Deadly Soviet legacy
threatens fishing villagers
A microscopic quantity can kill a human being; thousands of tons are
buried. Vozrozdeniya Island is the biggest burial ground of anthrax in the
world. In 1988, Russian scientists dumped the pink powder in sandpits when
evidence mounted that the Soviet Union was violating the biological
weapons convention. Although they decontaminated the poisonous powder,
some spores seemed to have survived. This is not the first disaster that
hits the people living around the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Excessive irrigation of cotton fields caused the Aral Sea to dry up,
leaving soil with pesticides spread hundreds of kilometres by sand storms,
causing a multitude of diseases. Now a hazardous biological time bomb is
threatening their lives.
ARALSK, 31 March 2000 - "The only signs of life were a few vipers startled by our
footsteps. It was eerily quiet, as if the black plague had struck and life
had just stopped. There were gas masks strewn about and I saw hundreds of
animal cages, one of them over two meters high." Andrew Weber,
special advisor of the US department for Threat Reduction, was the first
American citizen to visit the island in 1995. He was wearing a protective
suit to safeguard him from possible biological hazards.
During this first American mission scientists took soil samples from
different locations on the island. There are strong rumours that life
spores of anthrax were found, although the result of the tests has never
officially been made public. The test result has been enough reason for
American scientists to do supplementary research. "We fear that
terrorists dig up the life spores and use them for the production of
biological weapons", Weber says five years after his first visit.
Anthrax spores can survive in a dormant state for years, even decades.
Infection with anthrax is difficult to recognise because the first
symptoms resemble the onset of a cold or flew. By the time the skin begins
to turn bluish - the first visible symptom - the person has already begun
to die. The lungs fill with liquid, gradually cutting off their supply of
oxygen. Every breath becomes more painful. The end comes suddenly: some
victims have been reported to die in de middle of saying a sentence.
Untreated, anthrax is fatal in ninety percent of the cases.
Vozrozdeniya Island, or Renaissance Island, has expanded from 200 to
2,000 square kilometres due to the dropping water level. Two third of the
island belongs to Uzbekistan and one third to Kazakhstan. The Russians
chose Vozrozdeniya in 1936 as a testing site for biological weapons.
"It was situated far from the main land and waterways. On top of
that, the coast of the Aral Sea was sparsely populated, which reduced the
chance of unwanted visitors." These are the words of former colonel
Gennadi Leposhkin, director of ‘Stepnogorsk’ in Kazakhstan, once the
biggest biological weapon plant in the world. The dry climate and the
sandy soil, which can reach temperatures of up to sixty degrees centigrade
in summer, minimised the risk of harmful organisms surviving after the
In the summer months, Russian scientists experimented with the latest
supply of manipulated bacteria. Leposhkin: "I wasn’t really living
there, but visited the island on a regular bases over a period of ten
years. During the testing months, approximately hundred people lived on
the island, including women and children."
In 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the deputy
director Ken Alibek of ‘Biopreparat’, defeated to the United States.
The in Moscow situated institute ‘Biopreparat’ was co-ordinating a
chain of biological weapon factories. Alibek revealed Russia’s most
deadly and best kept secret of the cold war. At dozens of locations in
Russia and Kazakhstan, ten thousands scientists claimed to produce
vaccines. In reality, they tried to produce viruses and bacteria with an
increased resilience and resistance to antibiotics. According to Alibek’s
book ‘Biohazard’, that was published last year, attempts were even
made to weaponize AIDS, Ebola and Legionnaire’s disease.
The tests on Vozrozdeniya were the last step in the development
process. In order for the Ministry of Defence to accept an agent as a
weapon, the test had to be successful, complete with a recipe for
reproduction by any scientist. In his book, Alibek describes how the tests
on Vozrozdeniya were performed. From a distance, he saw hundreds of
monkeys inhaling the bacteria, pulling their chains and screaming while
they were dying a painful death.
With the rising suspicion in the eighties that Russia was producing
biological weapons, the West increased pressure to get access to several
facilities. The most obvious proof was buried on Vozrozdeniya. Although
Ken Alibek does not mention this in his book, he now confirms that
hundreds of tons of anthrax were dumped. "The anthrax was stored in
250 litre containers, was shipped by train from the storage facility at
Zima station to Aralsk, and from there by boat to Vozrozdeniya. The
containers were opened and the anthrax was decontaminated with hydrogen
peroxide before it was buried. It is not known whether the decontamination
was hundred percent effective", according to Alibek.
The biggest threat for the people in the area is that animals spread
the anthrax, once the island is connected to the main land. "I
predict this will happen within three years. If we get a hot summer maybe
even in one year", fears Leposhkin, a former colleague of Alibek.
How dangerous anthrax can be, proves an accident in 1979, when at least
66 people died of infection with anthrax. A small amount was released into
the open air due to a missing filter in a biological factory in Sverdlovsk
in the Ural. It was the biggest outbreak of anthrax in the twentieth
century. Russia’s explanation for the outbreak until today is the
consumption of contaminated meat.
After the accident, the factory in Sverdlovsk was closed, but the
production capacity of anthrax in the factory in Stepnogorsk was
increased. ‘Stepnogorsk’ became the biggest biological factory this
planet has ever known. In 1987, when Leposhkin became director, the
factory was capable of producing 2,000 kilos of anthrax a day. Forty kilos
is enough to kill the entire population of a city the size of New York.
Today, the United States supervises the conversion of ‘Stepnogorsk’
into a factory for civilian use.
In the fishing village Zhanalas, North of the Aral Sea, nobody has ever
heard of the dumped anthrax. "It was a big secret what happened on
the island. Nobody dared to ask questions, fearing the KGB", says
fisherman Zhalgazbay Isbasarov. He does remember the massive fish
mortality in the seventies.
The fish mortality is only one of the unsolved mysteries occurring in
and around the Aral Sea during and after the tests. A study dated May 1999
from the Monterey Institute in California on the past, present and future
of biological weapon facilities in Kazakhstan, reports that entire flocks
of sheep lost their wool in 1986. In 1988, half a million Saiga antelopes
died on the Turgay steppe Northeast of the Aral Sea. In addition, several
plague cases were reported through the years.
According to Alibek, it is possible that the tests with plague bacteria
contributed to the incidence of plague, although the disease already
exists on the mainland for centuries. He thinks it is likely that rodents
were infected with plague during tests with these bacteria. Plague
bacteria were tested until the early nineties. Once the island is
connected to the main land, rodents could spread plague as well.
To avoid the spread of diseases, the island has to be cleaned.
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have asked the United States independently for
assistance in cleaning up this biological heritage. The plan is to
determine the level of contamination and to decontaminate the soil. Apart
from that, the flora and fauna has to be exterminated. Special advisor of
the US Department of Threat Reduction Weber: "We hope to sign an
agreement with Uzbekistan to start the cleaning operation." According
to Leposhkin, border disputes between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan block the
way to an agreement on the cleaning operation. Financing the cleaning
operation and getting the expertise is not the biggest problem: both
countries have to put their conflicts aside if they want to prevent the
explosion of the biological time bomb.
This article was published on 31 March 2000
in the Dutch newspaper ‘De Volkskrant’.
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