Peaceful life in Belarus's contaminated zone

PYOTR Annishenko and his wife Evdokia refused to leave their village in eastern Belarus even though the authorities tried to make them abandon the area polluted by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

“Those were lies. Of my neighbours who left, my peers and even those younger than me are all dead now, while I stayed to work on my land and am still living,” the 75-year-old farmer said.

With only 100 kilometres between the village and the ill-fated nuclear power station, Dzemyanki and its surrounding area was heavily contaminated by a radioactive cloud spouted by Chernobyl’s ravaged fourth reactor.

The caesium contamination in the area is over 40 curies a square kilometre, compared to 1-5 curies in areas that were considered to have received small doses of pollution.

Nearly 90% of Belarus, north of Ukraine where the Chernobyl explosion happened, was affected by radiation.

It takes a special authorisation to get into the heavily supervised sector, where only grass-filled foundations are left of wooden houses in the wake of the disaster to prevent fires that could set free more radioactive elements.

Dzemyanki still stands, deserted and sinister despite its

blooming orchards. Out of its 900 inhabitants, only the Annishenko couple and a few dozen others chose to stay on the land of their forefathers.

Their former neighbours were all evacuated in the 1990s to houses and apartments outside of the contaminated area, but many had trouble finding work and have only their Chernobyl pensions to live on.

After 1986, some 135 000 people were evacuated in Belarus alone, but 1,5-million Belarussians still live in contaminated areas, according to UN figures.

The explosion and radiation are already believed to have caused the deaths of between 15 000 and 30 000 people, mainly in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

“With a land as good as the one we have here, many would have liked to stay.
But the authorities closed the school and the kindergarten, so young families left,” Annishenko explained in a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian.

“At first our daughters, who live in Gomel, did not let our grandchildren come visit us,” his 73-year-old wife Evdokia reminisced as she hobbled about, leaning heavily on a cane.

“Now, they don’t even think twice about it,” she added. The Annishenkos’ five children live in less polluted areas of the region and come often to Dzemiyanki to toil in the two acres of the kitchen garden surrounding the house.

“My daughter sometimes takes me to town to see a doctor, and specialists come to examine us regularly. But my sicknesses have more to do with age than radiation,” the elderly woman said.

In the courtyard, amid a few clucking chickens and barking dogs, Pyotr proudly displayed his apiary—dozens of wooden boxes humming with bees that had just emerged from hibernation.

“I give the honey to my daughters, who share it with their friends. They know this is good, pure honey,” he said. However, despite their assurances, his wife confessed that they had thought of leaving the village in the wake of the catastrophe, but could not find a place where they would want to live.

“It’s up to the master of the house to decide. And where would he go without his bees and the river where he loves fishing so much?” Evdokia sighed. Pyotr has his own regrets.

“Our neighbour Nikolai has left, the idiot. He could not stand it and he hanged himself. Now I have no one to drink with,” he mourned. ? Sapa-AFP

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