“Wherever I have been, I always say with pride that I live in a country that was one of the first to give up nuclear weapons,” Kazakhstan’s famous painter and anti-nuclear activist Karipbek Kuyukov told EURACTIV in an interview.
Karipbek Kuyukov was born without arms, as one of the many victims of nuclear radiation in Kazakhstan. He paints holding the brush in his mouth. He has devoted his life and art to making sure that no one else suffers the devastating effects of nuclear weapons testing. Kuyukov is Honorary Ambassador to The ATOM Project.
He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
Tell us about your life. You were born close to Semipalatinsk, which was used by the Soviet Union to test nuclear weapons…
I was born in 1968 in the village of Yeghindybulak, which is a 100 kilometres from the former Semipalatinsk test site. Before my birth, my mother had children who did not live to their first year, there was a boy who lived only 6 months, then a girl was born who did not live up to 8 months.
And when, after them, I was born without arms, my mother suffered a shock, she could not come to me for three days, and the doctors seeing her condition, offered my father [that they kill me with] an injection so that there would be no problems either for the parents or the child …
As my father told me later, when he saw me for the first time, I was lying and looking at him, he made a decision thanks to which I am alive and was able to do a number of things in my life… He refused the injection and took me from the hospital …
In those years doctors were forbidden to make diagnoses, many crippled children were born, from the view of which midwives fainted… The parents of these children were embarrassed by them and tried to hide such children, if they continued to live then the fate of such children was severe, they did not study, did not go out even from the walls of their house… I often went to such families and saw everything that happened to them.
Many other people like you have been crippled by the radioactive exposure, but we cannot hear their voice. Do you feel as their representative? How many are they, what can you tell us about them?
In 1989, the anti-nuclear movement NEVADA-SEMIPALATINSK was inaugurated and was headed by our poet Olzhas Suleimenov, whose goal was the closure of the Semipalatinsk test site. I became an active participant in this movement. We organized peace marches, rallies, and tried to somehow draw the attention of the public to the problems of people who lived in those areas and are victims of nuclear testing … Since I can draw, I wanted to show it in my paintings .. We held charitable exhibitions of my works, at organizations and businesses, and were collecting for the sick children. I was trying to get any help, be it medicines, wheelchairs, clothes, food, holiday packages for children, I was in contact with 350 families with sick children, and these are only the children of my Yeghindybulak district.
I remember the case when we were with an exhibition in the US, I met with students at a school and after my story about the problems of sick children in my district, American children brought me two card boxes of medicines that they had at home, bandages etc. I was able to bring all this to Kazakhstan ..
In those years I was the chairman of the Union of victims of nuclear tests. Of course, the first task, after the closure of the Semipalatinsk test site, was the care of children, the collection of the relevant information, there were many eyewitnesses, and the military first opened the curtain of secrecy… But the second task was to cleanse the vast territory of land where all this was happening… The 1990s were hard for Kazakhstan, and when the military took out everything that was there, there was a picture of desolation, people were walking around the landfill and collecting remnants of military equipment and everything that the military threw, as the huge territory wasn’t even fenced… People were collecting metal, digging out copper cables, hoping to sell it to China. But when the dosimeters showed an excess of radiation standards, the prospective buyers returned this load back. My father and I were once in these landfills of military equipment. People bathed in the lakes that formed in the very centre of the explosion, as the land fell through and the groundwater flowed out… And all those who were there and who descended into the underground bunkers, because all this was left open, they all died, receiving a large dose radiation, and those who survived had oncological diseases and gave birth to sick children ..
I remember a family whose fate was tragic, the father of this family worked as a driver, together with my father, and when he had sick children, they had deformed heads, and it was hard to look at them, all his life he hoped that the next child would be born healthy, but this did not happen … In the end, he had 10 sick children who did not live to be 15 years old and died one by one… In the end, the father’s heart failed and he died as he was sitting outside his house…
The mother died soon after, having buried all her children, and so she could not recover after that, she died left alone in the house, on her bed… I tried to somehow help this family, first of all, I brought them some kind of help… I remember how they rejoiced when I brought them food, sweets… After seeing all this, I tried to devote my life to campaigning… If there is any meaning and result from my actions, while I have the strength, while there is an opportunity, and this year I will be 50 years old, I will try to be useful.
But the world is going in the opposite direction, don’t you think so?
Nowadays, when it is easy to create any weapon or to acquire it, there is a big challenge. We all remember the sad history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 40 years of nuclear weapons testing in Kazakhstan, and if earlier it caused fear, indignation, now there are countries that know this but still want to create and multiply nuclear weapons. They completely lost the feeling of compassion, the sense of fear, and they want to repeat the mistakes… A normal sane person draws conclusions and strives to ensure that mistakes do not happen again.
No matter how many laws are being adopted, no matter how many victims, humanity goes to self-destruction. God forbid this from happening, it would be a global catastrophe…
It seems to me that these are the ambitions of the heads of countries who ignore the interests of the people, that foment all this hatred, this desire to become stronger than everyone, to become higher than everyone, and this goes beyond all the limits of what is permitted. One state literally wipes out the whole people of another state from the face of the earth, taking advantage of the fact that this nation is smaller, that it has other principles, and this is often is based on religion, on skin colour, on the cut of the eyes. And as a result, those who suffer are innocent, normal peaceful citizens, women and children. There are people who blindly want to hate each other, they are ready to believe in any lie, completely forgetting about friendship, about honour, about mutual understanding… Greed, the ambition of being the master of everything, all this leads to the desire to have weapons … It’s not enough to talk about this, we must shout before it’s too late… You look at the real situation of the youth, children take weapons and kill each other.
Are you angry at the Soviets who operated Semipalatinsk? Or do you accept that under the circumstances of the Cold War, they had no other choice?
I have no anger at what was happening here in Kazakhstan, at the Semipalatinsk test site. This is our history, and even if there were errors that cost us dearly, we endured together both pain and suffering, and joy and victory. It was a different country, huge, multinational, and we solved problems together. Of course, when you observe from the outside, what the consequences of using such powerful nuclear weapons lead to, then there arises fear, there arises the question of how we are protected. But the threat must be prevented, instead of waiting until it has grown to a terrible scale…
I do not blame anyone for my fate, it’s my destiny, but I’ll try to do everything that such things do not happen again…
Kazakhstan made the bold decision of getting rid of its nuclear arsenal inherited from Soviet times, and so did Ukraine. But without the nuclear deterrent, Ukraine became an easy prey to Russia. How would you comment on that?
Wherever I have been, I always say with pride that I live in a country that was one of the first to give up nuclear weapons. Our president made the right decision by signing a decree to close one of the world’s largest nuclear test sites. This shows that my country is leading a peace-loving policy, and Kazakhstan has always been and is an international platform for resolving peace negotiations, and my life is devoted to this. And that is why we are in every way supporting potential opportunities to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula, for decreasing tensions and the risk of a conflict between the US and Russia, between these two largest nuclear powers over Syria. As well to prevent the onset of an even worse version of the Cold War, between the West and Russia. We are for peace. For the dialogue. For solving problems rather than their aggravation.
Kazakhstan and the government are doing everything that would not lead to the situation that is currently happening between Russia and Ukraine. Our relations, first of all, are a friendly mutual understanding, by striving to resolve any issues on mutually beneficial and non-antagonistic conditions. We will continue to generate a policy of good and peace, a world in which everyone will live comfortably, regardless of nationality or religious beliefs, and we urge everyone to do the same.
I have always said, my goal in this life, or maybe my mission, is to make sure that people like me are the last victims in the history of all nuclear tests. We can achieve the complete destruction of all weapons if we do it together.