For a generation, Toko and his extended family have grown tomatoes, apples and strawberries along the Mailuu Suu River in southern Kyrgyzstan. Their little plot was a form of insurance, looked upon as a reliable food source that could help feed the family and produce some income amid the post-Soviet era’s economic uncertainty.
But for the past year, an infernal legacy of the Soviet era has haunted Toko's household. A new sign across the muddy lane tells the story: it displays the fearsome international trefoil symbol for radioactivity and reads, "Keep Out!"
What was not too long ago a font of bounty has turned into a wellspring of misery for Toko's family. He and his children now suffer headaches and nausea, maladies caused by what they suspect to be contaminated produce.
In March 2008, officials from Kyrgyzstan's Emergencies Ministry began moving radioactive uranium waste from Soviet-era dumps -- located in poorly fortified ravines and along riverbeds downstream -- into the hills just above his home. "It gives us headaches; our eyes itch," Toko says as he gestures across the road. Now he grows his fruits and vegetables in water potentially contaminated by the radioactive materials.
A few kilometers downstream from Toko's house there are even more lethal radioactive deposits -- known as tailings. They line the river and surround the former industrial town of Mailuu Suu, now home to acres of derelict factory buildings. Not too long ago, the area was a desirable place to live. Closed to outsiders for security reasons, factory bosses kept shops well stocked and rewarded workers with exotic vacations.
But the town was closed to outsiders for a reason. It was a center of the Soviet uranium mining industry from 1948 to 1968. During those two decades, as much as 10,000 tons of yellowcake (U3O8), a refined form of uranium that can be used either to produce nuclear energy or atomic weapons, was produced in Mailuu Suu for Soviet weapons programs. The first Soviet atomic weapon was made from uranium mined at Mailuu Suu, say officials at Kyrgyzstan's National Academy of Science. Communist central planners tended to care about results, not the potential consequences of their decisions. Thus little thought was given to the disposal of radioactive waste. Approximately 2 million cubic meters of uranium tailings were buried in the area, according to Kyrgyz government statistics. It is the largest such site in the country. In addition to the 23 tailings dumps, workers sprinkled almost a million cubic meters of uranium waste rock atop 13 dumps nearby, on land still exposed to the rain and annual mudslides.
Many of the tailing sites and waste rock dumps are now poorly marked. Sheep graze on them. Water drains through the radioactive material and downstream into Uzbekistan and the Syr Darya, which winds its way through Central Asia's most densely populated areas.
Mailuu Suu residents complain of goiter, anemia, cancer and early death. Radiation in some areas is 30 times normal levels. Former Mailuu Suu mayor Bumairam Mamaseitova, currently an MP in Bishkek with the opposition Communist Party, says rates of cancer in Mailuu Suu are the highest in Kyrgyzstan. "All of the diseases are related to those uranium tailings in the area." For her, it is a personal issue. "This issue of uranium tailings worries me a lot because my father died when he was only 52 years old. He used to work in the uranium mines. I was born and have lived in Mailuu Suu. Most of my relatives died in their 50s."
Dumps there are thought to be the most dangerous in Kyrgyzstan, due to the valley's higher-than-average seismic activity. Since 2004, with World Bank aid, the Emergencies Ministry has begun reinforcing tailings sites against flooding and landslides. Workers have begun moving waste rock and preparing old sites near Toko's home to receive tailings. But the project has caused concerns amongst residents like Toko and his neighbors, who say radioactive dust is being sent into the air and that disturbing the sites is only causing more problems. Observers, who fear moving tailings will bring some of the heaviest and most dangerous elements to the surface, assert the government is trying to skimp on expenditures by not moving the waste to uninhabited areas.
"Why did they have to carry it over here among people? Instead it was over there with no people around it, now it is right in the middle of where people live," Toko said. He went on to complain that officials had not provided any advance notice or health education.
Government officials acknowledge that conditions in Mailuu Suu require urgent action. Anarkul Aitaliev, deputy head of the Emergencies Ministry department working with tailings, described the clean-up challenge as a slow, almost impossible, process. But he insists the government is doing what it can to publicize the dangers to the local population. "After the collapse of the Soviet Union, [the tailings] were left without any care. Our main goal is to reinforce the tailings and keep people from dangers they can cause."
In addition to tackling the tailings, the Emergencies Ministry says it is trying to address the problem of water contamination. In town, "we checked 49 samples of river water and 46 showed that it is very harmful," Mamaseitova said. "Most of the tailings are situated along the river. We have warned the locals that they shouldn't use the water even for watering the fields." Still, in an indication that communications among authorities and residents aren't what they should be, locals insist that the government has conducted no public awareness activities. Some even allege that local officials have misled residents.
"When the authorities decided to carry this stuff here, they said it was only litter. They said it smelled because it was lying in one place for a long time," says Toko. Local officials told him there was no danger. "We asked them for paper saying it is not harmful for our health, but nobody could give us that paper and they left. They said doctors will come to check us, but nobody came."
A lack of knowledge has bred a catalogue of pseudo-health mythology in the district. Some believe locals cannot leave, that their bodies have grown addicted to the radiation. "All the people who leave ... at the most they live about six months and die," said Gulya, a local small-business owner, repeating one of the more commonly accepted myths that are in circulation.
While many residents wonder about the long-term health consequences of living in Mailuu Suu, most seem preoccupied with ongoing economic hardship. Commenting on the death of the mining industry that once made Mailuu Suu prosperous, Gulya says: "It's a shame what's happened. You know what this town used to be like."
David Trilling is the Central Asia Coordinator for EurasiaNet.