By Gabriela Baczynska
Melaniya Pavlova, a 21-year-old Russian-American dual citizen, was visiting Almaty, Kazakhstan,with some friends this week to say goodbye to a friend who was planning a trip to Australia.
But then protests rocked the country, grounding her plane back to Moscow. After spending a night on board the plane, Pavlova and her friends had little choice but to remain in Almaty, the largest city of the former Soviet republic.
Speaking by phone from her Almaty hotel, Pavlova told Reuters she was worried by the clearly audible gunshots and looting going on around her.
On Thursday, as the violent protests showed little sign of subsiding, Russia rushed in paratroopers and police in Almaty said they had killed dozens of rioters overnight.
"We don't know how to leave this country now," said Pavlova. Commercial flights were cancelled as protesters briefly took over the airport.
Some trains were also cancelled, and she worried that mode of travel might be unsafe.
"It's very scary that there is this looting going on. We wanted to go to Bishkek (in Kyrgyzstan) and then back to Moscow but it's dangerous out there and we don't really want to take the risk."
Pavlova arrived in Almaty last Sunday after spending the New Year's holidays with her family in Moscow.
After the protests erupted, her friends - including the one who was supposed to be travelling to Australia - booked a Wednesday evening flight back to Moscow.
But "just as we checked our luggage in, the whole system broke down because the internet was cut off," she said.
After queuing for two hours, they were given handwritten tickets and boarded the plane.
"But then the protesters took over ground control and the pilots didn't want the responsibility of taking off. So, together with other planes to Turkey, Tbilisi and Bishkek, we got stuck."
They were kept on the plane through the night, given food loaded earlier for the flight, but told they could not leave until the curfew ended the next morning. A fire truck delivered more food, she said.
The pilot woke everyone up around 2 a.m. to say people could leave, but only five went, with most passengers unsure where they could go during a curfew.
The Russian consulate was shut due to the New Year holidays, which traditionally run until Jan. 10, while she said staff at the American one told the group to stay on the plane away from the windows and asked if they had food.
The group and their pet dog are now staying in a hotel being paid for by the French consulate - contacted by one of her friends who is a French national, said Pavlova.
"We went out to walk the dog at some point. We very clearly heard shots," she said on Thursday afternoon.