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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Living With Ravages of Radiation

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- 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 became seven times more frequent 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, but also how it was permitted to continue for four decades without an outcry.

"People are asking themselves, 'Where was I when 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 anti-aircraft 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 non-nuclear 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.

At a recent UN 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.

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.