Kazakhs try to shake Soviet nuclear legacy

As a cash-strapped Russia distances itself from cold-war-era testing,UN seeks funds to help some of those who lived near ground zero.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Gulsum Kakimzhanova remembers something odd when she was growing up near Semipalatinsk, in what is now eastern Kazakhstan. Every Saturday and Sunday promptly at 8 a.m. she would wake up to the windows and dishes rattling as though there were an earthquake.

But earthquakes don't occur so precisely on schedule.

And other mysterious things were going on. Neighbors fell ill and died; her father lost all his hair one day. Sometimes after playing in the steppes, Ms. Kakimzhanova felt so weak she couldn't get out of bed.

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Then in 1989, the then-Soviet government revealed what many believe to be the cause. At a site called the Polygon near Semipalatinsk, it had tested 500 bombs over 40 years, releasing during that time far more radiation than at Chernobyl or Hiroshima.

The Polygon was closed in 1991 by the newly independent Kazakh government. But the effects on an estimated 1.2 million people - 100,000 of them directly hit by radiation according to the United Nations Development Program - are still being felt. Kakimzhanova's generation and their children experience a high incidence of cancer and birth defects, which many blame on the tests.

"I felt furious when I found out the truth," she says. "As children we were told how the Americans bombed Japan. Our government bombed us."

Kazakhstan has been billed as the next Saudi Arabia because of its untapped oil reserves. But while signing multibillion-dollar deals with foreign oil companies to balance its budget, the government says it does not have enough money to pay nuclear-test victims.

Antinuclear groups, such as the Union of Nuclear Test Victims (IRIS), formed by Kakimzhanova, say they themselves must find money for health programs.

A series of disasters

Semipalatinsk's devastation was only one of a series of man-made ecological disasters in Kazakhstan, which was was damaged more than perhaps any other former Soviet state. In the eyes of authorities, the territory's remoteness - it is 44 percent desert and 33 percent semidesert - and sparse population, made it a prime place to test bombs, dump dissidents, and situate a space center. (The Baikonur facility is jointly controlled with Russia.)

Soviet planners also imposed the Virgin Lands policy, which destroyed more than 96,000 square miles of pasture lands traditionally used by Kazakh herders to grow wheat on the steppes.

They also ruined the Aral Sea. Once the world's fourth-largest lake, its volume has decreased by 75 percent since the early 1960s as tributary waters were siphoned off to irrigate cotton fields.

At Semipalatinsk, as elsewhere in Kazakhstan, the damage was done with little concern for the local population. But in this case, the danger was easy to anticipate. Soviet scientists even used people as subjects in their nuclear research, just as they tested the effects of bombs on vehicles, bridges, and buildings.

Left to fend

"It was much worse than Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or Chernobyl," says Herbert Behrstock, the UN resident coordinator in Kazakhstan. "There was no massive effort to treat what was an extraordinary man-made problem. People have been left with the consequences and little resources to deal with it."

Because the situation at Semipalatinsk was shrouded in secrecy, military workers on the site often didn't understand the danger of their work.

Among them was Malguis Metov, now chairman of the Semipalatinsk Veterans Association, who employed at the site as a soldier in 1961 and '62. At work, he was outfitted with limited protective gear: rubber boots and gloves, a thin cotton outfit, plastic goggles, and a respirator. But he lived in buildings and drove vehicles that had been contaminated by radiation.

He describes an incident in August 1962 when a nuclear bomb exploded at the surface - a mistake he later found out "happened all the time."

"The black nuclear cloud moved toward us and we fled in cars, driving through the night to get away," Mr. Metov says, "The next morning we settled down in the steppes, but the wind changed direction and the cloud moved toward us."

He was demobilized the following year due to health problems. Metov now lives on a pension worth $84 a month and cannot afford treatment.

The UN is appealing for $40 million to deal with the aftermath of the tests, from providing health care to finding work for the 400,000 who lost jobs with the shutdown of the Polygon site.

"We hope this makes a difference," says Maiden Abishev, vice president of Nevada-Semipalatinsk, another advocacy group. "We're angry our government is doing nothing but welcome the interest of the rest of the world."

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