Still under Chernobyl's shadow
Twenty years after the disaster, hard-hit Belarus has yet to get substantial aid.
When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded 20 years ago, pouring radiation equivalent to more than 100 Hiroshima bombs into the air, the people of this small agricultural village a few miles downwind didn't flee.Skip to next paragraph
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"No one warned us about the danger. We were left in the dark," says Alexander Malinovsky, a boy at the time. No effort was ever made to evacuate people from Svetilovichi, says Mr. Malinovsky, who still farms his father's small plot here, deep inside Belarus's highly contaminated "exclusion zone." And little has been done since to help them adjust, he adds.
In the two decades since one of the world's worst environmental disasters, gobal attention - and aid - has largely focused on Ukraine, where the Chernobyl plant is located. But the plight of Belarus, where 70 percent of Chernobyl's nuclear fallout descended, is less well known. Over a fifth of the country is still considered heavily contaminated, with 1.5 million people living in those areas. Some, like the Malinovskys, inhabit dangerous hot spots that authorities have sealed off with barbed-wire - which are reachable only by negotiating special police checkpoints.
Dozens of shuttered and crumbling houses along Svetilovichi's main street suggest that many people have left town. But others, like Mr. Malinovsky and his family, say they have nowhere else to go.
"This is the land of my ancestors and I'll stay, whether it's good or bad," insists Malinovsky, who ekes out a living by hiring out his horse to plow fields and haul goods. His wife, Gertruda, earns about $100 per month as a milkmaid at a local collective farm.
Many people here fault President Alexander Lukashenko for the lack of international attention to Belarus's crushing nuclear legacy. Unlike democratic and relatively open Ukraine, Belarus has had trouble securing international aid.
"Lukashenko has effectively put an end to foreign aid by putting too many bureaucratic controls on it," says Vassily Yakovenko, chairman of the Chernobyl Social-Ecological Union, a grass-roots group based in the capital, Minsk. "He doesn't want foreigners here, so he keeps them out."
The authoritarian leader, who has ruled the country since 1994, has deflected the blame onto Western countries.
"Belarus didn't build Chernobyl, didn't exploit it, and didn't explode it," Mr. Lukashenko told journalists following his March reelection, in polls that international observers deemed fraudulent. "But we were the hardest hit.... Could Belarus have coped with this on its own? Instead of spending $100 billion on war, the United States might have helped us. But they don't want to."
In late March, the US and the European Union slapped sanctions on Belarus, citing Lukashenko's crackdown on the political opposition. Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, who has visited several Western countries since his defeat last month, said Tuesday that officials he's met on trips abroad have expressed concern about Chernobyl's consequences.
"Democratic countries have a sufficient ability to help - they are interested in helping us," Mr. Milinkevich said at an opposition-organized conference in Gomel, the Belarussian city nearest to Chernobyl. "But it is difficult to work with us. Going through all the departments is torture."
Observers say that bureaucratic hassle may explain delays in projects such as a $50 million World Bank initiative to bring natural-gas supplies to people in isolated villages in the exclusion zone. But deputy chair of the official State Chernobyl Committee, Valery Sevchuk, blames such delays on political maneuvering. "The attitude of Western organizations toward Belarus creates obstacles to cooperation. After all, Chernobyl is one thing; politics ought to be something different."
According to Mr. Sevchuk's committee, known as KomChernobyl, Belarus spends up to $1 billion annually dealing with the consequences of Chernobyl. "Foreign investment is very low, and we have to carry most of the burden ourselves," says Mr. Sevchuk.