Legacy of Nuclear Tests Haunts Kazakhs
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 7, 1997; Page A1 A telephone operator here recalls a kind of Cold War delirium that encouraged Kazakhs to accept wide-scale nuclear testing on their soil when this country was part of the Soviet Union.
"We were proud. The Soviet Union was No. 1! We used to see soldiers drive by in their armored cars. They looked so handsome," Yevmagbetova Sandigul said. "Yet we knew it was dangerous. Everyone had someone in the family with problems. Young men killed themselves because they were impotent. Babies were born in our village with tails."
Eight years after test explosions were called off and six years after independence, Kazakhstan only now is beginning to understand fully the health and environmental damage left behind by its years as the main testing ground for Soviet nuclear weapons.
One of every three children born in the eastern region of Semey has mental or physical defects. Anemia is rampant, cancer deaths in the area increased seven-fold in the 1980s, and half the population suffers from immune system deficiencies.
The realization that four decades of testing took place in this dusty Central Asian nation largely in disregard of harm to civilians has prompted Kazakhs to reflect on their own responsibility as well as to blame officialdom in Moscow. Kazakhs are questioning not only what went on in their oil-rich country, which is nearly four times the size of Texas, but also how it was permitted to continue for four decades without an outcry.
"People are asking themselves, `Where was I w hen this was happening?' " said theater director Bilat Atabayev, who recently directed a play about the issue. "This is not a comfortable question to answer."
Ivan Chastnikov, who belongs to an anti-nuclear group here, said, "If it can be said our minds were clouded by the Cold War and fear, still we have to look closely at the mechanism for such blindness."
Their new awareness has made some Kazakhs sensitive to Russian military activity still being carried out on their soil. A group of legislators is fighting to expel Russia from four remaining areas in central and western Kazakhstan where missiles and antiaircraft weapons are tested.
These days the areas are, in effect, rental firing ranges. But in the past, two of the sites were nuclear testing grounds, and the legislators want the places open to inspection to see the damage.
"It is time for Kazakhstan to rid itself of all this. Even nonnuclear tests pollute," said Engels Gabbasov, a senator who is campaigning against the Russian sites.
Gabbasov recently put on a photo exhibit at the Senate building here to show health and ecological damage wrought by nuclear testing. The pictures were horrifying: children with misshapen heads, blind young people, a cow with six legs.
Statistics are chilling as well. Seventy percent of all Soviet nuclear testing 124 above-ground explosions and 343 underground took place in eastern Kazakhstan, near Semey, known then as Semipalatinsk. About 1.2 million people in at least 711 towns and villages were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, according to government data.
Faced with the effects of this exposure, the Kazakh government is looking for help. Officials compare the problem to the aftermaths of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident.
At a recent U.N. conference on nuclear pollution, Kazakh representative Akmaral Arystanbekova said the government lacks resources to rehabilitate or compensate victims. She argued that because the Cold War nuclear powers were responsible for the arms race and, by extension, nuclear testing, they should pay for health care and environmental cleanup. Moreover, Kazakhstan should be rewarded for giving up the store of nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union, she said, adding that "the international community should come to the rescue."
At the Republic Children's Hospital in Almaty, 50 to 100 children are treated monthly for a variety of diseases apparently caused by exposure of themselves or their parents to radiation. Mothers bring in pale children with tumors of the digestive tract. One side of a child's face was disfigured and darkened. A mentally handicapped child clung and murmured to his parents.
"We are seeing some illnesses appearing for the first time. It is worrisome," said Raushan Karimova, a hospital official. She held up images from brain scans that showed parts of a child's brain petrified since birth. "We are seeing terrible breaks in genetic memory. In fact, it was a genetic war on our people."
The problems are aggravated by difficulties in sorting out who is sick from radiation and who suffers from Kazakhstan's many environmental problems. In the west, the Aral Sea is drying up as the result of an irrigation project that reversed the flow of rivers that feed it. As the seabed is exposed, chemical residue from years of waste is blown into the atmosphere.
An island in the inland sea once was used as a germ-warfare test site. And mining of various metals is a major pollutant of rivers.
"We don't really know what people are drinking," Karimova said. She belongs to a women's group that is helping mothers treat their diseased children. It is one of several examples of grass-roots organizations focused on the nuclear issue that are growing in this authoritarian state.
The grandparent of all such groups is the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Organization, which campaigned against all nuclear testing during the 1980s, when the era of glasnost, or openness, began in the Soviet Union. It now has turned its attention to battling proliferation and teaching residents of polluted areas how to avoid nuclear contamination.
"We have volunteers who go from home to home. But in a way, it is difficult. The danger is invisible and people do not want to believe that they are surrounded by poison," said Chastnikov, a member of the group. "Before 1989, we were always told the level of radiation was normal. Perhaps we wanted to believe it. Now we see the results in our travels: the anemia, the paleness, the dull eyes of the young."
Science Minister Vladimir Shkolnik said the government is concentrating on identifying and isolating radioactive areas and forbidding agriculture there. A worrisome question is whether underground streams and aquifers carry radioactive salts to other parts of the country in drinking water or in irrigation. "The question is nuclear migration," Shkolnik said.
Information from Moscow that might be useful is being held up because of a technicality in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Russia adheres. To supply information on the effects of nuclear testing could, according to the rules, be considered giving information on building bombs themselves, government officials say.
Recently, the United States provided an aircraft to map polluted zones. It was a controversial mission because the Russians across the border fretted about spying.
"Where we find radiation above the norm, we will place the land into inactive reserve," said Kanat Baishev, Kazakhstan's deputy minister of ecology.
The psychological complexities of the disaster were reflected in an emotional theatrical production presented in Almaty last month. Directed by Atabayev, the drama is called "Polygon," the Russian term for military test sites.
In the play, a 20-year-old dwarf named Laila, her development hindered by radiation, falls in love with a handsome and unafflicted young man.
Everyone laughs at her, but Laila insists she is perfectly normal in fact, that everyone in her village near a test site is healthy.
Laila dreams of becoming a ballerina and refuses an invitation by a politician to appear at an election rally as a symbol of local problems. The candidate, who pays for votes with liquor, gives a $200 bribe to Laila's beloved to lure her to the demonstration. When she discovers that he has been paid to put her on display, Laila sets herself on fire in front of the crowd.
Many people in the audience were from eastern Kazakhstan and wept at Laila's insistence that she was perfectly normal.
"We all see ourselves like Laila," said Sandigul, the telephone operator, who is from a town that is a three-hour drive from a test site.
The walls of Sandigul's heart are weak, an affliction doctors attribute to genetic damage. She has four daughters, one of whom suffers from seizures. Doctors say radiation may be the cause. One of her brothers has scaly skin.
"My mother was a cleaning lady on a military base. I remember as a child being out alone in the street once when the sky turned purple-gray and there was a strange wind. Later, people complained of headaches.
"Everyone said it was a bomb."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company