A Terrible Waste

It began with soldiers mysteriously falling ill during training. Then containers of nuclear materials started to turn up in city flats and disused trains....

Fellows Fall 1998

By David Case

June 07, 2009

Republic of Georgia - Fall, 1998 SERGO KAKUSHADZE slams down the phone and pushes back his metal office chair. Grabbing his crumpled trenchcoat and draping it over his lanky pinstriped frame, he propels himself through the Ministry of Environment door and down the hallway. The clatter of his wing tips on the tiles is drowned out by televisions blaring from offices, in which languid workers warm themselves beside space heaters while they worry about whether the government will have enough money for their next pay packets.

Kakushadze descends the six dusty flights two steps at a time. Emerging into the cold Georgian drizzle, he slams the door of his double-parked Volga sedan, and jimmies the car into traffic. He's off to investigate a radioactive device in someone's flat on the 12th floor of a Tbilisi highrise. A resident has innocently been using the device as a dumbbell for the past three years. He called the authorities when his neighbour became suspicious, and a preliminary investigation team reported that the alarm sounded on their radiation detector as soon as they entered the flat.

This type of incident is routine for Kakushadze, the operational head of a special team set up by Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia's president, to find and dispose of nuclear scraps that have been turning up around the country. "The Soviet soldiers left us a lot of presents," states Kakushadze drily. It will be years before officials know just how many such presents were left, and what toll they're taking on 5.5 million Georgians.

Four of the Georgian conscripts afflicted by radiation sickness. On the far left is Goderdzi Chakhunashvili; next to him is Pavle Eliauri.

While Georgia rarely made headlines in the West during the Cold War, like East Germany it garnered considerable attention from Soviet generals. Not only did it host warmwater ports on the Black Sea, but its mountainous terrain (it was the site of a crucial victory for the Tsar against the Ottomans during the First World War) buttressed the empire against Turkey, Nato's eastern flank.

And with its fierce Georgian nationalism, its volatile mountain minorities in the north Caucasus and its location on a fault line between the Christian and Muslim world's it's no wonder that the region was considered a powder keg. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, troops manned over 300 military installations in the tiny republic, though few knew this: discussing it was tantamount to treason.

Not until 1997, when Georgian soldiers training at one of these bases contracted radiation disease, were government officials confronted with the prospect of an environmental scourge in that vast military infrastructure. Since then, their worst fears have been confirmed. Kakushadze's team has so far inspected 60 installations, all of which are contaminated. According to the Ministry of Environment, three have extremely dangerous levels of radiation.

The problem, they would soon discover, did not stop there. Not long after the soldiers fell ill, two people rummaging through an abandoned railway carriage died when they unwittingly opened a container of nuclear debris. This time the victims were civilians, and the setting was urban Kutaisi, Georgia's second largest city. When officials realised that the threat went beyond the bases, they launched a public awareness campaign.

Soon civilains across Georgia, like the weightlifter, were calling in about suspicious objects. Recently, Georgian newspapers reported that children had found six empty containers contaminated with radiation. Officials suspect that they had held capsules of caesium-137 - a highly toxic isotope with a half-life of 33 years. The press has counted 28 such episodes; more are inevitable.

An official at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna confides that at least eight potentially lethal scraps of strontium - used by the Soviets to power mobile generators on construction sites - seem to be missing. "This" says the official, "could pose a very serious problem."

"I suspected that we had a problem several years ago," says Kakushadze. "I tried to get funding from abroad to look into it, but didn't find any interest." To date, Georgia has received only paltry assistance, in the form of equipment and training from the IAEA. US State Department officials disregard the problem, concentrating in- stead on the regional trafficking of weapons-grade materials. (Nearly all of these incidents have involved substances that, while hazardous, cannot be used to build nuclear explosives.)

To make matters worse, Georgia is in a state of complete economic collapse. In the past, the country was relatively prosperous; its carefree culture, scenic coastline and good skiing conditions attracted vacationing apparatchik. But the fall of the Soviet Union unleashed a plague of nationalism and separatism that for several years plunged the country into chaos. While peace has largely returned, corruption is rampant and unemployment so high that people who haven't been paid for months still show up for work to avoid losing their jobs. Worst of all, with the government hundreds of millions of pounds in arrears to its energy suppliers, public services like electricity and water are rare in the capital and almost nonexistent elsewhere.

While the country lacks resources for a systematic search and clean-up operation, in Kakushadze it has a patriotic and remarkably industrious physicist, who appears determined to save the country from the dangerous detritus almost single-handedly. As the rest of Georgia grinds to a halt, Kakushadze works with patience and fervour. In the post Soviet shambles of a region known for its tubercular prisons, ruthless mobsters and vodka-pickled politicians, he seems inexplicably civic-minded. He handles the most dangerous jobs himself, and is paid less than £25 a month.

At the Ministry of Environment, we watch a videotape showing one of his more heroic adventures. The mission in Svaneti, an unruly mountainous territory near the Russian border, appears crudely executed and largely improvised, with a blatant disregard for safety. "If we were to try to do things as they're done in western Europe, they wouldn't get done, "Kakushadze says.

Dressed in white overalls, he clambers several hundred feet down a steep, rocky embankment to the bottom of a river gorge, where two highly toxic cylinders of strontium await him. The Soviets, it is surmised, used these to power generators while constructing a dam upstream.

The plan is to lift each cylinder, using 5ft-long metal tongs, into custom-made lead containers. The first drops in with ease, and within an hour Kakushadze has attached it to a rope, and it is winched precariously out of the gorge. But the second, which has lost its casing, rendering contact potentially lethal, puts up a fight. Every time Kakushadze manages to position the cylinder on to the container it spins in its hole but refuses to drop in. Dusk is falling. Frustrated, Kakushadze grabs a thick branch and starts bashing at the cylinder. With each blow, it jumps precariously, then lies stubbornly inert, jutting from the vessel's mouth. The radiation is so strong that the videotape sizzles with static. At last, Kakushadze accepts that the container will not accommodate its cargo. The deadly detritus must be left by the riverside until the container can be altered and a new mission financed.

ARRIVING at the high-rise, a dull but neatly kept building with a freshly clipped lawn, we wait in a light drizzle until another Volga pulls up. Two swarthy agents from Ministry of State Security (still commonly known by its Russian acronym, KGB) get out. We're fortunate enough to have arrived at the building during a rare burst of electrical supply. After briefly debating whether to brave getting stuck in the lift, we accede, daunted by the 12 flights. Moments later we find ourselves in a dusty corridor. Outside a vacant flat is the device in question: a steel cylinder, slightly larger than a beer can, with three U-shaped handles. The weightlifter, who is at home, moved it out of his flat after the preliminary inspection team's visit. Kakushadze, another physicist and a KGB officer squat down, turn on their spectrometers and begin their approach. For half an hour, they work in anxious silence, mumbling figures and flicking switches, a routine that's now familiar to them.

"Of course the job's dangerous," Kakushadze says, when pressed. Aged 33, he has a wife and two young children. "And no, I don't get paid a livable salary, I'm not doing this for the money. I do it because it's my job. I do it for my country, for the sake of future generations, for the soldiers who are now serving at the bases, and because it's right. We have to do it, or nobody would. I don't regret it."

The investigation determines that the cylinder contains caesium-137. Fortunately, its toxicity is diminished by the casing. Based on the levels detected, US scientists later tell me that for each five hours of close contact - whether working out, using it as a stool, or simply sitting nearby the weightlifter has received roughly the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's maximum annual safe dosage, drastically increasing his risk of developing cancer.

While the team works, the KGB agents question a neighbour. The weightlifter found the object in rubble nearby. The neighbour says that Russian soldiers lived in the area. None the less, the KGB agents remained indignant that such a device had ended up in a residential area.

As we prepare to leave, an argument erupts. The neighbour insists that the team remove the device immediately, but the appropriate tools and container are needed. Kakushadze reassures him. When calm returns, they stand silently for a moment, the KGB agents, the physicists, the officer and the neighbour - staring out at the grey cityscape. The relentlessly uniform buildings are stark in the dusk, like a crumbling, oversized Marxist graveyard. There's no telling where the next bit of Cold War shrapnel will turn up, nor who will be its victim.

IN A HOSPITAL across town, Goderdzi Chakhunashvili shivers with pain. He is waiting for a series of operations that will remove a thumb, two fingers and most of his right hand. Chakhunashvili, a boyish 23-year-old with sandy brown hair, is one of the dozen or so conscripted soldiers from the Lilo bas, 30 minutes drive from Tbilisi, who were the first known victims of the scourge. Dressed in a green and blue Adidas tracksuit, he sits with his doctor, Suliko Kosiashvili, on a rusty iron cot in a dank ward.

"He will go mad from the pain if he doesn't have the operation soon," says Dr Kosiashvili. "He's traumatised knowing that he'll lose his hand, but he just can't bear the pain. We need just $1000 (£620) to do it, but there's an economic crisis here and it's diffcult to raise the money." He tells me his own salary is £5 per month.

"I'm ready to dedicate 24 hours a day to the radiation problem," says the doctor. "It's our country's number one threat." He says that health officials are noticing a dramatic increase in tumours, goitres, reproductive disorders and birth defects, though figures are unavailable - the Ministries of Health and Environment are only now launching a study.

Chakhunashvili shows me his hand, which is red and callused. His middle finger is curled, shrunken and dried out, resembling an oversized chicken claw. We talk for a while. He strikes me as an ordinary kid who'd rather be on the football pitch with his friends, but doctors have warned the soldiers to stay out of the sun - for the rest of their lives. Though he can now move about freely, Chakhunashvili has rarely been out of hospital in over a year. Though stoic, he is soon too uncomfortable to chat. The doctor suggests that I take pictures of him before he leaves. The young man hesitates until the doctor assures him that the camera doesn't emit any rediation.

We leave the room to talk to Pavle Eliauri, a soldier who fell ill at the same time as Chakhunashvili.

"it all started on April 15, 1997," Eliauri tells me in a monotone. A tall, burly young man, with thick eyebrows, a few days' stubble and a gentle but stern demeanour, he is dressed, as is his habit these days, entirely in black. A woolly hat and thick polo neck ward off the damp chill of the hospital room. He struggles to get comfortable - his long torso angled against the frame of the iron cot - and apologises for fidgeting. It has been difficult for him to sit since his thigh muscles were removed.

"We were drafted into the military and were training, at a former Soviet base near the capital, to be border guards. It was hard work, and most of the time we wore nothing but trousers and boots. One day some of us noticed pink spots on our chest, which at first we thought were mosquito bites. We fought off the urge to scratch. The spots grew and got very itchy, then turned black, and the itchiness became pain, which just kept getting worse. We were sick with high fevers, vomiting and debilitating headaches."

He pauses, takes a cigarette from his pocket and lights it, inhaling deeply. As I wait for him to continue, he leans forward, rests his elbow on his knee, his cheek on his palm, and gazes out the small window at the heavy grey sky.

Smoke billows from his nose and mouth when he finally speaks again. "Our hands blackened and swelled very large with pus. We were scared. We had no idea what was happening. We went to division headquarters. They sent us to the hospital. The doctors said they had never seen anything like this before. They moved us to a research facility, where they told us we'd be cured in three days. There we met several other soldiers who were suffering as we were. The pain was unbearable, it just kept getting worse; I was losing a kilogram a day." After 10 days at the research facility, the doctors moved them to the Russian military hospital in Tbilisi, where another soldier, Nodar Aduashvili, had already been for nine months: he had not yet been diagnosed. Eliauri takes a photograph from the bedside table - one of many he'd show me, as if needing to affirm his credibility of a black, saucer-sized, pus-encrusted wound that ate deep into Aduashvili's thigh, revealing what appeared to be his femur and green strands of tendon.

"For the next three months, we were secluded in the Russian hospital, like prisoners. Thirty-three wounds appeared on my body; I had to spend the whole time in my underwear. Even the slightest contact with the wounds was excruciating. I was in so much pain that I couldn't sit or lie down. I barely slept for three months.

"The others were in just as much pain, but the doctors didn't believe us when we complained. They thought we were 'spiritually ill', so they refused to give us injections. No one would tell us what was wrong with us. We were treated for a dermatological disorder - a staphylococcal infection - but it was clear that the treatment wasn't working.

"They refused to let us see our medical records, so one day I stole mine. The results of the blood analysis had been torn off the chart. It was then that I knew for sure that we were very seriously ill; that something sinister was to blame.

"They operated on Chakhunashvili, cutting away the infected flesh. But every time they removed flesh, the wounds would just reappear, deeper. The doctors asked him, 'Are you from another planet? We operate on you, but you just get worse.' The laboratory assistant admitted to him that they had never before seen human flesh with such a disease."

Eliauri finally asked his parents to contact Dr Kasiashvili, who had cured his uncle several years earlier after other doctors had pronounced him terminally ill. "When I met the doctors at the Russian hospital, we argued. It was clear that they had intentionally misdiagnosed the problem, that they were trying to conceal the truth." (A doctor at the Russian hospital admitted that the soldiers' diagnosis was wrong, claiming that dermatology is an inexact science.)

The Russian hospital let the soldiers go to Dr Kosiashvili's infectious diseases ward. But despite conducting a series of tests he was unable to offer a diagnosis. Their only hope, he suggested, was to attract the attention of the media, which might lead to offers of help from abroad.

Television stories were aired in Georgia, briefly attracting the attention of journalists from Europe and Russia. Two Russian professors recognised the symptoms and paid the soldiers a visit. After months of pain and the torment of not knowing what was consuming their flesh, the diagnosis brought little relief: acute radiation disease.

"The Russian professors told us they had a lot of experience with the victims of Chernobyl, and offered to treat us in Moscow. But before we could accept we had other problems on our hands," says Eliauri. The diagnosis had aroused the suspicions of the Georgian government.

"Officials from the procurators office came to the hospital, separated us, and interrogated us. They thought we were smuggling uranium. They tried to manipulate us by telling one of us that another had confessed. They threatened me: "Tell us what substance you were handling and we'll treat you. if you don't we'll leave you to die."

To make matters worse, the Russian television station NTV broadcast a story claiming that the soldiers were junkies who trafficked nuclear materials to fund their habits. The story was later transmitted by Russian state television.

"When we learned of the NTV story, we refused to go to Moscow," Eliauri says. "We badly needed treatment, but we suspected that they had consciously exposed us to some type of chemical weapon, and we were afraid that if we went they would conduct experiments on us." NTV's office in Tbilisi declined to comment on the programme.

Weeks later, an inspection of the base where they were stationed uncovered about a dozen capsules of caesium -137, each no bigger than a pen cap. It looked as though the capsules had been buried - intentionally - across the camp in locations that would maximise exposure: the football pitch and the smoking area, for example, as well as a civilian location outside the base. These findings, combined with the fact that the isotope is useless in weapons production, cleared the soldiers of any lingering cloud of suspicion, says David Chelitze of the Border Guard. The NTV story though, seems never to have been retracted.

Finally, the governments of France and Germany offered state-of-the-art treatment to the worst afflicted. Their wounds were cut away, and covered over with plastic surgery, providing at least short-term relief. Many of the soldiers, unsurprisingly, remain deeply disturbed. They contend that their tragedy has been exacerbated by the Georgian military, which continues to mistreat them and write their lives off. When sent to western Europe to receive treatment, they say that the military, eager to rid itself of the headache, gave them injections for the pain and dispatched them on commercial planes "like war casualties, with soiled wounds, torn clothing" and, despite promises, not a penny in pocket money. Their families have been plunged into debt trying to help them, yet the soldiers have been denied even their meagre £5-per-month disability pensions.

Doctor Kosiashvili stresses that their ordeal is far from over; they will need constant treatment for the rest of their lives. "We have no future," say Ealiauri. "We'll never have children. We're biologically dead." As testified by Chakhunashvili's hand, radiation disease is life sentence.

THE NUCLEAR pollution is one more thorn in a very prickly relationship between Georgia and its hulking neighbour to the north. When soldiers first became ill, Georgian officials blamed the errant radioactive materials on the chaos that reigned when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Soviets hastily abandoned most of the country's 300 installations, selling or carting back to Russia whatever was mobile and deemed to have military value, and destroying nearly everything else. In the confusion, officials say, the materials were wantonly left behind.

But evidence has provoked the Georgian military to suspect a more pernicious cause; that the damage may have been inflicted on purpose by its erstwhile overlord, as part of a campaign to destabilise the territory. As one official puts it: "they want us to think that, as bad as life was under Soviet rule, independence is worse". While that may sound like paranoid speculation, many in the Georgian elite proclaim - perhaps with good reason, some Western diplomats say - a grand conspiracy against them, perpetrated not by Moscow but by rogue Russia military groups determined to keep Georgia within Russia's sphere of influence.

While officials refuse to comment in detail, David Chelitze, the first deputy chairman of the Border Guard and chairman of the radiation investgation, points to those highly toxic materials, formerly kept under tight security, which are now being turned up by members of the public. Moving these requires extreme care; anyone handling them casually would be badly injured, or worse. "So how," Chelitze asks, "did they get outside the bases, and buried underground in residential areas?"

The soldiers have established the Association of the Anti-Radiation Movement (17 Chernishevski Street, Tbilisi, Georgia) to help ensure that no one else suffers their fate.