For nearly 70 years, the Doomsday Clock has shown how close our world is to global catastrophe. The news that on January 22 the clock’s timing has been pushed forward to three minutes before midnight – signaling the gravest threat to humanity since the Cold War – is a serious warning. It reflects the view of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists of the growing threat from nuclear proliferation and climate change to humanity.
For me and many of my fellow Kazakhs, this threat is not abstract but something we live with every day of our lives. I was born in the village of Yegyndybulak, just 100 kilometres from the Semipalatinsk test site where the Soviet Union carried out 456 nuclear tests over 40 years. Few precautions were taken to protect communities such as those where my parents lived from the radioactive fall-out. The result was terrible health problems and huge areas of contaminated land.
I was born without arms, one of many to suffer defects at birth. As an artist with so much to tell and show, I learnt to paint with my feet and mouth to depict my thoughts and feelings on a canvas. But it is also why I have pledged myself to campaign for a world without nuclear testing through the ATOM Project, an international initiative to raise awareness of the horrible impact of nuclear tests worldwide, with ATOM being an acronym for our motto “Abolish Testing. Our Mission.”
My campaigning has taken me to other countries where people have suffered from the consequences of nuclear tests or nuclear explosions. In Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl, for example, I have witnessed a similar pattern of devastation. All I have seen and heard has convinced me more than ever that nuclear weapons do not belong on our planet and must be eliminated with a ban on testing as a critical first step to this ambition.
That is why I believe the adjustment of the doomsday clock is a wake-up call to us all. In recent months, we have seen conflicts spring up or worsen all over the world. Russia and the West are once again on a collision course. This all sounds too familiar to me. It was the last Cold War which led to the development of ever more destructive nuclear weapons, to so many tests and their terrible impact.
I am proud to have been part of a grassroots movement which campaigned to stop nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. Fortunately we found strong support from our president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who made a historic decision to shut down the site back on August 29th, 1991.
This happened when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union. After securing independence, our country made the decision to give up the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal.
The modern history of my homeland also dispels the myth that a country needs to possess nuclear weapons to feel secure. Despite being without nuclear weapons, Kazakhstan has enjoyed stability and safety for more than two decades now. We were joined by Belarus, Ukraine, and South Africa who also chose to walk the path of nuclear non-proliferation. I plead with other countries to follow this example.
Today each of us can play a role in reversing time on the doomsday clock. We can participate in creating a peaceful world, where people no longer have to fear another nuclear disaster. On behalf of nuclear testing survivors in Kazakhstan and other countries and in memory of those who are no longer with us because of radiation-related diseases, I urge all heads of state to look beyond political games and national pride. It can be done.
It wasn’t my choice to be born without arms. I had no say in whether the Soviets used Kazakhstan as a nuclear test site. But I do have a voice with which to share my story and fight for a nuclear free world. Let us all pursue this goal. For the sake of our children. For the sake of our humanity.
The author is the Honorary Ambassador of The ATOM Project. This opinion first appeared in International Policy Digest.