Still under Chernobyl's shadow
Twenty years after the disaster, hard-hit Belarus has yet to get substantial aid.
SVETILOVICHI, BELARUS — 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.
"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.
Numerous nongovernmental organizations within Belarus working on Chernobyl-related issues have run into trouble. Mr. Yakovenko, of the Chernobyl Social-Ecological Union, says that growing state controls over independent activity make it difficult for his group to accomplish anything.
"We are allowed to exist formally, but it's like being in a vacuum," he says. "It's impossible to obtain any information from official sources, and there are almost no other civil-society groups that we might work with. Whatever we try to do, the government either takes [it] over or shuts [it] down."
One problem is determining the extent of the public health threat posed by radiation. A report issued by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last year calculated that only 50 deaths can be attributed to the accident, with perhaps 4,000 more in years to come.
The governments of both Belarus and Ukraine dispute that finding and say the death rate has been much higher among the 2 million then-Soviet citizens who were officially classed as "victims of Chernobyl."
"Our studies indicate that 34,499 people who took part in the cleanup of Chernobyl have died in the years since the catastrophe," Nikolai Omelyanets, deputy head of Ukraine's National Commission for Radiation Protection, told journalists last month. "All the information we sent to the IAEA has been ignored for some reason."
Other groups, including Greenpeace, have put the number closer to 100,000.
Oleg Gromyko, head of Belarus's tiny Green Party, says no serious public health studies have been done on people living in the exclusion zone around his home city of Gomel, which includes Svetilovichi. "The damage to this region has hardly been counted yet," he says. "We do not have scientific data, but all anecdotal evidence suggests it's very bad." In his own family, four of his six siblings died young - three of cancer, he says.
"We were all exposed to Chernobyl, but here I am, hale and hearty. That shows you how hard it is to get a handle on this," Mr. Gromyko explains. "Since there is no solid information, people don't know what to believe."
One group of Belarussian scientists who did try to accurately measure the effects of long-term radiation exposure in the population was broken up four years ago by the authorities and its leaders imprisoned. According to a report issued by Yakovenko's group, the group - experts with the nongovernmental Institute of Radiation Security in Minsk - had angered the government by publishing radiation figures for many Belarussian areas that were far above official estimates.
Mr. Gromyko, whose now-abandoned ancestral village of Gromyki is deep inside the exclusion zone, says much of the land that was declared too radioactive for use is being steadily turned back into farmland under orders from Lukashenko. He points out two large dairy farms inside the zone near Svetilovichy which appear to be operative.
Mr. Sevchuk, of the official KomChernobyl, insists that all foodstuffs are carefully controlled, and that little contaminated produce makes it to market.
"What we can control, we do control," he says. "We have 2,000 laboratories all over Belarus that are constantly checking for violations. We still have problems, but we are managing."
But Yakovenko says that radiation in foodstuffs is growing as farmland is brought back into production. The authorities have gotten around this, he says, by raising the maximum level of radiation allowed in food four- or five-fold. "Statistics from this government can't be trusted," he concludes.
None of this makes much difference to Malinovsky, who grows most of the food his family consumes, and never bothers to have it checked for radiation.
"A few years ago, officials came around and told us to get rid of our cows, that drinking the milk was very dangerous," he says. "But what are we supposed to do? There's no work around here, so we have to live on our means. Maybe the food is radioactive, but we still need to eat."
• Olga Podolskaya contributed reporting from Minsk. Material from the wires was also used.