August 2000

Professor Saim Balmukhanov slammed his fist on the table. "People in the West cannot begin to understand what we suffered in the name of Socialism. One and a half million people in Kazakhstan were exposed to high radiation doses during the Soviet nuclear testing programme. But when I reported my findings to Moscow they denied it. For more than forty years they claimed that the high incidence of cancers and babies born with genetic deformities, were hereditary diseases caused by the poor Kazakh diet."

"The first indication we had that nuclear bombs were being detonated was in 1957. A doctor friend of mine from Semipalatinsk said that he had noticed strange discoloured lesions on the skin of some of his patients. He knew I had been involved in investigations following Hiroshima and Nagasaki and asked me to have a look. I confirmed that these were radiation burns."

Professor Balmukhanov is now 78 years old but looks much younger. He still works in the Kazakh National Academy of Science in Almaty, where he was first appointed Professor and Head of Department in 1946 at the age of only 24; He is still head of the Department of Biology and Medicine. His eyes sparkle as he speaks. He has made it his life's work to uncover the horrible legacy bequeathed to his people by the Soviet Empire. Twice, this much-decorated war hero was arrested and stripped of his Communist Party membership when his enquiries got too close to the truth.

He recounts how between 1949 and 1990, the Soviet military exploded a total of 607 nuclear bombs in a massive, top-secret test site near the remote, northern Kazakh town ofSemipalatinsk, on the Siberian border. Of course there had been rumours of explosions and strange mushroom clouds and village houses being swept away in the aftershock of the blasts. But people were afraid to speak out. The whole area around Semipalatinsk, equal to the size of France, was closed and strictly controlled by the military. Villagers were told that they should be proud to be part of the great technological advances of the Soviet Union.

"There were sudden deaths and miscarriages," the Professor said, "but each time we challenged Moscow they lied to us. When we checked the health of villagers within the Polygon - the 18,500 km2 territory of the core test site - against that of villagers from outside, we discovered there were four-times fewer diseases outside the Polygon. Finally in 1958 the Soviet military authorities had to admit responsibility."

Professor Balmukhanov spread several large ledgers on the table of his study. Each was prominently marked 'Top Secret' in Russian. "These are the Soviet records of the human impact caused by their nuclear tests. The KGB right from the outset carefully recorded every piece of medical evidence. But all of it was highly classified and kept locked in a Moscow vault. Information, which could have helped us to treat patients and save lives, was withheld for 40 years. Only when the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1992 did we finally gain access to this material. Even now, the Russians are still holding on to a lot of information."

The village of Znamenka lies in the heart of the Polygon. It was one of the worst affected villages. It is a typical ramshackle, Kazakh affair, with mud-bricked and grass-roofed huts, baking in plus 40 degrees centigrade in summer and shivering in minus 40 degrees in the snowbound winter of the steppes. This would be an unwelcoming place to live at the best of times. But now is the worst of times. The departure of the Soviets in 1992 led to economic collapse. An attempt by the Kazakh authorities to privatise the old system of collective farming failed. There is high unemployment and no job opportunities. There is also the legacy of the Cold War.

The village elders tell their story to anyone who dares to visit. Unlike their Russian-speaking neighbours from the city, they still speak Kazakh. Many remember the ground shaking beneath their feet and the mushroom clouds rising in the distance. They were encouraged to come out of their homes to watch. The authorities told them they were privileged to witness the might of the Soviet military machine. They were not told that many bombs were detonated only when strong winds could ensure a thick cloud of radioactive dust would blow in their direction.

Now cancers run at five times the national average. Cancers of the throat, lungs and breasts are particularly common. Twelve-year-old girls have developed mammary cancer. Birth defects are three times the national average. Babies and farm animals are born with terrible deformities. Many of the young men are impotent. Many of the young women are afraid to become pregnant in case they give birth to defective babies. Psychological disorders are rife. Suicides are widespread, especially amongst young men. Average life expectancy is 52, compared to 59 outside the Polygon.

The women of Znamenka gather in the school. It is the only three-storey building in the village. Built in Soviet times it caters for more than 500 children. The Head Teacher says that their entire budget for the whole of last year amounted to $16. Even so, the villagers have somehow managed to paint the classrooms and hall and fifty or sixty local women have come to tell their stories to the foreign visitors. They explain that everything is contaminated - plants, animals, insects and humans. Radiation and salt have polluted their only source of water. They are forced to eat the few sickly cows and sheep that remain. Nearly every woman in the room is ill.

A 38 year-old says her breast was removed last year due to cancer, but she is lucky to have found a job and must work to live. She looks pale and sick. An old lady is helped to her feet. She explains that her joints are stiff and crippled - a common ailment in the Polygon. She is sure it is due to the radiation. Her husband died of cancer two years ago. She can't walk and can't work and has no one to turn to for help. Despite her appearance she is only 48 years old. Premature ageing is another common feature. The tears roll down her cheeks as her friends help her back to her seat. A big lady in a tattered dress sums up the mood of the meeting. "All we need is clothes to wear and food to eat to be like anyone in the world."

Across the street in the village medical centre the local doctor and nurses struggle to cope. Often they go without pay for weeks. There is little money for basic medicines and no money for equipment. They have to deal with allthe usual medical problems of a remote rural community numbering 4000 people, but in addition they have the cancers, birth defects and illnesses caused by the nuclear tests. The doctor explains that she has 70 patients whose medical conditions are directly attributable to the nuclear legacy. However, the State authorities demand a rigorous series of tests over many months and sometimes years, before they will provide a certificate accepting the patient as a radiation victim. Such certificates entitle the victims to a tiny weekly payment and free medicines, which the State cannot afford.

An elderly mother brings her son into the room. Like many of his peers he has severe learning difficulties. He is 21 but has the mind of a 4-year-old. He suffers from epileptic convulsions and years ago the local doctor prescribed a specific drug she knew would help. The mother weeps as she describes her frustration. She waves the old, crumpled prescription in her hand. The authorities have still not classified her son as a victim of the bomb tests and she can't afford to pay for his medicine. The doctor says that only 7 out of the 70 local radiation victims have been classified.

Driving out of Semipalatinsk over the cracked and pot-holed road, the crumbling ruins of the Cold War soon become apparent. The road to Ground Zero, where the nuclear weapons were detonated, stretches for hundreds of kilometres across the barren steppe. During the Soviet era, massive security surrounded the Polygon. Whole cities were erected to house military and scientific personnel. Their names never appeared on any maps. Residents were forbidden to mention where they lived. About 80 kilometres from Semipalatinsk is Chagan, built between 1947 and 1949 as a base for the Soviet army and airforce, the city is now completely deserted and derelict. Street after street of broken tenements bears silent witness to the nuclear arms race. Weeds sprout from cracks between crazily rearing flagstones. A statue of Lenin tilts dangerously to the side, the nose broken off and the base scrawled with graffiti.

Beyond Chagan the tarmac road occasionally gives way to a muddy dirt track. There is no money for repairs. This remote and arid steppe across which Ghengis Khan marched his vast army, was once the haunt of nomadic farmers. But in 1947, that all changed. The territory was chosen by the Soviet Defence Ministry as their nuclear test site. Tens of thousands of workers poured into the area, which was quickly transformed into one of the richest parts of the Soviet Empire. By 1949 the huge construction programme was complete. Roads, railways, water supply conduits, power and communication lines, towns and cities were built to a high technical standard. A sophisticated infrastructure was put in place to measure the atomic blasts around ground zero.

The city of Khurchatov, 150 kilometres from Semipalatinsk, was the centre of this hotbed of nuclear activity. Shrouded in total secrecy and named after the father of the USSR's nuclear programme, the city was home to over 30,000 residents, including scientists such as Alexander Sakharov and Stalin's notorious KGB Chief Lavrenty Beria. From here, this formidable command centre supervised the first aboveground atomic bomb test in 1949, equal to the size of the Nagasaki bomb. Further massive aboveground explosions in 1951 and the first plutonium bomb in 1953 followed. A colossal thermo-nuclear device was dropped onto the site from an aircraft in 1955 sending a radioactive cloud across most of Kazakhstan and into China. Only sustained protests and peace marches by the courageous Kazakh people, largely ignored in the West, finally forced the Soviets to abandon plans for further tests in 1990. By that time they had exploded over 600 nuclear devices, above ground, in the atmosphere and underground.

Now only 9000 people live in Khurchatov City. Most of the scientists who remain are engaged in the study of radiation and nuclear safety. There is mass unemployment and a tangible air of despondency. Like elsewhere in the Polygon, the city is crumbling.

A few kilometres from the last former Soviet army checkpoint, the tarmac ends and the journey to Ground Zero continues off-road, across the parched and endless steppe. Despite the searing heat, vehicle windows have to be kept tightly shut to avoid inhaling plutonium particles in the swirling clouds of dust. Soon, a spiral of dust can be seen approaching fast across the steppe. It is a local villager riding an old motorcycle/sidecar combination, hurrying to escape arrest for pilfering copper wire and metal from Ground Zero.

The Kazakhs no longer have the resources to police the test site and despite the fact that spending more than ten minutes at the epicentre is lethally dangerous, many villagers camp on the site for days, digging up the hundreds of kilometres of copper wire used to detonate the bombs. They know they will die in a few years from radiation poisoning. But they say they will die anyway from starvation. At least, they argue, this way they earn enough to feed their families, by selling the copper across the border to the Chinese. The problem is, this deadly radioactive copper is then fashioned into jewellery and sold in China or exported to the West.

At 5 kilometres from Ground Zero the first series of reinforced concrete towers, still bearing nuclear blast monitoring equipment, can be seen. Nearer Ground Zero, the towers are little more than mangled heaps of steel and concrete. Rocks and stones have been turned to glass. The eerie stillness of the place belies its former hideous purpose. Here sheep, pigs, cattle, dogs and rats were tethered to stakes to await the scorching nuclear blast. A whole small uninhabited town was erected nearby with two shops, a metro station a factory and road and railway bridges. Scarecrows dressed as soldiers were dotted around. Military machinery, artillery pieces, tanks, aeroplanes, transport vehicles and armoured cars were placed at different distances around the epicentre to study the impact of the bomb. Now the tangled detritus is all that remains. The shrill bleeping of a Geiger Counter breaks the silence. A lizard rustles in the undergrowth around the rim of the massive crater. Locusts hop aimlessly from plant to plant. It is a vision of the past.

100 Kilometres away is a vision of the future. The Andas-Altyn Mining Company, a Scottish-Canadian-Kazakh operation, opened a gold mine in January this year. Already they are employing 530 Kazakhs and paying good wages. They have mined almost 1 tonne of gold in the past 6 months. The young and dynamic Mayor of Semipalatinsk, Nurlan Omirov, is keen to see further inward investment to his region. He knows that the road to salvation for Semipalatinsk will rely as much on the efforts of his own people to help themselves as on foreign aid. But for tens of thousands of innocent Kazakhs, the legacy of the Cold War is one of suffering and hardship.