When riots and clashes with police broke out in Kazakhstan, popular blogger Kunekei Nurlan was surprised to find that only a small number of followers from abroad were seeing her stories.
“They started writing: ‘All of Kazakhstan is in a vacuum, we can’t reach our relatives. Why are you online?” Kunekei Nurlan told Euronews.
The blogger hadn’t realised that authorities shut down the internet in the entire country due to the VPN on her phone.
But most Kazakhstanis found themselves unable to contact loved ones or find information about what was happening.
“I realised that I had access to information in general, to people,” Nurlan, who prefers to use a pseudonym, said.
Connecting with my brother
Friends and acquaintances stranded at airports in other countries began to contact the blogger amid the crisis.
“They asked me to call their friends and parents because mobile phone and landline services in Kazakhstan were working,” Nurlan said.
“We used our numbers to call them, ask them and give them messages, for example: ‘Marat is in Germany right now and can’t get a flight.'”
She began receiving more messages on social media, not only from friends and acquaintances: “I could not physically call them all by myself anymore. I ran out of money on my phone, the bank apps and terminals did not work, and we were all sitting at home, with no one going out.”
Nurlan came up with the idea of setting up a group on Telegram, one of the most popular messenger apps in the country.
“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 don’t have any information,” she said.
Kunekei Nurlan has received applications from hundreds of people not only from Kazakhstan but also from other countries: Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkey and European Union member states.
In just a few days, the community “Bauyrmen Bailanys”, which in Kazakh means “Linking with a brother” appeared. At the time of writing, the Telegram channel had more than 13,000 subscribers.
Most of the messages contain a name, a phone number and a request to call and see if the caller is safe.
“Many of our citizens abroad cannot reach us because some do not know how to Skype, some do not know how to use various apps,” says Nurlan, who is from Almaty, the country’s largest city.
On Friday (January 7) alone, the group received more than 3,700 demands, and volunteers managed to reach most of them.
While on the first day they hardly passed on any difficult news, with the influx of requests, the situation started to change.
“Today, for instance, 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 about 50 volunteers, but Nurlan says she handles the most difficult requests herself.
“It is 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 across the country within a week.
Dozens of people died in the riots, and hundreds more were injured. The economic capital, Almaty, which is home to nearly two million people, was hit particularly hard by the unrest
Shops, gas stations and bank terminals barely worked in the city for days because of the riots.
“It is very sad to see your city in such a state. It’s very hard, especially when you don’t know what’s happening to your loved ones,” Irina, one of the project volunteers from the Czech Republic, told Euronews.
“These are very difficult moments for all of us, and we wait for the internet to turn on when someone reports from friends or relatives that they have managed to get through to somewhere.”
She says that working to help others has helped her personally.
“In the past two days, there have been so many messages with the phrase ‘Tell them I love mum, dad, anyone. So many words of love and support come back to them; it’s just crazy energy,” she said.
“What the volunteers do when they call is a huge effort.”