Under A Nuclear Cloud

Photographs and Text by Ed Ou

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Two hands reach out for the ivory of an upright piano. The pianist runs his fingers over the black and white keys, tuning his hands in search for the right notes. His ears pique as he finds the sound he is
looking for. As he begins to play, his fingers recall fragments of a melody he once heard. The music carries him to a tranquil memory, but nobody can see his smile because Berik Syzdykov was born without a face.

Berik was born deformed and blind as one of the million victims of radiation from Soviet nuclear testing. August marks sixty years since the test detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb, but the human toll is still being passed down through the next generation of victims. During the Cold War the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Polygon covering 18,500 square kilometers on the steppe of northeast Kazakhstan, was the site of a secret Soviet nuclear testing program.  Through four decades until the early nineties, the Soviet Union test detonated over four hundred nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and underground in preparation for a war with the West that never took

The locals were used as guinea pigs to test the effects of radiation on human populations. Villagers living close by were given virtually no protection or warning of the dangers of radiation. Doctor Nailya
Chaizhunusova from the Institute of Radiation Medicine in Kazakhstan recounts that “the army experimented on civilians – they would move people close to the test sites, leave a hundred people in the village, give a test group 200 grams of vodka to drink and monitor their health after they detonated a nuclear weapon.” During the course of the nuclear program, the military prohibited doctors from attributing the sharp rise in illnesses and deaths from cancer, leukemia, and radiation exposure in the region to the nuclear tests.

Seventy-year-old Sovietia Mukhamadiyev describes witnessing nuclear explosions in her childhood. “We were told to hide under a rug. The noise was deafening. The explosion was like a sphere, huge, like a cloud. We were told not to look at it, but we couldn’t resist – we were children. It was loud, as if two mountains collided. We were frighteningly close. Rooms shook and buckets turned upside down. All animals, cows, dogs made noise; they didn’t know where to hide. When we were young we didn’t understand that it could be harmful.” Chaizhunusova added “They would find dogs, cows, and other animals running around desperately as their skin and hair fell off.” Later in life, Sovieta would go blind and lose her husband and three of her children to cancer.

Inside the Nuclear Polygon stand the empty shells of buildings, towers and structures built to test the destructive potential of nuclear explosions. A tunnel modeled to the depth and specifications of a
typical American subway station lies underground; it was used to determine how a nuclear strike on an American city would affect train commuters underground.

Today, only the frenetic chirp of a Geiger counter warns us of the invisible radiation that makes this nuclear wasteland so dangerous that scientists hesitate to spend any amount of time there. Yet,
almost two million villagers spend their entire lives in and around the affected area, roughly the size of Italy – drinking ground water, growing crops, and grazing their livestock off the highly irradiated land. Signs warning of radiation have long been torn down by scavengers and sold as scrap metal, leaving visitors only to guess whether the area is safe.

Radiation has silently devastated three generations of people in Kazakhstan, creating health problems ranging from thyroid diseases, cancer, birth defects, deformities, premature aging, and
cardiovascular diseases. Life expectancy in the area is seven years less then the national average of Kazakhstan. Suicides are common. Even though nuclear testing ended twenty years ago, these conditions and genetic mutations are passed down for generations to come.

Berik Syzdykov takes his hands off the piano and reaches out for someone to take him back home. Born deformed and blind, Berik has been to Italy twice for operations on his face and to get his eyesight back. It was during a two-month trip to Italy for an operation when he heard opera for the first time, and fell in love with it. When he returned home, he learned to play the piano and pieces together songs from his memory. “My dream is to see with my own eyes and walk on my own. It is hard to spend a life in darkness, without light, having to rely on people to help me.” Berik asks his brother to tell him what he sees and describe the world around him. He also carries around a sound recorder in which he records music from the radio, people speaking, his mother singing, and sounds of from the outside world.

Some radiation victims cannot tell their story themselves.

In a one-room apartment in Semey, Mayra Zhumangeldina sings as she carries her only daughter into a plastic bucket and bathes her in the candlelight. Mayra lived in the Abai district, close to the Nuclear
Polygon, where she was a witness to years of underground nuclear weapons tests. Her daughter Zhannoor, 16, was born with microcephalia and sixth-degree scoliosis – a twisted spine – as a result of genetic mutations from radiation. The condition harmed her brain development, leaving her in a permanent vegetative state. She cannot think, speak, or perform basic functions. Zhannoor spends her life in her mother’s arms. In sixteen years, Mayra has not left her side. “I need to be with her every day. If I leave her alone for more then a few hours, she could have a seizure, or choke on her own tongue. I cannot work, because then there will be nobody to take care of her. I cannot leave her.”

Zhannoor is one of a million victims that have been recognized as disabled as a direct result of nuclear tests. Mayra receives a monthly stipend from the government in order to care for her daughter, but the money does little to ease their hardship. “What good is money if my daughter cannot think for herself, speak, or go to school? This is what the polygon has done to us.”

Mayra bathes her daughter every night before bed because she cannot afford diapers. She massages her body to relax her muscles. Mayra sings Kazakh folk songs to her daughter as they fall asleep in each other’s arms. She whispers “my chicken, my girl.”, but Zhannoor says nothing back.

Across town, a family has discovered a way to communicate with their disabled son. Eighteen-year-old Nikita Bochkaryov sits in front of a computer wearing a helmet with a curved stick attached to it. His arms tense and spasm uncontrollably as he manoeuvres the stick on his helmet, typing on the keyboard, letter by letter. Minutes later, he finishes writing the first line of his poem “I’d like to fall in love, but I have no one to love yet.” He continues, “I’d like to visit another world, but I have no chance. I’d like to find peace, but the time hasn’t come.”

Nikita was born with Infantile Cerebral Palsy. He cannot speak, walk, or control his limbs. His parents, Sybilla and Andrei have to feed and bathe him. “He is totally dependent on us, but he is also independent in a way that his life takes place in front of his computer.” When he was growing up, Sybilla realized that even though Nikita could not speak, he could think, smile, and move his fingers. They decided to teach him to use a computer. Now, his life exists on the Internet, where his mind is liberated from his physical disability, enabling him to write stories, letters, poems, and communicate with his loved ones. “When he was growing up, I did not want to accept that he was disabled. Putting him in a wheelchair was a life sentence for me – we can’t take him anywhere in this place. But once he got on a computer, the world opened up for him.” Nikita’s mother worries about the future “I cannot imagine what will happen to him when we are gone –he has nobody but us. But today, we are happy, because as long as he is in front of the computer, he is free from his body, and free from this place. He can lead a normal life. That is more then we could have dreamed of.”

To this day, there are over a million people affected by radiation living in and around the Nuclear Polygon. Boris Galich, a nuclear scientist for the Institute of Radiation Medicine in Semipalatinsk
worries about the future generations affected by radiation in the polygon, as cancer and genetic mutations are passed down. “The Cold War was a war driven by fear, using words and a buildup of weapons capable destroying the world. We must learn the lessons of what happened here so in the future ordinary people will never be sacrificed for politics and ideology.”

As the sun sets over the Nuclear Polygon, shooting stars streak past the night sky. Orange light from houses randomly dot the edges of the steppe, breaking up the vast emptiness of a land that has witnessed many times over, mankind’s power to destroy. The Cold War is over, but the radiation and human toll will linger for hundreds of years to come.