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Feature Story October 8, 2007
 
Inside the Zone
50 YEARS AFTER THE WORLD'S FIRST MAJOR NUCLEAR ACCIDENT, RADIATION IS STILL LEAKING INTO THE SOUTHERN URALS — AND BEYOND By Alexander Zaitchik Browse author Email
 
Page 4 of 8
 

The government does not deny the danger. Starting in the early 50s, it forbade swimming, fishing, and grazing in or around the Techa. But its attempts to enforce these restrictions have always been limp, limited to erecting barbed wire along populated stretches of the river and hiring a single police officer to patrol its banks.

Despite these feeble state attempts to keep people from using the river, up to 15 percent of village children still swim in the Techa during summer, and many of Muslyumovo's poor residents continue to eat its fish. Cows and goats still freely graze on the river's radioactive banks.

In a compromise offer to those agitating for resettlement of the village, the state last year offered residents along the river bank a deal: They could receive one million rubles ($33,000) or a new house in a settlement on the other side of town, to be christened Novy Muslyumovo. The offer does not vary depending on how many families live in the house, or its size.

Despite the village's 80 percent unemployment rate, the construction company contracted to build the houses is using Central Asian migrant labor. Adding injury to insult, the new settlement is sandwiched between the village graveyard and a brownfield where old pipes are shipped in, burned and scraped, and shipped back out for reuse somewhere else. On windless days when the pipe-cleaning is in progress, a blanket of smoke hovers over what is to be Novy Muslyumovo. Most worrying to locals, the new settlement is not located outside the trace zone. Residents in the new homes will face many of the same dangers as they did before. Their animals will graze on the same grass, their children swim in the same river.

One Muslyumovo resident who accepted the million rubles and left town was Mila Kabirova. Born and raised in Muslyumovo, Kabirova now lives in a one-room flat in Chelyabinsk, where she works in a small shop. In her free time she petitions the government and organizes the locals under the banner of Aigul ("crescent flower" in Tatar), an NGO she founded to fight for evacuation and medical assistance. Kabirova's childhood home was recently reduced to a rubble heap on Karl Marx Street, which runs parallel to the Techa, the morbid and slowly flowing motif that has dominated her life.

Kabira was the youngest of seven children. Her father had the futile job of keeping children (including his own) out of the river. When he died of leukemia in 1962, Kabirova's mother was forced to take a job as a collector of soil, water, and mud samples along the river. Although she didn't know it for years, her employer was actually a Mayak-run laboratory using a Chelyabinsk institute as a front. Mila and her brothers and sisters would often help their mother collect the samples, which they stored under their beds and in the kitchen. Today, all but one of Kabirova's six siblings are dead: two by cancer, three by illnesses associated with chronic radiation sickness. Kabirova herself is frequently ill, has achy bones, and is sterile.

"I am more and more convinced that they kept us here as part of a medical experiment," says Kabirova. "Otherwise why not evacuate us like the others. And why do they still monitor us so closely? Even now, they could have moved the [riverbank families] to a clean area, but they are just moving them down the street, to live with the same water supply and the same dangers. They want people here, that's clear. There's even an economic incentive to stay."

The incentive comes in the form of a 200 rubles a month ($8) credit that Muslyumovo residents receive for living in a "polluted zone".

Kabirova isn't alone in her conviction the state is using her village for research. According to a 2002 survey conducted by Greenpeace Russia, 62 per cent of residents think they are guinea pigs of the state; three-quarters of the population say Mayak representatives, including its doctors, are not to be trusted.


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Zaitchik
Browse author
Alexander Zaitchik is an editor at The eXile. Email him at zaitchik@gmail.com
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