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A Wasted Land

10 years later, through fear, Chernobyl still kills in Belarus

SAVICHI, Belarus–This has been a cheerless decade for 18-year-old Svetlana Lebenok. She never finished school because there are no longer any schools around here to finish. Her three older brothers spend their days tethered to a vodka bottle. Her parents live like invalids.

So when she heard there might be a job open in this emotionally scarred, ecologically poisoned village not far from her home, and only about 10 miles north of the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, she wasted no time worrying about her health. She just grabbed it.

Everyone is afraid here all the time," she said, standing behind the counter of the only store in this mostly abandoned village, where she rents a room from an older woman because there are no buses to take her home at night. "People talk a lot about how Chernobyl killed our country. That may be. But sometimes I think the fear is worse than the sickness."

Ten years after the catastrophe at Unit 4 of the V. I. Lenin Atomic Power Station turned the word Chernobyl into the world's foremost symbol of technological disaster, the legacy of the accident can be felt in every part of this wasted land. The fire, which burned out of control for five days, spewed more than 50 tons of radioactive fallout across Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia.

Even now, the full medical consequences of the accident are unclear, but some truths have emerged.

In terms of deaths–and even probable long-term illness– Chernobyl was not the worst industrial accident of recent times. Fewer than 500 people have died so far as a direct result. By contrast, the chemical leak at Bhopal, India, in 1984 killed at least 2,000 people and injured 200,000. Oil fires during the Persian Gulf war in Kuwait and enormous pipeline spills in Russia may have caused more serious immediate damage to the environment.

But in terms of political significance, economic dislocation and absolute and enduring fear, Chernobyl stands alone.

"It's not too much to say that Chernobyl helped destroy the Soviet Union and end the cold war," said Richard Wilson, professor of physics at Harvard University.

"What it did to Belarus is hard to describe," he said while attending a recent conference in Minsk, the capital, on the effects of the accident. "But the worst disease here is not radiation sickness. Except for children, the physical effects are not easy to measure. The truth is that the fear of Chernobyl has done much more damage than Chernobyl itself."

Those are strong words, but even a few figures–and some time spent traveling through the partial ghost towns of southern Belarus–bear them out. The radiation released after the explosion at the reactor's core on April 26, 1986, was nearly 200 times that of the combined releases from the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The wind carried by far the heaviest radioactive deposits across this country, where even today 25 percent of the land is considered uninhabitable. Thousands of villages were abandoned. Schools were closed, prime cattle were slaughtered by the ton, huge factories were shut without a second thought. Desperate villagers fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

The Government here says it devotes more than 15 percent of its gross national product–a total of more than $235 billion over the last decade–to paying the cost of resettling tens of thousands of people, as well as the medical and social bills growing from Chernobyl, which is still operating just across the border. Yet nobody is sure it is making any progress.

The Fallout The Deepest Scars Are in the Mind

The worst scars have settled in the mind. And no place has been punished more than the Gomel region of Belarus, where the Soviet authorities denied the accident for several days, allowing people to linger in the radiation, then lied about its severity.

An area of nearly 2 million people–20 percent of the country's population–Gomel once had the most fertile farmland in all Belarus. Today it is as if somebody had sown the land with salt: 20 of 21 agricultural districts produce nothing. People have become paralyzed with fear. They are afraid to move, afraid to stay, afraid to marry and afraid to have families. All normal life stopped here simply because there was a strong northerly wind on April 26, 1986.

For months after the accident, from northern Finland to the Adriatic Sea, thousands of women had abortions in panic over the possible effects of exposure to radiation. In Gomel, even today, there are three abortions for every live birth, a rate more than twice that for the rest of the country.

"People say we are not really sicker than anyone else in the former Soviet Union," said Nikokai I. Ermakov, the man in charge of Gomel's response to the accident. "They are talking about blood diseases and death rates. That is not my interest. My interest is life in Gomel. Here we have no jobs. The pristine forests have radiation signs posted all over them. Poor farmers cannot eat what they grow. Is it so strange that what happened here seems like a biblical curse?"

The city of Gomel, 70 miles north of Chernobyl, has more than half a million residents. But it is barren in the surrounding region, where the soil still holds most of the radioactive fallout. Driving south into the Exclusion Zone–the area within an 18-mile radius of Chernobyl that is still considered too polluted for human habitation–presents a visitor with one of modern life's eeriest visions.

Scores of farms, villages and hamlets remain empty here. Huge cafeterias, the buildings where most people ate all their meals in Soviet times, have been stripped and their deeply contaminated parts sold on the black market. Cars lie partly buried in the loamy soil, and empty buckets hover silently over poisoned wells.

Deserted houses stand with coats on still on hooks. There are butter churns, pots on the shelves and stacks of newspapers everywhere. "My dearest Lydia," reads one postcard on the floor of a house in the empty village of Molochki, dated a couple weeks before the accident. "I hope you pass the exams successfully. Best of luck and cheer up. Your loving grandma Sasha." Half a dozen dolls were strewn nearby.

Several thousand people still live scattered in some of these towns. They are not supposed to, but many have no choice. The radiation was deposited unevenly across the region, with some villages heavily contaminated and neighboring villages almost untouched. Most residents attribute every ill or problem in their lives to "the station," which is what they call Chernobyl.

"My teeth are falling out, and I can't see too well anymore," said Volodya Ronashev, a 48-year-old forest administrator who lives and works in the zone. "I used to be healthy. What else could it be but the station?"

The truth about the causes of medical illness is often hard to find, and much harder to prove. There seems little doubt that Chernobyl's enormous release of radiation has affected the thyroids of many thousand children in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

The rise in cancer rates is too stark for any other conclusion. There were seven cases of thyroid cancer among children in Belarus in the decade preceding the accident. Since 1990 there have been more than 300 cases, almost none of which have so far been fatal. But what about other diseases? Are people in this contaminated land really sicker than anywhere else?

"Nuclear energy is invisible," said Dr. Johan Havenaar, chief of emergency psychiatry at the University Hospital in Utrecht, the Netherlands. "It's treacherous. It scares people so they think it causes them to be sick."

The Survivors: Many Accept Fate In Uncertain Land

Like most doctors or radiation specialists, Dr. Havenaar readily concedes that it is too early to know everything about the effects of Chernobyl. But he decided to test the widely held belief that people in Gomel are already sicker than people elsewhere.

He compared about 1,500 Gomel residents with a similar sample from the northern Russian town of Tver, where no radioactivity from Chernobyl had been detected. The Gomel Project, as the study came to be known, lasted from 1992 to 1995 and included the most exhaustive medical examinations the participants had ever received.

The study showed that the people from Gomel said they were five times as sick as those from Tver. And they almost always attributed those illnesses to some result of radiation from Chernobyl. In reality, after clinical exams, the level and types of physical illness were similar–but psychological distress in Gomel was far greater.

"These people are sick," Dr. Havenaar said. "It's just not the type of illness they think. We have to realize that the psychological damage here runs very deep. And we need to treat that every bit as vigorously as we need to treat cancer."

Svetlana Lebenok, the shop clerk who rents a room in the radiated depths of Savichi so that she can sell butter and eggs to the 35 families left living there–and make extra wages doing it in a danger zone–put the issue another way. "I don't think my parents have really done anything at all but sit in a room since the accident," she said. "They weren't injured. I know that. People with cancer get help. But isn't there anything they can do for everyone else? There must be some answer."

The reality is that there are no simple answers to the range of health, environmental and money problems created by the Chernobyl accident. Eight times in the last decade the leaders of Ukraine have decided to close the giant facility's remaining three reactors. And eight times they have changed their minds because shutting the plant would strip 5,000 jobs from a region already devastated economically.

For Belarus, the problem is even more acute. The country most affected by history's worst nuclear accident does not even have a nuclear power plant. Belarus opposed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and when it was left alone it was left with immense bills it could not possibly handle. An agricultural land tainted by the ultimate modern poison is of little use to anyone.

The people here have long sought to reunite with Russia, in part so that it may better pay for Chernobyl. [On March 23 the two Slavic countries agreed to form a union that would tie them to each other politically, economically and culturally, though they would remain separate countries.]

"The Chernobyl disaster taught us there are no borders to the modern world," said Ivan A. Kenik, the chief Belarus official in charge of the Chernobyl aftermath. "It taught us to question faith in technology and in ourselves. I now wonder if we as a civilization have the knowledge, strength and wisdom to survive this nuclear century?"

Many of the people living in the region think they already know the answer. There has always been such a lack of certainty about the effects of the accident and information from the Government and health experts that nobody believes much of anything now. Relatively few even seek answers, although several health centers are available for questions every day.

For years after the accident all those in the Gomel area got extra wages and free medical care. When the Government realized it could not keep up the policy for much longer, it applied a 12 percent "Chernobyl tax" to wage earners. Even so, the benefits are no longer available to most people.

"They come around here and ask us why we never left," said Elena A. Shagovika, a 67-year-old resident of Khoiniki, about 30 miles north of the reactor. "Where were we going to go? And what would we do there? When my old neighbors come back to see us they just stand in the road and weep. We don't belong anywhere else. We belong here."

The Dislocated: Those Who Left Feel Worst of All

Most studies have shown that the people who feel worst about the accident and their lives are the nearly 200,000 refugees who have been resettled in other parts of Belarus. Those who stood their ground, usually out of necessity, like Mrs. Shagovika, seem to have a better attitude about their fate.

"At least I am at home," she said. Her house is a two-room wooden cottage on a road only a few hundred yards from a fence that marks the beginning of the forbidden zone. Most other houses there have long been deserted. The window panes all blew out years ago.

But there are a few children playing in the street these days — new residents from parts of the former Russian empire where persecution and uncertainty make this quiet town look promising. Mrs. Shagovika eats the food and drinks the milk drawn from her cow. People tell her it is dangerous but it is not as if they are busing in new supplies very often.

"I have to die sometime," she said, having resigned herself to whatever fate was assigned to her on a spring day in 1986. "I want to do it in a comfortable place."

But the people of Microregion 17 of Gomel are not happy. Evacuated from the most dangerous parts of the exclusion zone, they have been forced to trade their simple wooden homes for cramped, windy apartments on the soulless edge of the sprawling city. Empty vodka bottles carpet the roads leading to the housing project.

"If I knew it would be this bad, I would have chained myself to the gates back home," Tamara Lusenko said. She was forcibly evacuated shortly after the accident and now lives in a place that to her is like a prison.

"Is the danger really so bad there now?" she asked wistfully, hoping for the all clear. "Isn't it time we all went home?"

That is a question that may never be answered. Not even the experts know what long-term exposure to low doses of radiation does to people. Many suspect the effects will not be nearly as severe as once feared. But it will take a generation or more to be certain.

"We are the great guinea pigs of modern times," said Yevgeny Konoplya, director of the Radiobiology Institute of the Belarus Academy of Sciences and an expert on post-Chernobyl effects.

"We are getting to prove for the world what radiation can do to humans," he said. "We have suffered from the policies of a country that no longer even exists. We have suffered from lies. And we have suffered from other people's belief in technology. We once had a beautiful country. What we have now is pain."

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