Thirty three years on, the Chernobyl region springs to life

Reconstruction works are underway at an Orthodox monastery in the village of Yurovichy, within the Chernobyl-affected Kalinkovichy district of Belarus. Before the disaster, the monastery hosted a boarding school for children with learning disabilities. It has now been returned to the Orthodox church and acts as a spiritual, cultural and historic centre, offering social help to vulnerable groups and hosting cultural and educational events for both children and adults.

More than three decades ago the world looked on in horror when the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine caught fire.

It was, and remains, the most disastrous nuclear accident in history. It released radioactivity into the atmosphere for about 10 days and the poisonous cloud reached almost everywhere on earth.

The initial contamination killed about 30 people, including several first responders. It caused serious disruption not just in Ukraine, but also Belarus and Russia. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes. More than half a million people were needed for the cleanup.

Prior to the accident, Belarus was one of the most rapidly developing countries in the region, with booming oil and chemical industries along with agriculture and heavy machinery production.

The country’s biggest region, Homiel lost thousands of square kilometres of agricultural lands and forests to radioactive pollution. Collective farms and oil fields went out of business. An estimated 60 percent of the region was contaminated — around 470 small towns and villages. More than 138,000 people were forced from their homes.

Fast forward to today, and Belarus has sprung back to life. Homiel has become a leading destination for domestic and international investors.

UNDP has been leading recovery efforts in Belarus since 2004 and is helping to build a new economy to take on the challenges of the 21st century.

The EU-funded weaving centre in the village of New Gusevitsa in the Homiek region supports the revival of the ancient craft of hand weaving. Artisans pass this unique knowledge on to the next generation, creating new rural jobs, and helping to restore Chernobyl-affected districts and their heritage.

Where once was a nuclear wasteland there are now organic farms, bread-baking museums, traditional weaving centres and revived Orthodox churches and monasteries. Residents are being trained in heritage tourism, information and communications technology, green energy, and restoring ecosystems.

Radiation tests are regularly carried out to monitor the health of not just people, but forest berries, mushrooms, game and agricultural produce.

Now, 60 percent of Homiel’s meat, dairy products and handicrafts are exported, and the region attracted US$17.7 billion in domestic and foreign investment between 2011 and 2017–15.6 percent of the country’s total direct investment over that period.

Local community leaders like Iryna from the Botvinovo village in the Chernobyl-affected Chechersk district, are passionate about preserving the centuries-old craft of bread baking and educating people about sustainable agriculture. She employs her creativity, talent and amazing energy to open her native village to tourism, communicating the stories of local heritage and revival to people from all over the world. Every month this unique museum, which is supported by the EU, welcomes around 1,000 visitors.

“In the 33 years since that tragic night, there’s been a rethinking of the way local populations in southeastern Belarus have handled themselves. Stigma is still pervasive, but the economic revival is visible. This is a fertile and productive region and its people are open, resilient and resourceful,” said Zachary Taylor, UNDP’s Deputy Resident Representative in Belarus.

Since the beginning of the decade there has been a considerable increase in economic activity — 37,000 small- and medium-sized businesses now operate in the areas directly affected by the disaster, up from only 2,375 in 2002.

UNDP has trained businesspeople how to connect with investors. Farmers are growing and exporting healthy organic produce. Local weavers are making and selling traditional handicrafts.

Children from the “REKHA” Ethno Music Choir sing Belarusian worship songs in the yard of the former Bernardine monastery in the town of Mazyr, Homiel region. The choir is part of a residency programme called “The Valley of Angels”, designed to restore monastery buildings and to turn them into spiritual, heritage and art spaces.

“But let’s not rest on our laurels. There’s much more that needs to be done to bring the area back to its full potential. We need to keep investing in training, safety, long-term development planning, new technologies, including tourism and organic farming. This is an area that’s been left behind for too long. Let’s double our efforts to make sure it catches up,” said Mr Taylor.

Although recovery is well underway, the disaster is still a huge financial burden. In Ukraine last year, five to seven percent of the public budget was spent on Chernobyl-related recovery. In Belarus, the economic loss is estimated at US$235 billion. Missed profits and investment opportunities alone are estimated at US$13.7 billion.

UNDP has been working with sister UN agencies and international partners to help Belarus and Ukraine move from recovery and humanitarian support to creating new jobs, better social services, improving infrastructure and increasing investment opportunities.

A worker cleans a restored mosaic on the facade of an 18th-century cathedral of an Orthodox monastery in Yurovichi village, Kalinkovichy district, Homiel region.

Photos: UNDP Belarus/ Sergei Gapon.

Photo editing by Rico Cruz, photography intern at UNDP New York.