Chernobyl 25 years later: Remembering adolescents in disaster
In 2011, the world marks the 25th anniversary of the disaster at Chernobyl, the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. The region, however, has yet to fully recover from this catastrophe. While adolescents currently living in Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation – the three countries most affected by the fallout – were not yet born when parts of the nuclear power station exploded, they bear the scars of the tragedy.
Although we may never know the full extent of the harm done, approximately 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer have since been diagnosed among those who were under 18 years old at the time of the blast, and around 350,000 people – including my family – were uprooted from their towns and villages. Emergency workers risked their lives in responding to the accident, and millions were left traumatized by lingering fears about their health and livelihood. Young people, in particular, now face limited opportunities and suffer from mental health problems that threaten their social and economic welfare.
Even 25 years later, the psychological impact manifests itself in the residents’ belief in a shortened life expectancy, in radiophobia (fear of radiation as a psychological consequence of a traumatic experience) and in a lack of initiative resulting from their designation as “victims” rather than “survivors”. In turn, young people lead unhealthy lifestyles, resort to drugs and alcohol and suffer from a lack of confidence in their ability to succeed and excel.
I have always wanted to contribute to the recovery of this region – a place to which I have a deep and personal connection. As a global community, we must provide the region’s young people with the tools they need to reach their full potential, and we must help its communities get back on their feet and overcome the stigma that hangs over the area. Providing adolescents with educational and social opportunities and positive reinforcement is one way to move forward.
Organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have teamed up with the International Chernobyl Research and Information Network to provide the affected population with information on how to pursue healthy and productive lives. Psychosocial support has been particularly important for young people. In my capacity as UNDP Goodwill Ambassador, I have focused on seven UNDP initiatives in the three Chernobyl-affected countries, aiming to improve young people’s self-confidence, to restore a sense of hope and to encourage them to take control of their lives.
We opened music schools in rural areas of Belarus. Children from the city of Chechersk took up community activities such as cleaning springs, making bird feeders and planting bushes. A newly established ‘Fairytale Room’ at the Chechersk Central Rayon Hospital now provides therapy in the form of healing and inspirational activities like interactive games and mini-circuses. In the Russian Federation, a modern sports facility was built at the Novocamp summer camp to boost the physical and mental well-being of adolescents. A network of rural youth centres was established in Ukraine to bring computer skills to rural teens. We also launched a Scholarship Programme in Belarus that enables students to pursue higher education at the Belarusian State Academy of Arts and the Belarusian State University.
I have great faith in the young people of this area. My goal is to impart a message of optimism to adolescents who suffer from the consequences of the Chernobyl fallout and to help restore a healthy and productive environment. I would also like to tell young people in this and other regions affected by disasters, whether natural or human-made – such as Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the earthquake in Haiti and, most recently, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – that the world has not forgotten you or your struggle. We believe in your ability and your right to realize your full potential, and we pledge our support as you move into adulthood.
Maria Sharapova is a professional Russian tennis player who has won 3 Grand Slam titles. She was named Goodwill Ambassador for UNDP in 2007 and has focused specifically on the Chernobyl Recovery and Development Programme.