3. Living in the Path of the ‘Ashes of Death’

Chapter 2: Soviet Union
Part 1: The Largest Nuclear Test Site in the Nation

Situated a hundred miles south of the testing site, the village of Karaaul, with a population of just fewer than ten thousand, has been the scene of tragedy for the past forty years. If we are to believe the military's statement that tests were purposely carried out while a north wind was blowing, then there is no doubt that Karaaul was placed directly in the path of the wind and the "ashes of death" which it carried and deposited on the hills to the west of the town.

Although the army's claims that the wind was stronger than predicted may well be valid, there is no doubt that even if the wind had died down, the entire town still would have been exposed to high levels of radioactive contamination. Madina Makanova, aged twenty-four, works in the main headquarters of the anti-nuclear organization Nevada-Semipalatinsk. Her grandparents and six uncles had all lived in Karaaul, and had all died of cancer. Her grandparents passed away in the late sixties, while her uncles, each in his thirties, died one by one in the seventies. She related how her youngest uncle, a shepherd, had blamed their deaths on "that poisonous explosion" and had moved to the capital, Alma-Ata. However, in the end, he, too, was unable to escape the same fate as his brothers. Madina's father, the only one to survive, regrets that he will never be able to go back to his place of birth.

"When the rally against testing was held last summer, I just cried all the way through it," Madina said, blinking away tears at the memory.

For Toryuval Ichenov, the former government employee in charge of the requisition of land for the test site and the evacuation of residents, there remain a number of puzzling aspects concerning the evacuation he was ordered to carry out. The farms around the test site were closed at intervals of six months to a year, rather than all at once.

"The army should have evacuated everyone at once if they knew of the danger of radioactivity, but instead we were ordered to divide the area up and carry out the evacuation in stages."

This means that those forced to wait their turn were literally living among radioactive fallout. Ichenov suspects that they were deliberately used as guinea pigs for studying the effects of the tests. Unbeknown to him, we had heard a story at the headquarters of Nevada-Semipalatinsk which showed these suspicions to be correct.

In preparation for the first hydrogen-bomb test in 1953, the town of Karaaul, to which the farmers living around the site had been moved, was included in the evacuation area. However, an order was issued specifying that forty adult males should remain in the area. Those who stayed were witnesses to the huge mushroom cloud that rose up a hundred miles to the north in a collage of eerily changing colors. According to an investigation carried out by Tursonov Yelmenko, editor of Nevada-Semipalatinsk's paper, Izbilacbe, only five of these forty men are still alive.

Clenching his fists, he said, "Their deaths can only be thought of as part of a calculated experiment."

Saim Balmkhanov of the Kasav Academy of Science and head of the medical section of Nevada-Semipalatinsk states that at the time of the atmospheric testing, the level of radiation 185 miles downwind from the center of the blast would definitely have been over 200 rads. This estimate runs contrary to the army report recently released which put the level of radiation at 37 rads. Thus, there can be no doubt that for forty years the town of Karaaul was the repository of large amounts of fallout and that its citizens were used as unwitting experimental subjects. The scientific documentation which would officially confirm this has yet to come to light, but when it does it is probable that the extent of the tragedy in Karaaul and the neighboring villages of Sarzhan and Kaynar will be found to be far greater than previously thought.