 hectares, and the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MES) claimed that «there is no threat to human settlements». Soon the fire grew to 100 hectares — and the chief of MES, Yuri Ilyin, blamed the Ministry of Ecology for the wrong data. 

 

[The rapid growth] means that the initial situation assessment was probably wrong, said Ilyin. 

 

The national space agency, «Kazakhstan Garysh Sapary», later claimed that the MES had full access to the space imagery regarding the wildfires by 13:20 a.m. 

 

On the 9th of June, the officials started evacuating people from endangered settlements — at this point, the fire consumed an area of 30 thousand hectares. President Tokayev ordered Yuri Ilyin to come into the Abay region personally. 

 

A milestone marked the next day — the wildfire became the biggest on the planet, according to Greenpeace. Ilyin was discharged and replaced by Syrym Shariphanov. The total area of fire reached 60 thousand hectares.

 

A firefighter prays for rainfall. Source: Instagram @ekko_92 

 

The struggle to extinguish it continues even now — on the 14th of June. The MES claims it no longer threatens human settlements. 

 

It’s also important to mention that the wildfires consumed parts of unique relict pine forest — the paper by Kazakh National Pedagogical University scholars claims that there are only two such forests in the world. 

 

 

Why were government branches widely criticised 

The first group to react to wildfires were «Semey Ormany» nature reserve foresters, subordinate to the Ministry of Ecology. They were sent to contain the fires on the first day of the catastrophe — and on the eve, communication with them was lost. 

 

Fourteen of them were found dead by the 10th of June. Another one — Sergey Arkhipov — also went missing, but his body was recovered only on the 13th of June. Initial deaths forced the government to declare the 12th of June as the country-wide day of mourning. The day before, Tokayev personally met with the relatives of the deceased. 

 

This meeting and some interviews exposed the horrifying working conditions of foresters. Their salaries were almost four times less than the average across the country, their vehicles were up to twenty years old — and they even had to buy equipment parts, like boots, by themselves. 

 

How is it possible? Why my husband had to go into the forest in his own vehicle? Why do they never have spare parts in forestry? Why do they have nothing? All their vehicles are always broken, complained Tatiana Budyuk, wife of the deceased forester, to Tokayev. 

 

President assured her that the responsible officials «will be punished» and apologised for the situation. He admitted that the wildfire directly resulted from the «criminal negligence of the executive bodies». Tokayev also promised that the state would thoroughly support the families of the dead foresters. 

 

There was no ammunition, even the oxygen masks, and they entered the fire. They had no protection, absolutely. How can they work like that? They were taken from their job; my father even had to go in his shoes, with no time to put on the proper boots, said the daughter of another deceased man.

 

Relatives also told Tokayev that local officials built an asphalt road instead of the old and uncomfortable one for his arrival. President promised to punish them too. Later he harshly criticised the ministers and akims (mayors) for the lack of «efficiency» and «engagement». 

 

The problems with the «Semey Ormany» nature reserve are not entirely new. Just a few weeks ago, three high-ranking officials of the organisation were sentenced to 10 years for taking bribes from entrepreneurs. The court found them guilty of the creation of an organised criminal group. It happened straight after the previous wildfire, which started on the 22nd of May and was localised by the 25th.

 

Source: Press Office of the President of Kazakhstan

 

The fire was in the neighbouring forestry. They were sent to stop it there so it wouldn’t reach our land. Sent on the broken «Niva» [vehicle] <...> [The body of my son] was burnt beyond recognition, told Bakytbek Zhumadilov, father of the deceased «Semey Ormany» forester, in an interview. 

 

He also claimed that forestry officials, who sent his son into the fire, didn’t even come to express their condolences. Instead, he received two million tenges as compensation — «like a sweet for the child», as his wife said. 

 

 

What local experts and influencers say about the tragedy

For most citizens, it means yet another region had a tragedy — and only local officials should be blamed. Then the president came, gave everyone in the neck and «restored justice», writes Pyotr Trotsenko, a journalist for Radio Liberty. 

 

He highlights that, in his opinion, Kazakhstani’s political system was built on «nepotism, corruption and the degradation of almost all branches, including MES». Since Tokayev has «super-presidential» powers, Trotsenko argues, he, as an architect of the system, should be personally responsible for such tragedies.

 

Didar Smagulov, executive director of the anti-corruption public organisation, said that «the corruption continues to kill us».

 

They even had no batteries in their walkie-talkies. How so? They were just sent to certain death, complained Smagulov. 

 

Lawyer and public figure Yerzhan Yessimhkanov said that he was shocked by the images from the main government officials’ headquarters. 

 

People — the highest officials in the country — are just sitting. Their heads are bowed; they can’t say anything. Just listen silently to the president, and agree on everything. They can’t say why the wildfire happened <...> Like poor students on a harsh lesson, writes Yessimhkanov. 

 

He believes the current Kazkhstani system can only function in «normal» circumstances. Any crisis, Yessimhkanov argues — and it crumbles.

 

Political scientist Dosym Satpayev, the founder of the Risk Assessment Group, has a similar perspective. In 30 years, he believes, officials never properly reacted to critical situations, from pandemics to water deficits. 

 

Moreover, it never occurred to them to be prepared for and forecast crises. They lock the barn only when the horse is already stolen <...> The reason is negative selection, which puts loyalty above professionalism, writes Satpayev. 

 

Satpayev argues that Kazakhstan needs «strong political institutions, opposition, budget transparency and independent media» to deal with these problems.

 

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