When riots and clashes with police broke out in Kazakhstan, popular blogger Kunekei Nurlan was surprised to find that only a small number of foreign followers saw her stories.
“They started to write: ‘All of Kazakhstan is in a vacuum, we cannot reach our relatives. Why are you online? Kunekei Nurlan told Euronews.
The blogger hadn’t realized that authorities had shut down the internet across the country because of the VPN on her phone.
But most Kazakhs found themselves unable to contact their relatives or find information about what was going on.
“I realized I had access to information in general, to people,” said Nurlan, who prefers to use a pseudonym.
Connection with my brother
Friends and acquaintances stranded at airports in other countries have started contacting the blogger amid the crisis.
“They asked me to call their friends and relatives because mobile and landline services were working in Kazakhstan,” Nurlan said.
“We used our numbers to call them, ask them and send them messages, for example: ‘Marat is in Germany at the moment and cannot take a flight.'”
She started getting more messages on social media, not just from friends and acquaintances: “I couldn’t physically call them all on my own anymore. I ran out of money on my phone, the apps and bank terminals weren’t working, and we were all sitting at home with no one coming out. “
Nurlan came up with the idea of starting a group on Telegram, one of the country’s most popular messaging apps.
“I quickly announced that I was looking for volunteers who also had access to the internet to connect people because the worst thing is when you have no information,” she said.
Kunekei Nurlan received applications from hundreds of people not only from Kazakhstan but also from other countries: Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Member States of the European Union.
In a few days, the community “Bauyrmen Bailanys”, which means in Kazakh “To bond with a brother” appeared. At the time of writing, the Telegram channel had over 13,000 subscribers.
Most messages contain a name, phone number and a request to call and see if the caller is safe.
“Many of our citizens abroad cannot reach us because some don’t know how to Skype, some don’t know how to use various applications,” says Nurlan, from Almaty, the country’s largest city.
On Friday January 7 alone, the group received over 3,700 requests, and volunteers were successful in reaching most of them.
While on the first day they hardly delivered any difficult news, with the influx of requests the situation began to change.
“Today, for example, we were contacted by medics. They said there was a man lying in a coma in the hospital and they were looking for his relatives,” Nurlan said.
The Bauyrmen Bailanys team now has around 50 volunteers, but Nurlan says she handles the toughest requests herself.
“It’s psychologically difficult because there are all kinds of messages. Several volunteers have asked for psychological help,” she said.
Protests sparked by rising gas prices began in western Kazakhstan on January 2 and swept the country within a week.
Dozens of people died in the riots and hundreds more were injured. The economic capital, Almaty, with a population of nearly two million, has been particularly affected by the unrest
Shops, gas stations and bank terminals barely functioned in the city for days because of the riots.
“It’s very sad to see your city in such a state. It’s very hard, especially when you don’t know what is happening to your loved ones,” Irina, one of the project’s volunteers in the Republic, told Euronews. Czech.
“These are very difficult times for all of us, and we wait for the internet to kick in when someone reports through friends or relatives that they’ve managed to get somewhere.”
She says working to help others has helped her personally.
“In the past two days there have been so many posts with the phrase ‘Tell them I love mum, dad, everyone. So many words of love and support are coming back to them, that’s just crazy energy, ”she said.
“What the volunteers do when they call is a huge effort.”