SARYZHAL, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - As Russia warns of the rising risk of nuclear war, and relations with the United States sink into a deep freeze, communities close to the vast Soviet-era nuclear testing site in northern Kazakhstan have a message for leaders: "Let us be a lesson."
Hundreds of tests were carried out between 1949 and 1989 on the barren steppe near the city of Semey, formerly known as Semipalatinsk, close to the Kazakh-Russian border. The effect of radiation had a devastating impact on the environment and local people's health, and continues to affect lives there today.
Many nuclear proliferation experts believe resuming testing by either nuclear superpower more than 30 years after the last test is unlikely soon.
But tensions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine have led to increasingly hostile rhetoric, and the arms control architecture built since the Soviet Union's collapse more than three decades ago has begun to unravel.
In early November, President Vladimir Putin revoked Russia's ratification of the 1996 global treaty banning nuclear weapons tests. Moscow says it will not lead to a resumption of testing unless the United States does first.
"Let our suffering be a lesson to others," said Serikbay Ybyrai, local leader in the village of Saryzhal, who saw tests being carried out some 20 km (12 miles) away when he was a boy. "If this (testing) resumes, humanity will disappear."
When devices were detonated above ground - until 1963 when tests went underground - authorities would order local people out of homes and schools because of fears that ground tremors might cause buildings to collapse.
"I remember I was about five years old," said Baglan Gabullin, a resident of Kaynar, another village that lived under the shadow of nuclear testing.
He recalled how adults would instruct him and his friends not to look in the direction of the blast.
"We were small, so on the contrary, out of curiosity we looked. The flash was yellow at first, and then the black mushroom grew," he said.
Kazakh authorities estimate up to 1.5 million people were exposed to residual radioactive fallout from testing. Over 1 million received certificates confirming their status as victims of tests, making them eligible for an 18,000-tenge ($40) monthly payout.
'EVERYONE STARTED DYING'
Maira Abenova, an activist from the Semey region who set up a non-governmental organisation protecting the rights of nuclear test victims after losing most family members to diseases she said were related, urged politicians not to allow nuclear escalation.
"As someone living with the consequences of what you could call 40 years of nuclear warfare, I think we can tell the world what we have gone through," she said.
There is little reliable data on the specific health impact of testing in Kazakhstan.
But scientists say exposure to radioactive material on the ground, inhalation of radioactive particles in the air and ingestion of contaminated food including local livestock contributed to increased cancer risk and cases of congenital malformation.
In Saryzhal, a village of around 2,000 people living in small white-painted homes surrounded by blue wooden fences, Gulsum Mukanova recalls how she and other children would watch above-ground explosions, known as atmospheric tests.
"We were children, everything was interesting to us," she said. "We would stare at those mushrooms.
"My father died at the age of 58; then my elder brother died, then my sister," added Mukanova, who is in her mid-60s. "Everyone started dying."
Gabullin, speaking near a small monument to victims of nuclear tests erected in Kaynar, also said losses were common.
"There were about 300 tractor drivers who worked with me ... now only two or three are alive. All died of cancer and leukaemia," he said. "Even the schoolchildren who worked for me then, now they are 50-53 years old, they are already dying."
Neither he nor Mukanova provided evidence linking disease and premature deaths to the testing.
While villages such as Kaynar and Saryzhal were exposed to direct radiation, steppe winds carried nuclear fallout across an area the size of Italy.
Much of the territory, pockmarked with lakes resulting from blast craters, is still considered too contaminated to inhabit or cultivate.
CONTAMINATION LASTS FOR GENERATIONS
About 450 tests were carried out there, more than 100 of them atmospheric tests and the rest underground. The latter were used after a 1963 treaty went into force banning nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in space or underwater, and are considered less harmful.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Moscow no longer had access to the Kazakh site. Its main equivalent today is in Novaya Zemlya, an active military site on an Arctic archipelago in Russia's far north.
Nuclear experts said that any testing today would likely be underground, which carries environmental and health risks.
"Underground testing can also have severe consequences," said Alicia Sanders-Zakre of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
"Radioactive particles can vent into the air, and there is also the potential for contamination of groundwater," she told Reuters, adding that Russia's position was that it did not intend to test at this time.
"What's so dangerous about radioactive contamination is that it lasts for generations."
($1 = 459.0000 tenge)
(Additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty and Gloria Dickie in London; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Timothy Heritage)