The Cold War – and the constant fear of nuclear war – were among the darkest periods in humanity’s history. We had all hoped that those days were behind us.
But in recent months, we have seen a disturbing revival of tensions between Russia and the West. Old wounds have been re-opened. There is talk of a return to Cold War brinkmanship and even development of new nuclear weapons. The slow but steady progress made towards ending the nuclear threat is in danger of being reversed. We need to step back from this precipice.
This is why it is critical not to forget the terrible human and environmental costs of nuclear weapons – costs which Kazakhstan still suffers every day. I was born 100 kilometers from the epicenter of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site where the Soviet Union exploded more than 600 nuclear devices between 1949 and 1991. My parents and thousands of others would watch those bright and vast mushroom clouds as they filled the sky. The tests have had terrible physical consequences for the people who lived near them.
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. My own mother didn’t see me for three days. When she did, she was in shock for a long time. She couldn’t even speak. But I wasn’t the only one. 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.
I witnessed families and whole communities decimated by radiation-related cancers. As the United Nations confirms, more than 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan have suffered the effects of Soviet nuclear weapons testing.
The most terrifying fact about this story is that we didn’t understand the impact these explosions would have. We were taken completely by surprise – and this, I believe, is why it is so important that we use every opportunity to remind the world of the dangers of nuclear testing and the horror of the weapons themselves.
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. 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 colors my inner world, calling on others to follow my cause. Today, I am an honorary ambassador of The ATOM Project, a global education and online petition campaign to encourage the global leadership needed to totally eliminate the nuclear threat. ATOM is an acronym from “Abolish Testing. Our Mission.”
My work with The ATOM Project has served as a constant reminder that Kazakhstan was not alone in its suffering. I have witnessed the tears falling from the eyes of mothers from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have participated in town hall meetings and protests at the Nevada test site in the United States. I have listened to the sad stories of the families of those who tested nuclear weapons for the British at Christmas Island. I have seen the fear in the eyes of parents across the world who are too ashamed to let others see their own children. I recognize that fear.
But over the last two decades we have seen progress. Even before Kazakhstan became a fully independent country, our leader, and now President, Nursultan Nazarbayev shut down the Semipalatinsk test site in 1991 in defiance of then Soviet government in Moscow. On independence, our country also voluntarily gave up the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal which we had inherited. Similar courageous decisions were taken by Ukraine, Belarus and South Africa who all renounced their nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons programs.
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. These countries must send a clear message to the world that nuclear weapons are part of our past, and have no place in our future. They must ensure that not one more person suffers from the consequences of nuclear testing and nuclear weapons use in the future.
I weep when I hear those calling for a return of nuclear weapons. I fear for our planet when I read news stories about countries re-building their nuclear arsenals. After all the horror, all the fear, and all the danger have we learnt nothing? How many more, like me, must suffer? I have a vision: to make sure that every single person around me knows what was concealed for decades – the consequences of developing nuclear weapons.
That is my 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. 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.
The author is the Honorary Ambassador of The ATOM Project.