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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 tests.

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."

Deadly secret

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.

Biggest outbreak

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.

Cleaning operation

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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