Karipbek Kuyukov of Kazakhstan dedicates his life to ensuring that no one will ever again be afflicted by atomic bomb tests
By Linda Pentz Gunter
Karipbek Kuyukov, who will receive the 2018 Nuclear-Free Future Award for Education in October, likes to say: “I have no arms, but I join you in waving goodbye to nuclear weapons.”
Kuyukov was born in the small Kazakhstan village of Yegyndybulak, without arms, a result of his parents’ exposure to the Soviet atomic bomb tests. There were 456 of these in all, conducted between August 1949 and November 1989 at the Semipalatinsk test site — also known as The Polygon — just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Kuyukov’s family home.
Today, Kuyukov is his country’s foremost campaigner against any resumption of nuclear testing and also for justice for those afflicted by atomic tests, not only in Kazakhstan, but around the world. And he is also one of his country’s most well known contemporary artists.
“I think my mission on earth is to fight to become one of the last victims in the history of nuclear testing,” Kuyukov says in Andre Singer’s compelling film — Where the Wind Blew — about the tests in Kazakhstan and also in Nevada in the US. (The film is due to be available in the US via iTunes in the fall. You can view the trailer below.)
When Kuyukov first took up art, he said in a 2012 speech, he did not know why, “but my soul was striving toward creating something beautiful. I did this without arms, but with my feet, legs and mouth. I have become an artist, because an artist’s soul cannot be diminished by a physical limitation.”
Both Kuyukov and Kazakhstan president, Nursultan Ábishuly Nazarbayev, who made Kazakhstan the first nuclear weapons country in the world to abandon its nuclear arsenal, have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Years ago during the testing, my parents bore witness to those bright and vast mushroom clouds as they filled the sky. When I was born, I was born without arms, and it was a shock to my mother. Later, when I was old enough to understand, my father would tell me how he would drive along the steppe roads and would be stopped by military soldiers for trespassing on the forbidden territory — even though this was the shortest way from one place to another. My parents would climb on the hill to better see the nuclear mushrooms, although they were instructed to lie down on the ground and cover themselves.”
Thus, the atomic tests became a kind of deadly spectacle for the people left in the dark, even as they were almost blinded by the bright lights of the atomic blasts. “The people who lived in Semipalatinsk at the time came out of their homes during the explosions to watch them,” Kuyukov told the attendees as the Astana conference. “They didn’t even know about the health threats and devastating consequences of the crimes being committed against them. People were basically treated as guinea pigs.”
Photographer Phil Hatcher-Moore traveled to Kazakhstan to learn more about the legacy of the atomic tests and recorded his findings in a stunning photo essay — Nuclear Ghosts — featured in National Geographic. Hatcher-Moore also learned that more than 100,000 people are still affected today by on-going exposure to radioactive fallout, even though testing stopped almost 31 years ago. And he learned of the deliberate atrocities — the “guinea-pig” effect that Kuyukov refers to.
Hatcher-Moore wrote that during the 1950s, “one guy was packed up with his tent and told to live out in the hills for five days with his flock. He was effectively used as a test subject to see what happened.”