Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Radiation Victims to Lobby President

A group of Georgian ex-soldiers, who are suffering from radiation sickness, are demanding a government probe into the true legacies of the Soviet nuclear arsenal
By Franck Petit

"After three months, the stains on my hands spread to my legs and grew darker," says Pavle Eliauri, a former Georgian border-guard. "Another guy on my ward, Goderdzi Charunashvili, was operated on several times but the symptoms just kept reappearing. We realised we would never get better there [in the Tbilisi military hospital]."


Eliauri was transferred to the Sepsie medical centre but the diagnosis was the same. "'You are suffering from an unknown illness,' they told me. Later on, a military prosecutor came and asked me why a caesium capsule had been found in my uniform. I still know nothing at all about it."


The ex-conscript has been campaigning for a full investigation since August 1997 when he leaked the story to a private TV station, Rustavi 2. A team of Moscow doctors who subsequently examined Eliauri and his 10 comrades confirmed that they were victims of radiation poisoning.


Eliauri has set up a special committee "to try and get things moving and prevent other people from being contaminated". He explains, "Our illness is getting worse and we don't have any choice. I'm going to ask for a meeting with President Shevardnadze. Only he can get results. If that doesn't work, we plan to file a lawsuit."


The men are thought to have come into contact with capsules of caesium 137, which, according to a source inside the defence ministry, were stolen from Soviet army bases after Georgia won its independence in 1990. All 11 men came from the Lilo base, formerly a training camp for nuclear, biological and chemical warfare just 20 kilometres from Tbilisi. The capsules were used to calibrate radiological detection machines.


The victims deny all knowledge of the caesium capsules although the military prosecutors suspect they were hoping to find a buyer for them.


Colonel Arseny Chutlashvili, commander of the Lilo base, said, "In April [1997], we sent 10 men to the Russian hospital in Tbilisi. The doctors knew exactly what it was all about but they didn't say anything.


"In July, scientists came and searched the base. They found the first caesium capsule in Pavle Eliauri's jacket pocket. The other victims slept in the same dormitory. We think the coat was passed around and borrowed at night."


After the story was reported on Rustavi 2, the Georgian government intervened and sent the men abroad for treatment. The four worst-affected recruits were sent to the Marie Curie Institute in Paris whilst another seven were treated in Germany.


Gennady Iossava, director of Tbilisi's Haematology Institute, said, "We really appreciate the help given to us by France. The French advanced almost $1 million to treat the four worst-affected soldiers. They have performed operations which are unique in the world such as artificial skin grafts. For the time being, their condition is stable."


But Iossava added, "We cannot count on foreign help indefinitely. We must create a care structure here - all the more so because, after this particular incident, I carried out tests in military bases near Tbilisi. Forty of the 90 soldiers in the area were affected. In addition, 52 civilians are showing the same symptoms.


"These figures are bound to underestimate the real problem because we simply don't have the means to carry out widespread testing."


The Georgian government has been slow to react. It wasn't until March 1999 that a group of 10 scientists were given the task of tracking down and neutralising "uncontrolled sources of radiation" across the republic.


Environment minister Nino Chrobadze said the team found 70 radioactive capsules during the year-long project which was supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Group leader Leri Mesri, who puts the total at just 40, said, "We found most of them near an ex-Soviet Army base but we still have to check the rest of the territory in order to clear our consciences."


During the investigation, the scientists passed through the Svaneti mountains where few settlements have access to electricity. Here they stumbled on a shepherd who proudly showed them his "magic box" - a cylinder the size of a coffee tin which gave off everlasting heat and kept his family warm during the winter months.


The experts discovered the "magic box" was in fact a strontium battery, containing a highly toxic osteotrope which attacks bone marrow and can trigger leukaemia. Strontium 90 has a radioactive output of 45,000 curies - 1.7 billion times the acceptable level for nuclear industry workers in France.


It explained the medical complaints and physical exhaustion, which had dogged the shepherd's family for months.


Said Leri Mesri, "Blood samples taken from residents of the Xaichi village showed genetic abnormalities in 20 people or more. This points to an increased vulnerability to certain illnesses, particularly cancers."


Doctor Gennady Iossava is sceptical of the government's ability - or willingness - to tackle the problem. "Of course the authorities want to cover up the seriousness of the situation," he said. "And anyway we don't have the facilities to cope if the population starts to panic. In February, the president declared publicly that the problem did not exist."


Franck Petit is a French journalist currently based in Tbilisi.