In the online event on nuclear weapons testing, Aigerim Seitenova, Benetick Kabua Maddison and Emad Kiyaei shared their expertise and experiences. Discussions covered different aspectsand focused on different regions: Kazakhstan, the Marshall Islands, and Algeria.
Aigerim Seitenova (activist, 3rd generation nuclear weapons survivor)
The history of nuclear weapons testing in Kazakhstan:
Aigerim’s story begins in the late 1940s when the leadership of the USSR authorized nuclear weapons testing in Kazakhstan. The location was chosen, unsurprisingly, far from Moscow and the people responsible. Who would want to conduct nuclear weapons tests in their own neighborhood? But the decision was also made pragmatically, because Kazakhstan had a developed railroad line, perfect, in other words, for transporting the necessary material for the tests. But the claim that there were no people affected by the nuclear weapons tests there, is a lie. Aigerim’s grandmother was a child at the time. She often told her about playing outside with her friends that one rainy day. On this day, playing had been particularly exciting, because the puddle had been quite greenish, quite miraculous. Why this puddle in which the children were playing was green, they did not understand, of course, and the parents were also left in the dark about the cause by the responsible government. The protection of the population did not play a major role for the government, especially during the first tests. The windows were shaking and it was clear to everyone that something must have happened. Nobody knew what happened exactly.
Consequences of the nuclear weapons tests:
The tests were conducted in the Semei (formerly Semipalatinsk) area. The first weapons were tested there on August 29, 1949. The test site itself included an area of about 18000 km². In Kazakhstan, the USSR conducted over 400 nuclear weapons tests. People suffer from the tests’ consequences until today. The civilian population did not know what was happening and was not prepared for it. In the 1950s and 1960s, the tests led to an increased rate of cancer in the affected region and there were more physical changes in newborns. In addition, especially in remote areas, access to health care is often limited and expensive. Health consequences are often indirect and sometimes invisible.
In nature, however, the consequences of nuclear weapons tests are anything but invisible. Satellite images of the old test site show very clearly where the tests were conducted. Until today. And animals, of course, also suffered from the consequences, and for the population this also showed dramatic side effects, because they were financially dependent on farm animals. Aigerim and their generation are officially no longer counted as victims, but the damage of the tests is intergenerational.
Opacity and imperialism:
At first, many people did not understand what was happening. But soon a movement formed demanding answers from the USSR leadership. Again, lack of transparency is a major problem: many USSR government investigation results and records of the tests and their consequences are still in Russia, and the government refuses to release them. The history of nuclear weapons testing is also a history of power and repression in the case of Kazakhstan, and this continues to the present. Today, there are various affected people’s organizations around the world that networked with each other early on, even before the advent of the Internet.
Listening tip: To give a platform to the voices of those affected, Aigerim has started a podcast series called „Nuclear Collateral Damage: Conversations with Survivors and Experts„. For this, she spoke with many activists from different countries, among others.
Benetick Kabua Maddison (Executive Director of MEI)
The background of nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands:
The Marshall Islands in the north-central Pacific Ocean are a group of islands, parts of which have been used by the United States as a nuclear weapons test site. After changing colonial claims, beginning with Germany, the U.S. claimed dominion over the archipelago and saw it as legitimate to test there. The decision was made by President Truman and enforced by the US Navy. The missionary work carried out previously, mainly by the German occupation, was used as arguments for the resettlement of the inhabitants.
The Marshall Islands were severely affected in the years between 1946 and 1962 due to 67 nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States. As a result, some island groups are now uninhabitable, and the ecological effects of these tests are still being felt. The decision to conduct the tests was not made by the U.S. alone, but was approved by the UN in 1947.
Impact of the tests:
The inhabitants of Bikini Atoll were forced to leave their homes at that time in the hope that they would one day be able to return. They were told that this was God’s will, when in fact U.S. political and military decisions caused the decision. The atomic bomb test series code-named „Castle Bravo“, carried out in 1954, alone had 1,000 times the power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. It was the largest above-ground nuclear explosion carried out by the United States. This fact provides a frightening glimpse of the massive impact on the people living in the Marshall Islands and their environment. The people there were not prepared, they were not educated: the ashes from the nuclear bomb landed on children playing with the snow they thought the ashes were. As a result of the tests, damage to health occurred and continues to occur today. These include increased cancer rates and physical changes in newborns.
This tragic story not only illustrates the irresponsible and reckless treatment of the local population and their habitat by the USA. It also demonstrates the devastating consequences of nuclear weapons testing and the need for international efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament and protect vulnerable regions worldwide.
Emad Kiyaei (Director of METO)
Nuclear Weapons and the MENA Region:
Nuclear weapons are one of three highly dangerous weapons of mass destruction, along with biological and chemical weapons. In the history of the MENA region, they all have a sad past and presence. Nuclear weapons are mostly associated with Israel and Iran in terms of the MENA region today. Not many people are aware that France conducted nuclear weapons tests in Algeria in the 1960s. This was an expression of colonialism that continued even after Algeria gained independence in 1962, as the French government used its power to continue to conduct underground nuclear weapons tests in Algeria in subsequent years. To this day, the French government refuses to accept any responsibility for the consequences of its actions. The nuclear weapons activities, which must be declared a crime, were simply swept under the carpet. The people affected did not receive sufficient information and there was no education about the risks and dangers associated with the nuclear weapons tests. The effects on the local population as well as the environment were devastating. They continue to be felt, as no comprehensive decontamination of the affected region has been carried out to date.
It is shocking that more than 60 years after the French nuclear weapons tests in Algeria, the victims and their descendants are still waiting for an apology, recognition of the crimes and compensation from the French. France must show a sense of responsibility.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) explicitly includes victims and survivors of nuclear weapons testing in the treaty. Article 6 regulates „victim assistance and environmental remediation“. If there is a treaty in the MENA region that creates a WMD-free region, a similar article could be included, to compensate survivors in Algeria. The problem, however, is how to establish real accountability for the consequences of nuclear weapons testing if the nuclear weapons states do not join such a progressive treaty as the TPNW.
Raise awareness of what happened back then:
The discussion comes to the question of whether there is an awareness of the consequences and survivors of nuclear weapons testing in society, both in Algeria and in France. In Algeria, it seems that there is now a growing awareness of this crime committed by the French government and there are organizations and individuals who work very effectively to establish justice and accountability. In France, on the other hand, there seems to be little awareness. But a few independent researchers are trying to increase this awareness and show solidarity with the victims and survivors in Algeria. A major problem with these efforts, however, is that there is limited information about what happened back then. Establishing transparency is therefore an important building block on the road to justice, but it is an uphill task given the French government’s resolute lack of transparency.
Solidarity and cooperation:
Nine states possess nuclear weapons, holding the world hostage. Two aspects become particularly clear in the discussion: first, in order to establish accountability for nuclear weapons testing, it is important to bring together all the resources available worldwide and to show international solidarity with the survivors. And second:
Hearing the voices of those affected by and survivors of nuclear weapons testing is not only important, but must be at the core of all efforts to address the threat of this weapon of mass destruction.
In concluding statements, the three speakers each expressed their motivations and wishes for the future. Emad emphasizes that the stories of survivors are similar around the world and that a collective, strong voice is more influential. He emphasizes the interplay of injustice and power in the nuclear weapons discourse and argues for a common pursuit of justice. Benetick emphasizes the importance of storytelling. The importance of telling about what is happening, especially with people. Many people, he says, are not aware of the problems of those affected, especially those in the Marshall Islands, including those in charge from the United States. Aigerim explains that getting involved in different communities and networking with each other in the affected context can be healing. Obtaining justice can be traumatic. That’s why creating safe spaces is important, as is the process of reflecting on what happened.
Their appeals to the federal government are:
- end nuclear sharing;
- raise awareness among the German public about the impact of the nuclear weapons industry;
- honor the agreements of the Declaration on Feminist Foreign Policy;
- take an observer role of the meeting of states on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons;
- listen to and support (including financially) those affected.
The work of Emad Kiyaei, Benetick Kabua Maddison, Aigerim Seitenova and many others is so valuable, creating awareness and education for crimes that have long been forgotten or suppressed in the minds of many.
Again, a big thank you to all those who were part of the event.
Written by Hubertus Sonntag, Mara Marx, Anila Fischer, Paula Bonara and Janina Rüther