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11 января 2023
Paolo Sorbello, photo by Mariya Gordeyeva (Reuters).

“I Gave the Order…”

The curfew during Bloody January was a question of life and death

“I Gave the Order…”

The Soviet-era phrase “I gave the order” (literally “the order was given by me”) had no particular meaning in Kazakhstan before 7 January 2022. When President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev pronounced it on live TV at the height of the clashes of Qandy Qantar (“Bloody January”). With the addition of the phrase “to shoot to kill without warning”, it acquired a timeless, ominous meaning.

A photoshopped image that circulated at the end of December on social media of the newly-unveiled Tagzym Memorial in Almaty’s Republic Square featured the “I gave the order” quote on one of the stone slabs that in fact feature citations by well-known Kazakh writers. Critics say the chosen quotes have little to do with the tragedy of the events the memorial is supposed to mourn.

On January 5 this year, appearing before the Parliament, Berik Assylov, Kazakhstan’s Prosecutor General, said that law enforcement had already been instructed to shoot to kill in the afternoon of 5 January 2022, because the law allowed them to take action against the looters that had broken into the presidential palace.

This confirms a version also given by Tokayev in an interview: The order to shoot was given to law enforcement earlier, and only made public in the morning of January 7.

Such a version means that the curfew was a question of life and death, unbeknown to the public. The people of Kazakhstan had no clue that by just exiting their homes their lives would be at risk.

Such was the fate of Aidos Meldekhan’s family, whose car was hit by a hail of gunfire that killed his 4-year-old daughter Aikorkem and wounded his older daughter Zhanel. Now, their case, like many others, is closed, dismissed.

More than half of the 238 killed during Qandy Qantar died for having violated the curfew. And not because “they were stupid” as some commentators said. They were poorly informed at a time of internet blackout, uncertainty, and fear.

Through the jailing of selected elites, cadre reshuffling, and electoral circuses, Tokayev was the only winner in the aftermath of Qandy Qantar. “The order” effectively pitted him against the people. A recognition of the negative consequences of “the order” would at least bring justice to the rest of the country.