Serik Taubayev holds his hand up before his eyes.
"It's like looking through water," he says. "I can't even see your face."Serik is one of Chernobyl's forgotten victims - just one of the tens of thousands of men known as "liquidators" who were dispatched from all over the USSR in 1986 and 1987 to clean up the radioactive mess after the explosion at the nuclear power station 10 years ago.
While international attention has focused on areas contaminated by radioactivity in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, those who returned to their homes in remoter parts of the Soviet Union have vanished from the world's view.
Many of the 200,000 liquidators were sent by the Soviet authorities from the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, now independent. The Chernobyl Union of Kazakhstan, the only organization in the republic that represents them, has compiled a list of 27,000 former liquidators living in the republic.
Most received large doses of radiation during their unasked for Chernobyl adventure. For most, the past decade has been one of chronic health problems and the lingering fear of death.
Kazakhatan's liquidators get little sympathy and less help these days, says Bulat Razdikov, a former liquidator who is head of the Chernobyl Union.
"From the local authorities to the central government, nobody is interested," he says. "They say we live in an independent country. Chernobyl is not our problem. We have problems of our own."
Serik, then 28 years old, was sent to Chernobyl in October 1986 with a group from Kyzyl-Urda, a remote oasis town in the Aral Sea region in the heart of the Kazakh steppe. He spent 22 days in Chernobyl, during which he was one of those sent in relays onto the highly radioactive reactor roof to clear away debris from the explosion.
"The soldiers told as to work only three minutes on the roof and not to ask questions," he says. "I went more than 10 times on to the roof. We were told nothing about the danger or about radiation."
Like most liquidators, Serik began to suffer health problems after returning home.
"In 1987 I began to feel weak," he said. "I was often dizzy and walked like a drunk. I began to see a sort of metallic rain before my eyes." His vision deteriorated and, despite having a cataract removed and a second eye operation in Moscow, he now sees things only vaguely, "like in a mist."
He has been told that further treatment is available only in the West, but it is unthinkably expensive for a man surviving on an invalid's pension of around $6O a month.
"My only hope is if I can find a Kazakh brother to help me get treatment abroad," he says. "I want to see properly so much. I dream about reading."
Of some 450 liquidators sent from Kyzyl-Urda, says Setik, 18 have died and 130 are registered as invalids and unable to work. Between 60 percent and 70 percent of former liquidators in Kazakhstan need medical help and 2,000 of the republic's liquidators have died over the past 10 years from heart attacks or other ailments.
Typically the liquidators suffer from chronic weakness and from repeated ailments of one sort or another. Problems of the stomach, thyroid, and nervous system are most common, but often a minor problem will develop into something more serious, since radiation exposure seems to have damaged the body's immune system.
"Our illnesses start at our heads and go to our toes," exclaims Anatoli Petrov, from eastern Kazakhstan near the Chinese border. "The government has given us the right to free medicines but nobody can get them because the state pharmacies are empty now."
Sixty beds are reserved for liquidators at Kazakhstan's main veterans hospital in Almaty, the only place in the republic where they can get special treatment. Those who can afford it come for a week or two, pacing the halls with tired eyes and pale complexions. It is usually difficult to say whether a particular symptom is the result of radiation exposure.
Some doctors suggest that the worst effects of Chernobyl have been psychological rather than physical, with "radiophobia" leading people to attribute any ailment to radiation exposure. "But you cannot call all this radiophobia," says Dr. Aitmaganbetov. "Many men developed the same illnesses after returning and we never had such an incidence of nervous disorders, of impotence and of young men with so many illnesses before Chernobyl."
Many liquidators' wives have given up hope and left them.
"It was a crime of the Soviet government to send young men there without explanation," says Dr. Aitmaganbetov. "When they went, we shouted "hurrah"' and said they must help their country, but now they remain alone.'
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)