General Story, Chernobyl
“Antoshka is talking to his Mom. I do not know what disease he suffers from,” says young photographer Tina Dushko from Belarus, aged 12, explaining this photo.
Russia's Bryansk region.
By John Varoli
“Chernobyl… but that was 20 years ago,” remarks Irina, a young woman in St. Petersburg upon hearing of UNICEF's recent photo workshop for children from the devastated area that is home to nearly six million people in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia's Bryansk region. “Why would UNICEF possibly be concerned with Chernobyl today? It's all in the past.”
If only Irina's words were true. Unfortunately, her opinion is all too common today in Russia whose Bryansk region was hit hard by fallout from the radioactive cloud that covered the area after an accident on 26 April, 1986 blew apart Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic.
That explosion and the ensuing fire that raged for 10 days spewed radiation over a territory the size of Germany, forcing the abandonment of 400 communities in this formerly fertile agricultural region. Hundreds of thousands of people were relocated, and nearly 600,000 so-called “liquidators”, many working with no protection, sacrificed their health to contain and seal the fiery reactor, as well as clean the contaminated area.
Today, the plight of most of the six million people who live in or near contaminated areas is not considered dire enough to warrant evacuation. That describes most of the Bryansk region, where only a few dozen villages have been sealed off. While hundreds of towns and villages are deemed habitable, the surrounding areas that provide them with food and water remain polluted. Fields, lake beds and forest floors are home to an invisible nemesis, radioactive Cesium-137, whose half-life – the time it take for half a nuclei to undergo radioactive decay – is 30 years.
“Everyone here has a tragedy to tell” says Anna Kotikova, an official at the city education committee in the Bryansk region city of Novozibkov, adding that in December 1986 her first pregnancy ended suddenly in its seventh month. “Our way of life was destroyed.”
Nearly all Bryansk residents suffer health problems. Cancer rates are higher than the national averages, birth defects have soared by as much as 250 per cent, nearly everyone has thyroid problems, bones are reported to break easily and frequently, and many complain of headaches after walking in the forest. Children are the most vulnerable. The greatest source of apprehension, however, remains fear of the genetic defects that might affect future generations.
Young people, especially those planning to have children, try to get as far away as possible but, for economic reasons, few have that option.
In recent years many people, young and old, have returned to traditional ways of living that put them at great risk of radiation poisoning – gathering mushrooms and berries from the dense forests all around eating meat and dairy products from animals that graze in local fields, and swimming and fishing in lakes and rivers.
“Adults think that 20 years have passed, and the problems are over,” said Lubov Olefirenko, head of the Russian Children's Fund in Bryansk. “So it's up to the children to keep the fight alive.”