By age 7, Zhenis Sadykov knew what happens when an atomic bomb is dropped.
Once every three months, sometimes more often, his teacher ordered him and his classmates to leave the schoolroom, run into the steppe, lie face down on the ground, and wait for a plane to drop its bomb at the Soviet Union's Semipalatinsk nuclear test site 40 miles away."Who would really lie down?" asks Sadykov, now 51. "We were kids. Everyone wanted to look, watch the plane, and see the mushroom."
The memory of the mushroom cloud remains vivid for Sadykov and his family because its effects continue to haunt them. Almost 45 years later, Sadykov and his four brothers and three sisters all suffer from varying degrees of stomach cancer.
Sadykov, the oldest, had three-fourths of his stomach removed in November. His father died at age 49 from stomach cancer, and his own three children have also started to have stomach problems.
According to the National Nuclear Center, 470 nuclear tests were conducted between 1949 and 1989 at Semipalatinsk, on the steppes of northern Kazakstan in what was then the Soviet Union. Eighty of the tests were in the air, 30 above ground and the remaining 360 underground.
The power of those explosions taken together was about 2 megatons, says the center's deputy director general, Kairat Kadyrzhanov. The first test, in 1949, had the force equivalent to 22 kilotons of TNT, and the last one, in 1989, of 75 kilotons.
By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped Aug. 6, 1945, on Hiroshima, Japan, had an explosive force of 13 kilotons,
After numerous protests by environmentalists, the test site was finally closed in August 1991 by President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The National Nuclear Center still has not determined what parts of the 7,231-square-mile site can be opened for farming and cattle-breeding.
Radiation continues to seep up from unsealed tunnels and from underground cables that people dig up to sell. Aman Mustafin, former director of the international anti-nuclear movement Nevada-Semipalatinsk, said the site is so big the government dropped limited efforts to guard it.
The government says the radiation is taking an increasing toll on the Central Asian country's people.
"When we spoke to people at the site, almost all families had one, two or three malformed children," says Aman Mustafin, former director of the international anti-nuclear movement Nevada-Semipalatinsk.
Kazakstan's Health Ministry wrote Nevada-Semipalatinsk in November saying the number of children born with birth defects between 1977 and 1993 in the four regions affected by nuclear tests increased from 136 to 210 per 1,000 live births.
The number of cancers has also been on the rise in those regions, the ministry says. Most frequent are lung, stomach and skin cancers, as well as blood diseases, authorities say.
The government estimates that around 500,000 people who lived in and around Semipalatinsk over those 40 years were exposed to radiation. Nevada-Semipalatinsk believes the number to be much higher, possibly up to 1.5 million.
Most of the population in the rural area was ethnic Kazak, Mustafin says. Kazakstan's large ethnic Russian population lived mainly in the cities.
"No one told us about what was going on. No one told us about the danger," says Gulsaure Irgalieva, a former Semipalatinsk resident who is now a specialist at the Ministry for Social Protection in Kazakstan's capital, Almaty.
In December 1992, the government ordered that all radiation victims receive a one-time compensation based on how close they lived to Semipalatinsk and for how long.
The payment can range from 25 percent to five times the minimum monthly wage - currently 320 tenge, or about $5 - for each year lived on or near the test site.
But the government lacks money, and has paid only 2.8 million tenge (dlrs 43,000) of the 3.8 billion (dlrs 58.5 million) tenge that was to have been paid out to those who lived in the maximum-risk area, says Irgalieva.
Sadykov says he has not received any money, although he is registered as a radiation victim.
After living in Almaty for the past three years, Sadykov, a doctor, says he is thinking seriously about accepting a job at a hospital in Semipalatinsk.
"I understand it's dangerous to return, but I feel homesick," Sadykov says. "How much longer I will live, only God knows."