Thumbnail image for this story (this will show up on the stories page of the site):
Relevant issues for this story, separated by commas (eg. war, race, gender):
Health, War/Conflict
Geographical region for this story (eg. Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia):
Asia
Relevant key words for this story, separated by commas (eg. Africa, Hurricane Katrina, Mother Teresa):
USSR, Nuclear testing, Cancer, Kazakhstan, Semipalatinsk, Children, Nuclear, Nuclear Proliferation
A short summary for this story that will go on the stories page (1-2 sentences):
During the Cold War, Stalin ordered the Semipalatinsk region in eastern Kazakhstan to become a test site for the atomic bomb. The villagers were used as guinea pigs to monitor the after effects during the testing. As time passed, they became increasingly sick from the high levels of radiation whose effects are still being seen today.
Dinara Sagatova

2008 — student award of excellence

During the Cold War, Stalin ordered the Semipalatinsk region in eastern Kazakhstan to become a test site for the atomic bomb. From 1949 until 1989, approximately 600 atmospheric, above ground and underground nuclear and hydrogen explosions were conducted at the Semipalatinsk Polygon. During those 40 years, while military scientists claimed the area was uninhabited, the region had a population of approximately 3,000 in the remote villages and 150,000 in the city of Semipalatinsk. Over 70,000 of military personnel, scientists and engineers were brought to build the test laboratories, atomic reactors and towns that were not even listed on the maps. The villagers were used as guinea pigs to monitor the after effects during the testing. Sometimes they were asked to stand outside of their houses and observe the explosions, and sometimes they were temporarily evacuated except for healthy young adults. As time passed, the villagers became increasingly sick from the high levels of radiation; their conditions were carefully examined and studied by the scientists. The exact data about the experiments and people involved is still classified and stored in Moscow.

In 1989, the fist international non-governmental antinuclear movement "Nevada-Semey" was established in Kazakhstan. As a result of the number of protests led by the movement's chairman, Olzhas Suleimenov, the detonations of bombs stopped. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the test site was officially closed; however, an estimated energy equivalent of 20,000 atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima claimed the lives of over a million victims. Those whose health was affected by the Polygon receive little government financial assistance. The contaminated soil and water prevented the land from being used as farmland, and most residents face unemployment for the lack of opportunity. Poverty and alcohol unfortunately live hand in hand. Looters manage to get inside the test tunnels and steal scrap metal and contaminated copper cables as a means to survive using the residual of a deadly nuclear site. The stolen metals are bought by China to produce cheap jewelry, which is later sold to the West. The radioactive waste in the region will continue to affect the environment and people of Kazakhstan for the millennia to come.

In August of 2006, I traveled to the area and witnessed the lives of those still living in some of the most affected villages as well as the Oncology Center in Semipalatinsk. Throat, lung, breast and uterus cancers are the most common diseases at a rate of five times the national average. Many of the deaths due to cancer could have been prevented if patients received medical assistance at the early stages. Women are afraid of becoming pregnant and giving birth to physically disabled babies. Many young men deemed impotent commit suicide. The region has the highest suicide rate in the country among the youth; premature aging, psychological disorders, the list can go on. The Polygon is closed but continues to destroy lives.

Within this documentary project, I am trying to accomplish my main goal — to give a voice to the survivors who need to tell their story to the rest of the world. This is the result of nuclear testing — the sacrifice of human dignity and lives. I will continue my pursuit to photograph the test site area, the remaining scientists, the cancer patients, the doctors at the Oncology Center, and the "Nevada-Semey" movement as a means to raise awareness and promote clearer understanding of the inherent dangers and harmful consequences of the nuclear warfare. My desire is that through my photography, the people of the Polygon would get much needed assistance to rehabilitate the damaged land and health, and to have hope for a future.

Read more
Doctors perform a surgery to remove nose tumor on a young girl. Dinara Sagatova/Alexia Foundation
Instruments are dropped into a metal jar for further sterilization. Dinara Sagatova/Alexia Foundation
Intensive care unit at the Semipalatinsk oncology Center. Dinara Sagatova/Alexia Foundation
Gulsum Sakmanova, 83, lives in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk 300 km away from the Semipalatinsk Polygon. She receives government health welfare as Ust-Kamenogorsk is located in the affected by radiation zone. Dinara Sagatova/Alexia Foundation
The majority of the graves near village Znamenka show the young age of the dead. This area of the country has the highest level of suicide amongst the youth. Dinara Sagatova/Alexia Foundation
Young surgeons perform a surgery, partially removing intestine affected by cancer. Dinara Sagatova/Alexia Foundation
Doctors were unable to save patient’s uterus as cancer progressed to the last stage. “Unfortunately most of our patients live far away in the villages. They come in the worst conditions, when it is impossible to stop cancer cells from progressing,” Adilhanov said. Dinara Sagatova/Alexia Foundation
Assistant head doctor Tasbolat Adilhanov, right, with his colleagues on the way to the surgery room. Dinara Sagatova/Alexia Foundation
Rashid Beisenbaev, 59, of Semipalatinsk, had his stomach removed in order to stop cancer cells from progressing. Here he is undergoing a course of chemotherapy. Dinara Sagatova/Alexia Foundation
Emshek Ebralinov is one of the five children who live with their father Dusenkhan just a few kilometers from the Polygon. Six years ago Dusenkhan, whose wife died of cancer, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Unable to fight the disease, Dusenkhan has been laying in bed for over a year. Dinara Sagatova/Alexia Foundation