Suspicions Fuel Radiation Fears Across Georgia

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The soldier winced with pain as doctors peeled off the gauze dressing, exposing a large sore on his right thigh--a wound that has grown in size since he was admitted to this hospital three months ago.

Here doctors and nurses can give only the most rudimentary care to Zaza Tsikoridze, 23, who is suffering from chronic radiation sickness and fourth-degree radiation burns received while he served at Lilo military base outside Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Tsikoridze and eight other trainee border guards in Lilo were hospitalized in April after discovering strange, weeping sores on their lower bodies. It was not until six months later that they were diagnosed with radiation sickness, caused by 15 capsules containing highly radioactive cesium that were found scattered around their base.

"It's a catastrophe on a huge scale," said Shukry Abramidze, a physicist who was part of the team that discovered the radioactive capsules. "We've cleaned up this base, but it's not clear if this is it or if there could be more such caches at other bases--and not only bases. Who knows if there are radioactive materials at other nonmilitary sites as well?"

Experts here are concerned that the capsules found on the base--which used to belong to the Soviet army, was briefly considered Russian after the Soviet Union fell apart and is now Georgian--could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the silver-haired Georgian president and the last foreign minister of the Soviet Union, has set up a commission to examine the rest of Georgia's 100 or so military bases for similar contamination.

The possibility of radioactive contamination was so unexpected that when Levan Gogia, 19, who now shares the same crowded hospital room as Tsikoridze, first noticed the small red patch on his leg he did not pay much attention.

"I just thought it was an insect bite--a mosquito or something," Gogia said. "But then it became bigger and itchier and then swelled up."

After about a week, he and others who were suffering from similar symptoms were taken to the hospital where they were treated for dermatological problems. Because the Lilo base had been used in Soviet times for civil defense training, fears grew that the young men could have been affected by remains of chemical or biological weapons left behind after the Russian army withdrew from Georgia in 1992.

By September, toxicologists confirmed that the burns were caused by radiation.

Experts from Georgia's Physics Institute, the Defense Ministry and the border guards searched the Lilo base and found enormously high background radiation--up to 1,000 times the norm in Georgia.

"We discovered a capsule of cesium, half an inch long and a quarter-inch wide, in a pocket of one coat in a pile of winter gear," Abramidze said. "At first it was difficult to measure the radioactivity because it was so high that all our instruments were going off the scale."

Abramidze and his team later determined that the capsule was emitting hundreds of thousands of times above the level of radioactivity considered safe in Georgia. Because the devices contained cesium-137, experts estimated that it will take 300 years for the capsules to become harmless.

The team searched the 60-acre area around the base and unearthed 15 radioactive capsules.

Originally placed inside insulating boxes, the capsules had once been part of military instruments used to train troops to detect radiation.

But now four of the capsules had been detached and removed from their protective casing. Five radioactive pieces were found up to 300 yards from the base.

"Although it's possible that these capsules were used in instruments for training procedures when this was a Soviet base, there is no apparent reason why radioactive materials should have been lying around all over the place unaccounted for in any documents and without their protective lead cases," said David Chelidze, deputy head of Georgia's Border Guard Service. "And it is even more suspicious that the capsules ended up outside the base."

Most of the capsules were discovered buried in holes not more than 15 inches deep--in smoking areas, toilets and even the base's football ground.

Although some experts here believe that it is possible the Russian army could have intentionally left these radioactive capsules behind as they departed, 1992 was such a chaotic time in the history of this small mountain republic that almost any other explanation is also plausible.

After the superpower collapsed, the status of Soviet army bases in former republics that suddenly became independent countries remained unclear. In Georgia's case, complications were added by the anarchy and chaos that followed independence. A coup at the end of 1991 and intense fighting in the capital, strong anti-Russian sentiment and intense nationalism meant that clashes between Georgians and Russians were common.

But for Tsikoridze, who lies listlessly in bed, sitting up only to smoke a cigarette, the consequences are all too real.

He and his friends need proper medical treatment that they cannot get in the rundown hospitals of impoverished Tbilisi. They have been offered free treatment in Moscow but are hesitant and suspicious.

"I don't want to go to Moscow," said David Induashvili, 19. "They poisoned us here. I don't want to get any worse by going there."

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