The signs say “KEEP OUT” and warn of radiation contamination, but the mushroom-pickers trudge right past them carrying their pails.
Eighteen years after the reactor at Chernobyl in neighboring Ukraine exploded, spewing a cloud of radiation that blew north and contaminated 22 percent of this ex-Soviet republic, activists warn of a new threat facing Belarusians: the longing to return to normal life.
The government — and many Belarusians — are eager to put the world’s worst nuclear accident behind them. President Alexander Lukashenko, branded Europe’s last dictator, has made it a priority to repopulate much of the Chernobyl-infected region beyond the hardest hit areas.
But opposition parties and advocacy groups such as the Belarus-based Children of Chernobyl accuse the government of overriding warnings that radiation continues to contaminate this region of pine forests and mud-splattered farming villages.
Belarusians, many of them poor and ill-informed about radiation, are returning home to villages that still require permanent monitoring because of higher than average radiation levels. Tractors till farmland, cows graze and residents fill their yards with vegetable gardens. Others are venturing into the “exclusion zones” — the worst hit areas — to forage in the forests for berries and wild mushrooms, which are then sold throughout the region.
The critics claim that the government of this tightly controlled nation of 10 million is capitalizing on the plight of desperate jobseekers to repopulate still dangerous areas and boost agricultural production.
1,000 areas off danger list
In the last five years, Belarus has struck 1,000 population centers from the danger list. It has boosted regional farm production by 30 percent, cut Chernobyl-related welfare funding from 14 percent of the approximately $3 billion annual budget to 4 percent, and censored health statistics of rising death and cancer rates, the opponents say.
“We must now worry about the children of the children of Chernobyl,” said Gennady Groushevoy, head of Children of Chernobyl. “The health danger is reaching into a second generation ... but the government has retreated into a Soviet-era attitude of silence.”
In all, 7 million people in the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are believed to have suffered medical problems as a result of the April 25, 1986, accident. In Ukraine, more than 2.32 million people, including 452,000 children, have been treated for radiation-linked illnesses, including thyroid and blood cancer and cancerous growths, according to Ukrainian health officials.
Most villages around the plant remain off-limits today, though some Ukrainians are moving back despite government warnings.
Sixty percent of the fallout landed over Belarus, contaminating a region that was home to more than 1.5 million people. Some 125,000 families were evacuated, and large swaths of forest and farmland were declared “exclusion zones,” sealed by checkpoints.
Many of the evacuees still complain bitterly that household belongings, left behind during their hurried retreat, later turned up for sale in regional markets, while they lived in limbo in shabbily constructed apartment blocks.
Nikolai Nagorny, director of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Chernobyl program, said that cases of thyroid cancer — one of the few radiation-related illnesses that has been well studied around Chernobyl — have skyrocketed among children in Belarus’ affected regions, from just two cases of thyroid cancer before the accident to at least 1,000 in the 10 years after.
'I have to live somewhere'
“I don’t feel any danger, and even if I did — what would it matter?” said Raisa Stradayeva, 62, as she and her grandson, Andrusha, trudged home through the rain in Svetilovichi, a village just outside the highly contaminated exclusion zone.
“I have to live somewhere and this is my home,” she said.
Besides, she said, the health risks can’t be that severe because “People are returning all the time.”
Not only Belarusians; foreigners are coming too, mostly from poorer ex-Soviet republics, seeking jobs and housing.
Yuri Kuzmich, head of Belarus’ Chernobyl exclusion and monitoring zone, rejects accusations that the government is intentionally sending anyone into danger. In his office in Gomel, a city of 500,000 that has suffered increased radiation-related illnesses, Kuzmich said his staff does all it can to keep people out of the worst-hit areas and provide information to those living in the surrounding region.
But, he admits, not everyone is on the same page. State-run farms “have plans to fulfill ... and they want to fulfill these no matter what,” he said. Those farms need workers, and farm workers come.
“The passage of time and economic necessity take their toll,” he said, sitting beneath a portrait of Lukashenko. “Human memory is short. Eighteen years might as well be 100.”
Kuzmich’s team oversees the exclusion zone, manning checkpoints, escorting visitors into the region and collecting scientific and medical data. Some employees are also assigned to oversee the villages under radiation monitoring.
Reporter sees easy access
However, a reporter visiting recently was never questioned when entering the exclusion zone, checkpoints appeared deserted and the mushroom- and berry-pickers walk through on the main road, via forest paths or on buses that still pass through the zone.
Margarita Artemyeva, who moved here from Kazakhstan, was helping her 25-year-old daughter, Natasha, wallpaper her new home — a damp bungalow identical to its neighbors.
“I don’t even think about it. I’m not scared at all. If there was a real danger, we’d know it, wouldn’t we?” said Artemyeva, 44. She rejected the claim that the poor are being used to repopulate the area.
Critics claim vegetables, milk and meat from Chernobyl-contaminated regions such as Svetilovichi are being sold throughout Belarus. But in a nation where the average monthly salary is about $150, few have the option of putting health concerns first and buying imports.
Besides, the berries and wild mushrooms supplement meager diets and also sell well.
After Artemyeva mentioned she loved mushrooms, one of Kuzmich’s employees took her aside and gently warned her against collecting them in the exclusion zone.