August 29, 2014 – On this day in 1991, Kazakhstan closed the nuclear test site near Semipalatinsk. On that same date in 1949, the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test, followed by another 455 nuclear tests over the four succeeding decades. The tests had a terrible effect on the local population and environment, leaving an unwelcome and dangerous legacy for generations to come.
These tests, and the hundreds more that followed in other countries, became hallmarks of a nuclear arms race. In the Soviet Union it became the symbol of the Cold War struggle between Russia and the West, a struggle that has had profound effects on Kazakhstan as the independent country today that has been left to deal with the consequences.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, addressed the world in a speech on 29th August to mark the International Day Against Nuclear Tests. In it he demanded, “Let us all take a fresh look at those survivors’ stories. Listen to their words and imagine the effects of these detonations as if they were experienced by each of us. Only then can we can better understand the imperative to renew our commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons and nuclear tests.”
Kazakhstan, which initiated the August 29 Day Against Nuclear Tests, knows well those catastrophic human consequences. More than 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan have suffered early death, horrific birth defects and lifelong physical difficulties as a result of those tests. That stark reality led Kazakhstan to unilaterally give up the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world shortly after achieving independence and they have since been a leader in the movement for a nuclear-weapons-free world.
“Kazakhstan has convincingly demonstrated to the international community that peaceful policy, openness and cooperation are essential to prosperity, not force or the threat of its use,” said Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister, Erlan Idrissov, in remarks regarding this year’s day against testing.
The problem is not contained solely to Kazakhstan. Since the 1950s, nuclear tests have been conducted by the United States, China, France and Britain as they developed their nuclear arsenals, as well as India and Pakistan. And as recently as last year, North Korea, defying UN Security Council resolutions, drew international condemnation when it conducted another nuclear weapons test.
As a way to unite towards achieving their goal of removing testing and nuclear weapons from the agenda, and remembering the victims of nuclear weapons testing, a moment of silence was held at 11:05 local time on August 29. That time was chosen by The ATOM Project because the hands of the clock form a “V” shape, which stands for a victory of common sense over fear and a victory for global efforts towards a nuclear-weapons-free world.
Almost 100,000 people worldwide have signed an online petition at TheATOMProject.org, as a way to directly tell world leaders that they support a world free from nuclear weapons.
The ATOM Project is a bold initiative of Kazakhstan and Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, aimed at raising awareness about the horrible effects of nuclear weapons testing to help bring into force the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).
The Project puts a human face on this global issue by telling the stories of the survivors of nuclear testing. To this day, children are born with severe deformities, illnesses and a lifetime of health challenges as a result of exposure generations ago to nuclear weapons tests.
Karipbek Kuyukov, is an Honorary Ambassador of The ATOM Project, and is one of those who wants to tell his story.
“I was born 100 kilometres from the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site,” he starts. It is a stark reminder of the huge distance of safety required from the test sites and the extent to which
damage from the tests was able to affect those unwittingly living nearby who had no choice or say in the matter.
“The tests have had terrible physical consequences for the people who lived near them”, Kuyukov continues. “I came into this world without arms. People often ask me if I can be sure that radiation was the cause. If you had lived in my home town or region, this would not be a question.
“In the place where I grew up, I saw mothers and midwives shocked at the sight of their babies. I saw families too embarrassed to show their children to the outside world, hiding them deep inside their homes and bringing them out only briefly for fresh air and sun.”
The most terrifying fact about Kuyukov’s story is that the local population didn’t understand the impact these explosions would have. They were taken completely by surprise. “I saw so much tragedy and suffering in my homeland that I decided to do everything possible to ensure that my generation is the last to suffer such damage,” he reflects.
But Kuyukov’s story is one of resilience and inspiration rather than one demanding pity. “I became an activist in an anti-nuclear weapons movement and found peace in expressing
my pain through art. I use my feet and mouth to hold my brush and pour out in my own colours my inner world, calling on others to follow my cause.”
Over the last two there has been progress. Even before Kazakhstan became a fully independent country, President Nazarbayev shut down the Semipalatinsk test site in 1991
in defiance of the then Soviet government in Moscow. Upon independence, Kazakhstan voluntarily gave up the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal, inherited from the Soviet Union. Similar courageous decisions were taken by Ukraine, Belarus and South Africa who all renounced their nuclear weapons or programmes.
In 1996, a major step was taken when the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was adopted by the United Nations. It has since been signed by 183 countries and ratified by 162. But the treaty cannot enter into force until it is signed and ratified by eight more countries: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States.
It is to the leaders and lawmakers of these eight countries that the ATOM Project now makes its plea for understanding and leadership. Sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
That is Kuyukov’s mission. “I don’t have arms. I can’t know what it feels like to grasp someone by the hand. But I do have feet with which I can paint and I have a voice that enables me to speak. For as long as I can, I will use whatever I have to tell the world about the catastrophic damage nuclear weapons have done to the planet and all who share it.”
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