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Villagers return to Chernobyl’s shadow

Bartolomeyevka is one of scores of contaminated villages in Belarus that are being revived 20 years after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, nudged back to life by the government encouraging resettlement, despite calls that radiation dangers persist.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The map says Bartolomeyevka is off-limits. A sign at the outskirts displays the international radiation symbol and says “Do Not Enter.” But smoke rises from the chimneys of wooden houses, dogs bark and villagers go about their business.

Bartolomeyevka is one of scores of contaminated villages in Belarus that are being revived 20 years after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, nudged back to life by a government that says the farmland is badly needed, that the radiation threat is overblown, and that people claiming radiation-related diseases may simply be seeking a government handout.

Bartolomeyevka suffered such high radiation levels that its several dozen inhabitants were evacuated. However, over the past decade 10 villagers have moved back, disregarding the radiation warnings. In neighboring villages — labeled contaminated but still suitable for living — many others are returning, along with job-seeking migrants from impoverished ex-Soviet republics.

On Bartolomeyevka’s surface, it looks like renewal — but resignation is at the core.

More desperation than hope
“You cannot escape your death,” said 70-year-old Ivan Muzychenko. “It’s better to die of radiation than of hunger.”

As evacuees, he and his wife, Yelena, lived hand-to-mouth. Here, along with a combined monthly pension worth about $200, their vegetable garden, 10 geese, a cow and a pig add desperately needed nutrition.

Muzychenko dismisses warnings that the vegetables and animals are probably contaminated, and gathers berries and mushrooms in the nearby woods.

A fifth of Belarus’ area was evacuated after the April 26, 1986, explosion in neighboring Ukraine, and health officials say about 20 percent of the country’s 10 million people suffer from radiation-linked ailments including thyroid and circulation problems.

Official figures say 1,100 square miles, less than 1.5 percent of Belarus’ territory, remains too irradiated for human habitation.

Government encouraging resettlement
The government of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko — the same government that put up the warning signs at Bartolomeyevka — is encouraging resettlement.

Activists and doctors complain that it is ignoring radiation dangers, cheating on illness statistics and refusing to care for ailing children and adults.

Bartolomeyevka’s neighboring village, Belyayevka, was recently taken off the list of highly contaminated population centers, stripping its villagers of a $20 monthly supplement for living there. Mothers say the payment is still justified because most of the village’s 58 children have health problems and need healthy food and vitamins.

Belarusian workers who participated in the cleanup at Chernobyl have also seen their benefits sharply reduced.

Nineteen collective farms in the region have been revived to grow crops which officials say can be rendered safe with special fertilizers; another 39 farms are awaiting their turn.

Vladimir Tsalko, head of the State Chernobyl Committee, the official agency for dealing with Chernobyl’s consequences, says the goal is “to teach people to earn money and invest it into the region.”

When asked if economics are more important than health, he is frank: “Yes. We need those lands. ... Who will feed them?”

Dangers persist
Activists say their independent studies find people in contaminated areas still displaying high radiation doses from locally made food. They say more should be done to warn returnees of the dangers.

“To take advantage of people’s lack of information and lull them into believing that it is safe there is the biggest crime there can be,” said Valentina Smolnikova, of the Children of Chernobyl group.

Smolnikova said the radiation effects have been devastating. She said her group’s study of one district in the contamination zone showed cases of congenital anomalies have increased fourfold, the number of cancers have doubled and the number of heart attacks is seven times higher than before the accident.

She said she is struggling to get foreign funding to monitor and treat children’s contamination levels because the state shows little interest and minimizes the numbers. The government denies it.

Victims also complain the government is reluctant to link radiation to health problems such as heart disease, cancerous growths and diabetes. Yakov Kenigsberg, the Chernobyl State Committee’s top medical expert, says only thyroid cancer is internationally recognized as directly caused by radiation contamination and calls attempts to link other diseases with the Chernobyl accident “stupidity,” suggesting the motive often is monetary compensation.

Miracle, but future unclear
But, Tamara Kurbatova, a 40-year-old unemployed mother of three in the town of Buda-Koshelevo, sharply disagrees. Her 4-year-old son, Pavel, is being treated for eye cancer, and after years of struggle, she has won official recognition that it’s the result of his mother’s radiation levels while he was in the womb. That entitles the boy to financial aid.

“It is a miracle he is still alive,” Kurbatova said. “But what awaits him I don’t know.”