The Aral Sea

Photography : Laurent WEYL    

Kokaral: Life restakes its claim

Barely 50 centimetres of ice, just enough to carry the camel which pulls the sled and to support the hopes of bringing it back brimming with fish. When the ice is too thin, the men pull the sled themselves - this carcass of wood and fish fillets - or attach it to a motorcycle. They've stopped counting the number of times they've fallen into the icy water beneath. Today it's -18°C. This winter is not cold enough for the fishermen. Jakslik Kinjinbaev knows it, although it always seems strange. Why would one hope for a colder winter? He breaks into a gold-toothed, complicit smile: "When it's mild the salt prevents the mud from hardening. The ideal temperature is between -25°C and -40°C. Even the shore is compact and the ice is thicker than a metre deep. The camels can get across without a problem and there are more fish." The fish, a type of turbot, approach the coast in winter, seeking warmer water. The cold is an ally. So Jakslik smells the air, looks at his dog digging itself a snowy coffin and concludes: "Tomorrow it will be cold." Jakslik Kinjinbaev is the son and grandson of fisherfolk. He is one of the rare few who didn't leave the village of Tastobek after the collapse of the USSR, when the last few to cling to the hope of a revival of the Aral Sea slowly deserted its shores. Jakslik only left his village for two years, to serve in the Soviet army. There he learnt some basic Russian, three guitar chords and a string of sad songs which he uses to hum his second son, aged 8 months, to sleep. His voice may distort the words, but not their meaning. For Jakslik, the Aral Sea is far from dead. It is his daily reality, his larder and his principle source of income, along with his herd of camels. He fishes and lives off his fishing. Jakslik is one of the 600 fisherpeople grouped together as cooperatives who accepted in 1996 to be "taught fishing" by a Danish NGO, the Society for the Living Sea. "Noone fished or ate this flat fish. It was even a little frightening with its black back, white belly, and eyes both on the same side", he says, while cleaning dried seaweed out of a net from the pevious season. He has 15 nets, of which several have been produced in China and are illegal because "their holes are too small. But it must be understood: if we don't fish, we don't live". Squatting on the ice, he shouts instructions to his colleagues Kadirbai Ibragiev, a childhood friend, and Ertaz Akhkoshkarov; now in Russian "Davai!" ("Go for it!"), now in Kazakh "Tokhataïteu!" ("Wait"). The camel, attached to the sled by the nose, watches the men's labours with indifference and chews branches gathered on the shore, or a fish stolen from its master...

© Gael Guichard