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Soviet nuclear tests leave multitude of diseases

SEMIPALATINSK, 20 July 1999 - I don’t drink vodka, that is probably why I am sick, Fedahmet Kozhahmetov says with a cynical laugh. He is 54 years old and suffers from acute rheumatism, which makes walking difficult. His disease is directly connected with the exposure to radioactive radiation. He lives in Znamenka in the Northeast of Kazakhstan, with more graves than houses and where a second wave of various tumours is observed.

Znamenka is located some fifty kilometres from the ‘Polygon’, de test site of the former Soviet Union. From 1949 to 1991 some 458 nuclear tests were conducted here, of which 148 on the surface. ‘Officially we had no access to the test site, but it was not fenced off. I often drove through the area, because my horses were grazing there’, Kozhahmetov says. He stayed to watch the explosions out of curiosity. The fall out often covered Znamenka. Nobody was aware of the danger of radiation. He dug up the copper cable which connected the box with the red button with the nuclear bomb and uses it as an antenna for his television.

Kozhahmetov is one of the 1,6 million people that have been exposed to radiation over forty years. Winds carried the fall out and contaminated an area of 300,000 square kilometres. The total destructive power of the explosions is equivalent to 1700 Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs.

Sometimes a bus came to his village, taking people to Kurchatov for ‘observation’. Kurchatov, a secret town that could not be found on the map, was the headquarters of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme. 40,000 troops and scientists were based here. Tests were only conducted when the wind carried the fall out in the opposite direction. It is said that the Polygon was deliberately located in an inhabited area, to examine the effects of long-term exposure to radiation on human beings. Soldiers were forced to cross the test area right after an explosion and were regularly examined. Valuable information on the tests and its effects disappeared to Moscow or has been destroyed when the test site was closed in 1991. To date attempts to get more information from Moscow have not been successful.

Alexander Shevchenko (72) served as a soldier during the first years of testing. He had to work on the construction of Kurchatov. He remembers that he was brought to the area. ‘I was twenty years old. In the middle of the night we were transported to Kurchatov by train. We stayed in tents during the construction of the town.’ He was send outside during the first explosion on the 29th of August 1949. ‘I was hiding in a crack in the ground.’

He considers himself lucky. ‘After four years I became seriously ill. My nose didn’t stop bleeding and I was vomiting all the time. I was unconscious for five days and was transferred to the military hospital in Semipalatinsk. After my recovery I was allowed to work underground during explosions on the surface. That probably saved my life. But most of my friends have died a long time ago. He took up painting and expressed the horrors he live through in some thirty shocking paintings. He would like to have his paintings exhibited all over the world to show what happened. The local authorities don’t offer assistance to achieve this: ‘absolutely nothing is done for the people in Semipalatinsk.’

The hospitals face a dire need in basic necessities. The only thing they can offer is a doctor. Raisa Kysa of the children’s hospital in Semipalatinsk says they only have budget on paper. ‘In December we got our last salary. It was from August 1998. We have 0,2 US dollar per child for food per day. The parents need to pay for the medicines themselves, they even need to bring their own bed sheets.’ This leads to distressing events. ‘Last year we found a child on the market that was seriously ill. We found his mother, but she doesn’t want him back because she can not take care of him. Without written permission from the parents he can’t go to an orphanage and that is why he is living here.’

Twenty percent of the children in the hospital have an illness directly connected with the exposure to radiation. Ashkat Azhibayeva (10) is one of them. He suffers from leukaemia. He was born in a village near the Polygon where one of the highest levels of radiation was measured. It is too late for Ashkat. His mother has no money for medicines and the hospital doesn’t have the required facilities for the treatment that could extend his live with two years. Now it is probably a matter of months. His mother is desperate; this is her third child out of ten that will dye at a young age.

One of the legacies of the nuclear tests is Lake Balapan. It is 400 metres wide and has a depth of 800 metres. It was formed in 1965, when water filled a crater left by a 130-kiloton nuclear explosion. Alexander Sekerbaev of the Kazakh Scientific Research Institute for Radiation, Medicines and Ecology explains that people were told the test was for peaceful means: ‘The explosion was supposed to connect two rivers which would be beneficial for the water supply. Ten days after the test 2,000 soldiers were sent to the lake to work on the banks. Nobody knows what happened to them after their service. Inhabitants of the villages around the lake went for a swim shortly after the explosion.’ Today, 34 years after the explosion the radiation level fifteen metres away from the lake is still 700 times normal.

Sekerbaev’s research institute is trying to get an overview of the present radiation levels and the illnesses that are connected with exposure. But the funds are cut down continuously. Another problem is that the money that is reserved for research in the area around the test site never gets to Semipalatinsk. ‘The Japanese government submitted five million dollar to Kazakhstan for research a few years ago. We haven’t received a penny’, says Sekerbaev.

The local authorities have high expectations of a United Nations rehabilitation plan accounting for 43 million dollars. In September a conference will be held in Tokyo to raise the required funds. According to UN representative Herbert Behrstock the plan is unique because of its systematic approach in different fields. ‘Sixty percent of the money is reserved for health. The rest is for humanitarian support, economical rehabilitation, research on radiation and public information.’ Behrstock is confident that he will get the money together.

But the victims in the region are afraid that the money will never reach them, but disappear to institutes in the capital Astana and the trade centre Almaty, both hundreds of kilometres away from the former test site. For the time being vodka is the only remedy to relieve the suffering.

This article was published on 20 July 1999 in the Dutch newspaper ‘The Telegraaf’.

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