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Sue Lloyd-Roberts: "People are afraid to eat, drink and even breathe the air"
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Saturday, 29 July, 2000, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Nuclear nightmare revealed

Babies born with deformities are often abandoned
By Sue Lloyd-Roberts in Kazakhstan

The Russians chose one of the most desolate parts of their empire to build their nuclear testing base. Scorching in summer and 40 degrees below freezing in winter, it is an inhospitable place.

Nonetheless when the first bomb exploded, there were over a million Kazakhs living here.

More than 100 bombs were detonated above ground, with radioactive fallout spreading over a vast area equivalent, scientists say, to over a hundred Chernobyls.

It was the Cold War and the Russians were eager to catch up with America. Safety was not a priority.

Watching the explosions

Nurgul Skakova, whose child is disabled, said: "We were told there was nothing to worry about. In fact, we were ordered out of school in order to watch the mushroom clouds.

"I was contaminated and that's why my son was born paralysed and mentally sick."

21 year old Zaneisti is only a metre tall
21-year-old Zaneisti is only a metre tall
Nurgula told me that every family in her village, which was 30km from the epicentre of the explosions, has been affected.

To prove her point, she took me next door to see the girl with six toes. Her mother said that her older daughter is in hospital with leukaemia.

In the next house, I was introduced to Zaneisti, who is 21 and stands only a metre tall. Everyone in the village wanted to show me their disfigurements because, they said, they welcomed any outsider who showed any interest.

From the house opposite, a woman called out that she had even worse to show me - Davidya, whose tumours have left him hideous and half blind. One of his sisters recently committed suicide for fear that her unborn child might be affected by the same poisoned genes.

Most of the many suicides in the area have been among young men who discover they are impotent.

Red Cross stretched

People told me they are living in the most polluted place on Earth and are afraid to eat, drink and even breathe the air.

The International Red Cross look after old people who are dying of cancer and whose children have fled the area.

The next generation is also suffering
The next generation is also suffering
With a 30 year or so period before radiation exposure develops into certain cancers, more and more people in this age group are affected, and Red Cross workers can barely cope with the demand on their scarce resources.

In the state hospitals, doctors, some of whom have not been paid for six months and who lack modern equipment and drugs, fight to save those with a chance.

But what is puzzling the doctors is the number of babies who continue to be born with deformities.

Unable or simply unwilling to cope with them, parents often abandon these babies in the doors of state orphanages.

Lasting legacy

Without accurate information about how badly the region was contaminated, doctors can only speculate about the long term genetic damage that has been done to its people.

Dr. Boris Gusev from the Institute of Radioactive Medicine says: "Even today, the military in Moscow are lying to us about the tests as they have all along.

"They tell us that 700,000 people might have been effected. I believe it is over 1.5 million.

"The contamination spread over thousands of kilometres. There's nowhere else like this in the world. Japan? Nevada? Forget it! It's equivalent to 1,000 times the impact of the Hiroshima bomb. This is a unique situation and we need help."

The statue of Lenin has been removed from the central square in Semipalatinsk. The Soviet military-industrial complex has withdrawn and the scientific boffins have packed their bags and gone.

But the people will feel the effects of the Soviet era for decades to come.

The Russians say they have too many of their own problems to help their former colony.

At a conference later this year, the Kazakhs will argue that these are victims of the Cold War and it is up to the international community to pay the price of helping.

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