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An unnamed baby girl who was abandoned by her parents is now living in a Semipalatinsk hospital.

PHOTO BY YURI KUIDIN FOR THE TORONTO STAR

LIVING AT GROUND ZERO

In a remote corner of Kazakstan, people were deliberately exposed to nuclear bomb tests. bombtest.jpg (4447 bytes)

By Allan Thompson
Toronto Star Staff Reporter

SEMIPALATINSK, Kazakstan - NADEZHDA LISOVETS was milking one of her cows when the earth trembled so violently that the frightened animals tried to run away.

``It was like an earthquake,'' Lisovets said, shaking her hospital bed with her hands to mimic the impact of one of the explosions at the Soviet nuclear testing site near her village of Buras, in northeastern Kazakstan.

Between 1949 and 1989, nearly 500 nuclear tests were conducted at the so-called Polygon testing site on the rolling steppe near Semipalatinsk. As many as 166 of the blasts were above ground.

``They would happen on weekends. One Sunday, everything in the house shook. I had to grab the sideboard to keep the dishes from falling off and the table was shaking,'' Lisovets said.

``Nobody told us this could cause us any damage. But I know now the explosions were connected with my problems. I try not to think about it,'' Lisovets said, her eyes welling with tears.

She closed her gown, reflexively trying to hide the fact that one of her breasts have been removed.

Lisovets is dying of advanced breast cancer. She is one of tens of thousands of victims of radiation in a region plagued by abnormally high rates of birth defects, cancer, blood disease, immune deficiency, mental disability, suicide and psychological trauma.

This is the place where the Cold War never ended. But, unlike Chernobyl, this was no nuclear accident.

There is compelling evidence that Soviet authorities were aware, as early as the late 1950s, of the devastating impact of radiation on the local population. Top secret documents show the Soviet military deliberately used villagers as guinea pigs to gauge the potential impact of nuclear war.

``There's no place in the world that has inherited or suffered that kind of man-made disaster over a sustained period of time, affecting generations of people,'' said Herbert Behrstock, the United Nations' top representative in Kazakstan.

``People don't realize the magnitude of this and the continuing intensity,'' Behrstock said.

The U.N. General Assembly in October called for a $43 million international aid package for the devastated communities around Semipalatinsk.

Kazakstan, which closed the test site in 1991 shortly after gaining independence, is desperately poor despite its mineral wealth. The government has done little for victims of radiation.

Authorities estimate more than 1.2 million people were adversely affected by nuclear testing. About 67,000 people who lived in villages located within 100 kilometres of the test site at the time of the explosions received the highest doses of radiation. They have passed the genetic defects on to offspring.


`Nobody told us this could cause us any damage. But I know now the explosions were connected with my problems. I try not to think about it'

- Adezhda Lisovets,
Radiation victim


But years of testing also affected people who lived much farther afield.

``It's hard to find a family here that hasn't had someone die of cancer,'' said schoolteacher Olga Kestel, who lost her brother to the disease. She lives in Semipalatinsk, a bleak city of 300,000.

The statistics here tell a deadly story: In 1997, nearly 500 of every 1,000 babies born in Semipalatinsk had some kind of defect or health problem and 47 of them died. In some regions, infant mortality has grown fivefold since 1950. In villages near the test site, up to 90 per cent of people suffer from immune deficiency syndrome, leading to a virtual epidemic of tuberculosis.

``We are the real victims of the Cold War,'' said Nina Rybolovleva, the deputy akim, or deputy governor, of Semipalatinsk, one of the top officials. She remembers seeing the mushroom clouds first as a little girl.

``As a child, I found it interesting, the mushroom clouds were actually so beautiful, they drew our attention,'' she said.

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PHOTOS BY YURI KUIDIN FOR THE TORONTO STAR
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PAYING PRICE: Right, Berik Syzdykov, from Znamenka, as he looked two years ago - he has since had surgery on his face that produced a modest change; left, Renata Izmailova, 16, a high school student.

``It was a great shock for people when, a few years ago, scientists began speaking openly about the dangers of these tests,'' she said. ``It led our parents to an early grave,'' said Rybolovleva, who lost both mother and father to cancer.

``It's not just our parents. People who were children at the time of the explosion are now giving birth to a new generation and there are a lot of deformities,'' she said.

At the regional children's hospital, nurses weep as they handle horribly deformed children, many of them abandoned by parents who simply can't cope.

There are many children suffering from encephalitis, with horrifically enlarged heads. One child born in the past year had four legs and four arms and died shortly after delivery.

``Birth defects have gone up by four times in the last four years,'' said Ruslan Yensabaev, the head of the regional health department said. ``We don't know what this will mean for the coming generations.''

Along one wall at the museum of anatomy for students at the Academy of Medical Sciences, there is a macabre collection of human fetuses, specimens that came from Semipalatinsk maternity hospitals.

One of the fetuses, contained in a large glass jar stored in a display case, is labelled the cyclops because it has only one eye, in the centre of the forehead. Others look like creatures from some sort of post-nuclear holocaust science fiction film.

The most obvious victims of the tests are those who live with deformities. Journalist and photographer Yuri Kuidin captured their suffering in a recently published book on the testing, called The Kazakstan Nuclear Tragedy.

``The Soviet military-industrial complex waged an undeclared war against the people of Kazakstan,'' Kuidin wrote.

Within the test site, several thousand square kilometres of land remain contaminated. No one knows for sure about the condition of water supplies and soil throughout the region. To make matters worse, the area is close to economic collapse.

Over the years, Semipalatinsk had become heavily dependent on the test site for its economic livelihood.

An injection of $43 million as proposed by the U.N. is desperately needed. Japan plans to host a donor conference this spring to try to generate international support for an aid package.

Those most in need live in villages such as Znamenka, located in the zone of extreme radiation about 90 kilometres from the test site.

The village is about an hour's drive from Semipalatinsk, across the barren steppe that is interrupted only by a few small hills, still dotted with stone cairns left decades ago as landmarks by Kazak herdsmen.

Most villagers simply subsist these days. They draw water from a central spring because there is no plumbing in the village. In addition to the cumulative impact of years of radiation, Znamenka was also directly hit by a radioactive cloud after one atmospheric explosion.

Zhulduz Iskanova's son Askhat, 14, was born with a physical and mental disability and with cataracts on his eyes.

``I don't know if God did this, or if it is because of the Polygon, but my parents and grandparents never had these problems,'' she said, looking sadly at her son. The family survives on about $75 a month, a combination of Askhat's disability compensation and his grandmother's pension.

Askhat frequently has convulsions, but his mother is trying to preserve his medication. There is no doctor in the village who can issue a prescription and she has little money anyway. She has been hoarding one small bottle of medication for a year.

While Iskanova is speaking, an old man walks in and sits down in the centre of the room. He is Zhakia Akhmetov, 71, a driver who as a soldier in 1949 was forced to stand in an open trench and witness atmospheric explosions.

``Afterward, I got black spots on my body and no one knew why. I used a knife to cut sores off my legs. I smelled like a dead body, it was so horrible,'' Akhmetov said.

``I was in a trench with 50 other soldiers, but none of us knew each other because we had all been brought from different units for those two explosions in August, 1949. Now I feel we were brought here for experiments.''

Another of Iskanova's neighbours is Fidakhmet Kozhakhmetou, who is slowly dying from illnesses caused by exposure to radiation. The 54-year-old, who worked as a driver, is losing his sense of balance. His speech is slurred and his body has been weakened.

Almost daily during the 1960s, Kozhakhmetou would take a shortcut in his truck across the Polygon testing site, to deliver food and water to herders on the other side, near the village of Sarjal.

Sometimes, on the test site, he would pick up chunks of copper cable that had been used in tests, or wooden planks, all highly irradiated.

``I used to be able to carry two sheep at once, now I can't lift anything,'' he says

He and his wife, Kanipa Mukatova and three children live on their combined monthly pensions of about $100. Kozhakhmetou pursued local authorities until they compensated him for his radiation-induced disability. His heating bill has been reduced and he gets free bus rides into the city.

``The doctors said I should come to the hospital again in three months, but then they'll say I need some medicine and I have no money to pay for it, so why should I bother? I don't know who to blame for this,'' Kozhakhmetou said.

Somebody in the old Soviet military structure does. Sain Balmukhanov firmly believes that.

Balmukhanov, a professor at the Oncology and Radiation Institute of Kazakstan in Almaty, was a young medical researcher in 1953 when he first visited Semipalatinsk.

``A local doctor told me they were seeing some unusual things,'' he recounted, describing young patients who had blotchy bald spots, skin with unusual burns and extremely high blood pressure.

Balmukhanov, who had been involved with secret Soviet research into the impact of radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was part of a team that studied the Semipalatinsk region in the late 1950s.

They concluded in 1960 that residents were suffering abnormally high rates of cancer, liver and lung disease, skin disorders, headaches and sickness, all linked to radioactive fallout from the nuclear tests.

``After that the KGB prohibited us from further research,'' he said.

He was forbidden to visit Semipalatinsk for the next 30 years and had to sign a waiver not to publish his research.

``We were living in the Soviet Union, we were afraid. It's hard now to understand our psychology. But even 10 years ago, we were afraid to speak to foreigners.''

Balmukhanov learned that at the time of the 1953 testing of the world's first thermonuclear device, the military forced some 200 people to remain in a village near the Polygon, while others were temporarily moved away.

``A day later, soldiers came in protective gear and measured blood pressure and took blood samples, then they gave them vodka and told them to stay another 24 hours.

``In 1991, I visited that village and I could find only one of those 200 people who was still alive.''

``I had carried a terrible secret.''

Other secrets were kept in the narrow corridors of a facility in Semipalatinsk misnamed Anti-Brucellosis Dispensary Number Four to conceal its real function as a centre for research on radiation-induced illnesses. It has since been re-named the National Research Institute for Radiation Medicine and Ecology.

Dr. Boris Gusev, a former director at the dispensary, acknowledges that the role of the facility was not to assist radiation victims, but to observe them and write reports for Moscow.

``We tried at least to prescribe what could be done, but we were not allowed to provide any treatment here.''

Gesev explained that ``as a product of the Soviet Union'' and a member of the Communist party at this secret facility, he kept quiet about his work.

``I signed a document pledging not to reveal these secrets. Otherwise, I would have been imprisoned for 15 years.''


`Soldiers came in protective gear and measured blood pressure and took blood samples, then they gave them vodka and told them to stay another 24 hours. In 1991, I visited that village and I could find only one of those 200 people who was still alive'

- Sain Balmukhanov,
Oncology and Radiation Institute


But his views on the impact of radiation changed in the mid-'80s. By 1989, when testing ended and KGB officials were frantically destroying documents, Gusev was determined to safeguard as much of the historical record as possible.

He took three sacks of records earmarked for incineration and hid them in a closet in a relative's home.

He then filled the empty sacks with magazines and newspapers, which he took to the incinerator. He gave a list of the ``destroyed'' documents to Soviet authorities.

After analyzing the documents, Gusev concluded the Soviet military deliberately staged as many explosions as possible during bad weather, when skies were overcast, increasing radioactive fallout by up to 20 times.

``Why couldn't they just wait a day or two, until the skies were clear and the fallout would be less?'' Gusev asks.

``Because they wanted to see what the effect of the explosion would be on a real population. ``It was a crime against humanity,'' Gusev said.

The legacy of the tests is clear at the Semipalatinsk cancer hospital, where Lisovets came for her breast cancer operation.

One-third of patients show up for treatment when they are beyond help; many cancer victims never bother coming to hospital at all.

Toleubek Ukbenov, director of the Centre for Psychiatric Health in Semipalatinsk said the region suffers from abnormally high rates of mental disability at birth, various neuroses and suicide.

``It's not a very scientific observation, but too often we see the closing of one cemetery and the opening of a new one,'' Ukbenov said. ``These days, we're surprised when someone dies of old age.''


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