Modest heroes of Chernobyl

I remember distinctly the images of Chernobyl on the TV screen in 1986
I remember distinctly the images of Chernobyl on the TV screen in 1986. That horrifying nuclear fire can’t be forgotten. At that time, Chernobyl seemed like a distant reality, but now it isn’t to me. I currently head the UN’s development efforts in Belarus, and have had the chance to travel to the areas most affected by the catastrophe exclusion zone — a quarantined no man’s land around the power plant in Ukraine several times in recent years.

Chernobyl’s surroundings and the nearby town of Prypiat, just over the border from Belarus, which received 70 percent of the nuclear follout, are strangely beautiful at this time of year. There’s a sense that nature has claimed back its rights in its most luxuriant form. The town of Pripyat, famous for its frozen in time Ferris wheel, lies dormant directly to the north of the power plant.

Hundreds of small towns were affected by Chernobyl, with 138,000 people unrooted from their homes. But, there are many people who decided to stay on. And for the hundreds of thousands of people living just outside the exclusion zone, the legacy of the disaster endures.

The disaster still represents a huge financial burden for Belarus. The total economic loss associated with Chernobyl is estimated at US$235 billion. Missed profits and investment opportunities alone are estimated at US$ 13.7 billion.

The radioactive fallout from the world’s worst nuclear disaster still permeates every aspect of the affected areas’ economies and societies.

But there’s another side of the story that I rarely see in the media and on the day of the 30th commemoration of the disaster, that’s the one I want to highlight.


Lyudmila Yerofeeva, a cheesemaker in the Slavgorod District

In the 30 years since that tragic night, there’s been a silent revolution in the way local populations in southeastern Belarus have handled themselves. It’s the stories of courage, hope and belief in the sanctity of human life that have moved me.

There’s Anastasia, the radiologist from Krasnoe who participated in rescue efforts in 1986, who continues to monitor radiation levels in her community despite being retired. She flew to Japan in 2013 to speak at an international conference on nuclear disasters.

There’s her son Oleg, who flew to Moscow after the explosion but came back to the area in the summer to assist in the burial of entire contaminated farmsteads and villages.

Galina, a single mother from Slavgorod District who heads a veterinary health laboratory and, a self-appointed spokesperson for the renaissance of Chernobyl-affected areas, created her own, certified and safe, soft cheese business using a special and incredibly productive breed of cows.

Starting in 2004, and with support from the United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF, UNFPA, WHO, IAEA, Japan, the European Union and others, around 70,000 people took part in a massive initiative to define recovery priorities and raise money for local populations in the following 12 years.

Thanks to them, 21 administrative districts of Belarus have better health monitoring and healthcare services, stronger markets and world-standard radiological quality control. Talk to the children of any of the towns in the affected area and they’ll teach you encyclopaedic knowledge of nuclear safety.

But above all, these unsung heroes exhibit a sense of pride and cultural heritage that’s unparalleled in its strength. We need to ensure present and future generations not only rise from the ashes of Chernobyl but find the strength and creative energy to build a more secure future. Let’s make sure no one is left behind in the process.

Sanaka Samarasinha, UN Resident Coordinator,  Resident Representative of UNDP and UNFPA Representative in Belarus
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