Chernobyl and Belarus, thirty years on
A personal perspective
Thirty years ago, on April 26, 1986, an explosion and major fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat saw large quantities of highly radioactive particles released into the atmosphere. Thirty-one workers and firemen at the plant died as a direct result of the explosion and over 250,000 were relocated away from the surrounding areas.
Over the past three decades thousands more have succumbed to radiation-related illnesses. Although the death toll and long-term effects remain the subject of intense debate, it is widely regarded as the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Approximately 70% of the nuclear fallout fell on Belarus with one fifth of the country’s agricultural land contaminated. More than two million Belarusians were affected by radiation, including 500,000 children. Estimates put the cost of the disaster to Belarus at between 6–25% of its annual budget since 1986, amounting to around $235bn over that thirty year period.
I am a trustee of the Friends of Chernobyl’s Children (West Leicestershire) charity. The charity was established in 2007 to provide humanitarian aid to children living in Belarus, who are suffering from the after effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. My family and I also host a nine-year-old Belarusian girl as part of the charity’s hosting programme.
Through its family hosting programme, the charity provides relief to Belarusian children who are living in conditions of need, hardship, distress, poverty or sickness. Children on the programme are provided with a four week recuperative break in Leicestershire living with a host family.
During the four weeks, the children take part in organised activities and benefit from a good diet, fresh air and a safe, stable, loving home. This year, 14 children will travel from Belarus to Leicestershire to take part in the programme.
In March this year, I was fortunate to spend a week in Belarus with the charity. The visit was an opportunity to meet the children who come on our programme in their own homes and see for myself the conditions they live in. It also allowed us to meet new children who might be considered for the programme in the future.
Flying into Minsk, the capital of Belarus, my first sight of the country as we descended through the low cloud was of wide expanses of forest punctuated by frozen lakes. There was snow on the ground in places and once we’d landed and stepped out of Minsk airport, the icy wind hit us immediately and we were glad to be quickly bundled into our awaiting transport.
From Minsk it was a two and a half hour drive east to Mogilev, our base for the week. Mogilev is around 180 miles north from Chernobyl and the Mogilev region was one of the areas most affected by the disaster with around 35% of the land contaminated. Over half of the region’s land is used for agriculture and many of the families we visited work on collective farms.
Many of the children on the programme live in the villages to the east of Mogilev, surrounding the towns of Chausy (Чаусы) and Cherikov (Чериков). These remote villages vary in size, but lack all but the most basic infrastructure. Much of the the land surrounding the villages is contaminated and will remain that way for thousands of years. While travelling to the villages, glimpses of radiation warning signs between the trees are a sobering reminder of the impact the disaster has had on Belarus and its people.
Arriving in the villages felt like stepping back in time. Although the main roads in Mogilev region are reasonably good, the local streets are often little more than snow-covered dirt tracks. Most of the children we visited in the villages live in small single storey houses, of wood or rough brick construction, with scrubland filled with a variety of tumbledown wooden structures for gardens.
In most cases the welcome was warm but on entering the houses, what struck me was the size. The living space in a lot of the houses was essentially a single room, partitioned off by thin wooden walls, or in some cases, wardrobes and curtains, to make small bedrooms. There were also plenty of examples of living rooms doubling as bedrooms. With several generations of the same family living under the same roof living conditions can be cramped with four or five children sharing a small bedroom.
Surprisingly, most houses were warm, largely down to the solidly built wood-burning Russian ovens that dominated the living space. Kitchens tended to be very small with elderly cookers powered by gas cylinders, ancient fridges and bare shelves. Running water, if there was any, was of the cold variety and those without running water rely on public wells that line the main streets.
Inside bathrooms and toilets were a rarity. Most toilets are outside in the yard — a hole in the ground surrounded by a crude wooden shed. The pile of books next to it were not for reading…
Life is evidently tough for these families. Income is very low — those working on farms can earn as little as $50 (£35) a month. To put that into some context, on a trip to the supermarket in Mogilev, I bought two small toy cars, which were around $5 each. In this case, those two toy cars equated to around a fifth of their family’s monthly income.
Most days started with a trip to the supermarket where we stocked up on some basic essentials to take out to the families. This was really well received as they generally exist on a very poor diet of food grown on contaminated land.
We also had the opportunity to visit some of the children who live in Mogilev city and this gave us different insight into the living conditions of the families we support. Most live in incredibly run-down blocks of flats surrounded by heavy industrial areas. The flats are small and facilities basic with many people sharing the same bedrooms, beds in living rooms and inhabited by several generations.
There is little opportunity for children to go out and play and the atmosphere is bleak and oppressive. In one flat there were a series of wooden bars screwed to the wall. It soon became clear that they were there as a makeshift indoor climbing frame for the young occupants to use for exercise and entertainment.
Some houses we visited in Mogilev City were very similar to the village houses, but rather than being surrounded by open countryside, they sit incongruously against a backdrop of factories, and block after block of crumbling flats.
Overshadowing all of this is the spectre of Chernobyl, which is an invisible, but ever-present blight on this beautiful country.
The disaster continues to have a devastating effect on Belarusian families. They are existing in incredibly challenging circumstances, where high unemployment, very low incomes, alcoholism and serious social problems are prevalent. There is an overwhelming feeling of resignation and lack of hope and it’s difficult to see how things will improve for them or what the future of these children will hold.
Despite all this our welcomes were indeed warm and our Belarusian hosts were generous and genial.
When we asked the families what they thought of the programme, they were really enthusiastic and incredibly grateful that their children had the opportunity to experience life outside of Belarus. Their children had gained confidence and improved at school. What the children liked the most about the programme was the chance to be children. To do simple things like go swimming or play in the park and enjoy a good diet and fresh air.
Friends of Chernobyl’s Children (West Leicestershire) is run entirely by volunteers and relies entirely on fundraising and the support of sponsors and donors. Without our host families, volunteers and the generosity of our supporters, our charity wouldn’t be able to give these children this opportunity.