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The Narovlya District was among the most affected of the Chernobyl areas: 36 of its villages disappeared forever

Chronicles of Konotop village

The Narovlya District was among the most affected of the Chernobyl areas: 36 of its villages disappeared forever. Plaques with their names on are now exhibited at the Historical-Ethnographic Museum.

Plaques bearing the names of vanished villages in the Ethnographic Museum’s exhibition in Narovlya

The local villagers don’t ask for sympathy: they love their native land and are happy to talk about it endlessly. The Chairman of the Narovlya Rural Council — Marina Alkhovik — is revving the car engine and fastening her seat belt, while commenting, “I’ve never resettled since childhood and have no plans of the kind. The local beauty is amazing. You’ll soon be convinced too!”

We are driving to Konotop village which is jokingly called Konotop-City. Before the disaster, it was a major town. Its population fell as low as 30 but around 110 people live there now. Some from the neighbouring Mozyr and Yelsk district are eager to build summer houses or cottages here — being attracted by the laid back routine, charming natural landscape and the possibility of growing their own plants and vegetables. Tourists also appreciate the area. In this respect, demand has generated supply, including the Konotop-based Pripyatchanka homestead. A camp is here in summer and tourists can also enjoy the river nearby. Host Nina Dubinok repeats the commonly heard words, “I have lived here all my life and I’m never going away. After the disaster, I took my daughter to Grodno but soon came back. I worked as a stock manager at the local district consumers’ society and had to accept products which were brought in great quantities.  I remember weighing 12 tonnes of Moscow sausages. Everyone was honest. Our warehouses were not guarded, but nothing was ever stolen. We were told many awful stories: the station would explode again; our district would be completely destroyed in 6 years… this was later changed to 11 years. Three decades have passed and our area is still here.”

Konotop was an area of resettlement for a long time. Its residents had the right to move. 88 year old Yevgenia Kovalchuk could have had the chance. She meets us in the garden where all the vegetables are well planted. In spring 1986 she was already a pensioner. She learnt of the explosion when her neighbours were visited by relatives who worked at the station. Some days later, everything began changing: transport columns began arriving from Ukraine — bringing belongings and cattle. Konotop residents didn’t panic. Ms. Kovalchuk recollects, “We were not afraid of anything. We were expecting resettlement but were told: ‘You may either go away or stay. I decided to remain in the village. It has a river, a forest and an orchard. I cannot live in a city flat. I’ve never understood the fear. Some people used to wail: ‘We’ll all die…’ However, we are still alive.”

In the Narovlya District’s Konotop village

The local streets are pleasantly clean and beautiful. The villagers participate keenly in the best kept village competition organised by the councils. Last year, around 50 hectares were allocated for use in Konotop: 30 of them are planned to be used for agricultural purposes. This is a great achievement: no agrarian company would have ever accepted lands with excessive radiation levels. Areas of contamination are being erased. These are mostly buildings abandoned during mass evacuation.

We visit the local health post; like the house of culture, it was built in 2012 after the previous building failed to meet fire safety and sanitary norms. The new building resembles a small polyclinic — with consulting rooms, a laboratory, a medical treatment room, a bathroom and a rest room. Doctor Oksana Zayats has just returned from an inspection. According to her, there is no evidence of increase in diseases. In recent years, more patients suffering from diabetes have been detected but this is a general tendency common for places outside the Chernobyl zone as well. Medical specialists often visit Konotop and adults of the district have an annual medical exam (twice a year for children): it aims to detect any diseases at the initial stage.

Local villager Nadezhda Shmeltser comes to measure her blood pressure. She has lived here since 2000, coming with her children from Kazakhstan. “We had no jobs and prospects there,” the woman explains. “We were not afraid of radiation. In the place we lived previously, road metal was mined and the radiation levels were even higher.” The resettlers received accommodation and the problem of employment was solved unexpectedly when the President visited the village during his annual trip to the Chernobyl area on the eve of the anniversary. He heard about the employment problem and, subsequently, more cattle were brought to the local farm — which resulted in new jobs.

A yellow school bus meets us on our way home. Konotop’s children are glued to the windows — smiling and joking. The village really has a future!

By Ruslan Proleskovsky
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