April 26th, 1986 was a breaking moment in the history of three republics: Belarus, Ukraine and Russia; they were directly affected by the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster. Not only millions of residents of the suffered territories realized the reality of nuclear energy: the whole world saw what scales a nuclear tragedy might produce if something goes wrong. In the first years after the accident, the affected states independently settled problems related to social and medical consequences and Belarus — despite hard times and limited possibilities — was also among those who relied only on themselves. In thirty years of after-Chernobyl life, the country has not only recovered from the catastrophe but managed to achieve an absolutely new level of development.
Disaster on a sunny day
The Chernobyl nuclear powers station’s catastrophe affected almost a quarter of the Belarusian territory: over 3,000 cities and villages and twenty percent of the country’s population. Around 25 percent of Belarusian forests were contaminated with radiation and the total damage in thirty years of the struggle against the disaster consequences makes $235bln for the country.
In the beginning, scales of the catastrophe were not viewed as so much terrible. However, when the truth was rea-lized, Belarus mobilized all resources to protect people in the affected zone. The General Secretary of the Trade Unions’ Confederation — Vladimir Shcherbakov — attended a special session in Gomel devoted to the problem. He said, “To li-quidate consequences of the catastrophe, many material resources were attracted and a great number of people were involved. Programmes — approved in the first years after the disaster — worked efficiently in the late 1980s-early 1990s. A programme aimed at establishment of radiation scientific-practical medical centres was also efficient. However, after the USSR collapse, the affected countries had to solve problems independently.”
The Chernobyl catastrophe affected many Belarusian districts — mostly in Gomel and Mogilev Regions. Thousands of people had to leave their houses forever as radiation left them no choice. The state offered support to those settlers — providing them with free accommodation and a possibility to start their life at a new place. Much money was injected into medicine to help people, rehabilitation of contaminated lands and producing of ecologically friendly food. Life was going on: time, science and state investments have done their job. This decade, Belarus has at last outlined a new vector: from overcoming and rehabilitation of contaminated areas to sustainable development of regions via comfortable business doing, establishment of new production facilities and improvement of the social sphere. To achieve this, the state is ready to provide preferences.
At present, the fear, despondency and loss of the early 1990s on post-Chernobyl territories are no longer common. The frightening uncertainty has transformed into clear and transparent stability. Owing to rehabilitation actions, the contaminated areas of Belarus have got their second breathing. People do not longer leave them for the search of a better life. New enterprises and being built here; young families come to bring up children. Everyone knows: the black date is in the past. It is remembered but people no longer look into the past, viewing themselves as victims of the tragedy. On the contrary, everything is being done to return the life course into the previous calm mainstream when every day is open for new discoveries rather than a desire to pack up bags and go somewhere farther.
Health is a priority
Human health remains a priority of the Belarusian state and, with this in mind, the country injects as much as possible into the development of medical sphere — focusing on the future. In December 2002, the Republican Research Centre of Radiation Medicine and Human Ecology began its functioning in Gomel — concentrating on problems, achievements and scientific studies in the field of people’s ‘post-Chernobyl’ life. The disaster happened three decades ago and the Centre’s Deputy Director — Anzhelika Zharikova — comments on whether any changes in focuses are observed, since initially, the Centre’s mission was to medically control health of all residents of the affected territories. The official notes, “As before, the Centre is a head organization in Belarus to render medical aid to affected population. This involves over 1.5mln people who are subject to dynamic examinations and preventive observation. Several groups of the primary registration are in focus: liquidators, evacuated people, those living in the zone but leaving it, children of liquidators and residents of exclusion zones, as well population of the territories subject to regular radiation control. We pay major attention to these categories.”
Ms. Zharikova explains how the scheme of action operates in connection to a certain territory. The obligatory health issue is to pass a regular preventive examination which enables doctors to trace changes in a human organism, while diagnosing a disease in its initial stage. The accumulated information is endlessly being analyzed to promptly correct the medical avenues of the sphere. Speaking of the key result in the decades of rendering ‘post-Chernobyl’ aid, the doctor notes, “We’ve succeeded to achieve sustainable indicators of disease incidence among the affected population against similar indicators of the country’s non-contaminated areas. Regarding the initial morbidity, these indicators in Gomel Region are lower than the figures on the nationwide level. No tendency for a growth is registered.”
Of course, three decades is a minor period for radiation and nobody would dare to speak of the consequences of the radioactive damage to Belarusians’ health. Accordingly, scientific studies at the Centre continue, with major focus made on advancing. If there is even a small chance to forecast the appearance of disease, Gomel’s scientist-doctors take as much effort as possible.
Importantly, science truly matters in this field. Belarusians use the most advanced global achievements and their own developments. Accordingly, new directions are actively developing and the Republican Research Centre of Radiation Medicine and Human Ecology focuses not exclusively on Belarus: as planned in the past, citizens of the neighboruing Russian and Ukrainian territories come. Last year, the Centre’s specialists helped patients from over 20 CIS and non-CIS states to recover their health: all of them chose the Gomel clinic instead of other destinations.
The disaster became a true shock for Gomel Region’s Vetka District: 18,000 citizens remained in the area instead of 48,000. Most villages were resettled and forests were fenced behind an alarming sign: ‘Attention! Radiation!’ Even now, these stop blocks are found in Vetka District. However, they do not look frightening now: they rather remind us of the past — warning that rules must be met and caution is necessary. Only then anyone would feel safe.
In recent years, Vetka has flourished and does no longer resemble the town it was once. New accommodation is being built and new enterprises open. The First Deputy Chairman of Vetka District Executive Committee — Valery Zholudev — tells us with pride, “The most powerful poultry is now being built in Gomel Region. In line with the project, 24 henhouses are to be launched, in addition to our own processing workshop. The first stage of the object will become operational later this year. Moreover, 140 new jobs are to be offered. At the moment, construction of a major milk-commodity complex and a pig farm is almost complete — providing another 140 jobs.”
The district is developing — as seen from points of the economic growth. Truly, people’s wellbeing could hardly be possible without new production facilities. Each new successful company ensures citizens’ financial stability and confidence in the future. Our talk with Mr. Zholudev continues:
Did you born in Vetka District?
No, I came from Grodno Region. In 1988, I was sent to the horse plant in Vetka District’s Staroe Selo, as a young specialist.
Did you agree? You knew of the Chernobyl disaster…
I agreed but was confident that would return home after two years. However, I got used to this land. I married and my children were born here. After many years, I’ve realized: it’s probably no better place for life in the world.
What about radiation?
I can comment. Radiation is on closed territories, behind fences. It is reducing here as well since radionuclides are being split. As regards residential areas, life here is even better than in clear regions. I own a large house where my family feel comfortable. I have a job which brings me satisfaction and pleasure. If I would be proposed to move somewhere else — I wouldn’t go; you may either believe me or not…
While walking along Vetka’s narrow streets — which little resemble city avenues, there is an impression that the town is small and homish. However, this adds a special atmosphere: anyone would love to make a stop here — breathing wonderful local air.
By Violetta Dralyuk