by Kennedy Graham
It must be the fates. My life seems to be a continual encounter with Ground Zero.
For 6 years in the ‘90s, we lived in downtown Manhattan, directly across the road from the Twin Towers, our apartment falling within their shadows across Battery Park. We were there in ’93 when the bomb took out a basement, killed six, and brought the area to a standstill. When we departed in ’95, we knew it would happen again. We were living, safe, in the Middle East, when 9/11 happened.
This week, I had occasion to visit Ground Zero, again. It is on the other side of the planet, in the steppe of Eastern Kazakhstan. We fly in, by helicopter, from Semey to nowhere. Except that, for the 1.5 million people exposed to the early Soviet nuclear tests, it was home. So home is where the heart is. Erewhon is everywhere.
Home is also where the other vital organs coexist. In the beginning, the Soviets omitted to advise the citizens of Semipalatinsk of any impending atomic flash that might occur in the sky. There is grainy 1940s footage of sheep and cattle twisting and running for their lives as the mushroom cloud billows behind them. The humans are equally innocent – it shows a few villagers milling around as well, bewildered and not comprehending.
I am Death, the Destroyer of Worlds – uncontrollable in time and space.
So about 200,000 fellow humans have suffered genetic mutation since. You do not want to see the photos. The Kazakhstan Government has set up an institute to help.
We met one man. He is 44 years old. He has no arms. He is a civil society leader – and an accomplished painter. He paints with his teeth.
We land at Ground Zero and step out of the ‘copter onto nowhere. It is flat, with dry scrub, as far as the eye can see. An ominous concrete bunker peers above ground like the periscope of an attack submarine, except it is maybe 2,000 km. from the sea. Then the other three come into view. They ring the site, abandoned and silent, still harbouring menace.
A cold wind whips across the steppe, making the flags that line the carpet walkway crack as you go by. There is no-one, on the steppe, except for us. Yet there is the presence, of a thousand souls around, blowing in the wind.
The Director of the Nuclear Sciences Institute wields a pointer at a map, held firm in the steppe wind by two soldiers in sunglasses. We are standing in the dead zone. One soldier has a meter, recording the radiation level. Two cameramen wear masks.
At 300,000 square km., the Dead Zone is larger than New Zealand. It will be that way for a thousand years to come.
Some dignitaries make speeches. They are from Australia, Thailand, the UK. The Aussie is Gareth Evans, former foreign minister, whom I know. Their words are heavy with meaning, even as they blow away, wafting across the steppe.
We walk – there are maybe 100 of us, the living souls – down the carpet and into the yurt. We are served tea, and food with vodka. Inside, the yurt is like a palace. Suddenly there is warmth, and life.
We lift off and speed back, the wind behind us, at treetop height across the tree-less steppe.
I do not think I have been to a more forlorn place. Yet I had no desire to leave.
Maybe Ground Zero is all of God’s Earth, and it is my fate forever to wander its far-flung corners. New York, Semipalatinsk, Aotearoa. In a sense it is, the whole planet is Ground Zero. We are all in this together – including the cattle and the sheep.