In the summer of 2014, SPH student Michelle Gin led a group of doctors, medical students and other health professionals on a two-week, 800km bicycle journey across Kazakhstan. Participants came from India, Nepal, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Germany, Austria, U.S. and Kenya.
Bordered by Russia to the north, China to the east, and the Caspian Sea to the west, the vast country of Kazakhstan was the last Soviet Union republic to declare independence.
The 18 riders in Gin’s group were there to raise awareness of a dangerous, and often forgotten Cold War menace—nuclear weapons.
“Nuclear weapons are still one of the truly greatest threats to humanity,” says Gin, a student in the maternal and child health program.
Gin and her colleagues are members of the advocacy organization International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and the Kazakhstan tour was not Gin’s first foray into international awareness raising. In 2012, Gin rode in IPPNW’s 2012 International Peace Bike Tour from Nagasaki to Hiroshima, Japan.
The team was in Kazakhstan to highlight both its history with the devastating technology and its recent bold actions in joining the nuclear weapons abolition movement.
As part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan housed more than a 1,000 nuclear warheads and the Semipalatinsk nuclear site, where the Soviets tested weapons for 40 years.
“The explosions were close enough that villagers could see the nuclear plumes,” says Gin. “They told us they had no idea what was going on, didn’t know if they were under attack, and were told by officials that they were earthquakes.”
In Kazakhstan, Gin saw the results of nuclear weapons testing first hand— scarred landscapes, radioactive sites, birth defects, and people who find it difficult to comprehend and discuss the reality of what happened during those years.
Gin says she was motivated to make the trip by one prime realization: the threat of nuclear weapons and their devastating affects remain real.
“I’m from a generation that didn’t grow up in the Cold War era, so I didn’t know much about [nuclear weapons and radiation],” says Gin. “However, I learned that [nuclear weapons, stockpiles and nuclear radiation] remain a threat for human and environmental health–and people should know that so they may influence their government’s policymakers to reach nuclear-zero!”
Hope for peace
The reception Gin and her team received was a sign of a new era for Kazakhstan. Today, the country is a leading supporter of a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and founder of The ATOM Project, a worldwide effort to abolish nuclear weapons.
Gin says everywhere they traveled, the local people went to great lengths to welcome the riders and their message of peace.
Once reaching each destination, the group was often greeted by local mayors, reporters and by citizens singing and showering them with candy.
The Kazakh government was so concerned about their safety, that it “tasked the ride with two police escorts, an ambulance and many support vehicles,” says Gin.
At one point, the riders were even treated to instruction from Kazakhstan’s Olympic cycling coach.
Over the miles together, the riders not only shared goodwill with people of Kazakhstan and promoted IPPNW’s abolishment goals through international media, but they created deep bonds with each other.
“We were living, cooking and sweating together for two weeks to build lifelong friendships so that in the future we can work together across borders for peace,” says Gin.
Following the tour, Gin is continuing to be involved in the international abolition movement. This coming April, Gin will speak at the World Uranium Symposium in Quebec and talk about the maternal and child health outcomes from nuclear radiation. She also hopes to attend the 2015 Nuclear Proliferation Treaty Review Conference or the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons as well.
~ Post by Charlie Plain, updated 12/16/14