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Belarus’ forgotten children – victims of Chernobyl’s nuclear radiation

Kevin Barry in Chernobyl: ‘Misha is an example of what happens when a country is on its knees’  Irish Examiner, August 05, 2019 

In 2000 the Irish Examiner sent Kevin Barry, now longlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel Night Boat to Tangier, to Chernobyl. Here we reproduce what he reported

Misha photographed by Eugene Kolzov at the No 1 orphanage in Minsk.Misha, aged seven, is the victim of not one but many sicknesses. His physical disorders, as can be plainly seen, are many and various.

But Misha is the victim of another ailment too, a kind of compassion deficiency.

Chernobyl isn’t fashionable these days, it’s been around so long now. April 26, 1986 seems a long time in the way-distant past. After the initial blurt of paranoia and charitable outreach, the fickle gaze of public interest quickly flicked from the incident at Reactor No 4 to fresher horrors.

Misha, then, has been shuffled way back in the compassion pack. He has fallen behind the other ravaged children who sombrely people the planet’s trouble spots, in places like Mozambique and Ethiopia.

He’s competing with Rwanda and Chechnya. And it’s beginning to tell Misha’s illness is a direct consequence of the Chernobyl explosion.

The radioactive danger in Belarus is not so much in the air now as in the food chain. Professor Yuri Bandashevsky, a dissident scientist, told the Irish Examiner this week that the mutations caused by radiation in children like Misha have by now entered the gene pool and thus the effects of the ‘86 explosion can stretch to infinity.

After criticising the state’s alleged misspending of research money for Chernobyl, Professor Bandashevsky recently found himself banged up in jail for five months, bound at the feet.

Which isn’t the sort of thing that bodes well for the likes of Misha. Some aid continues to filter through. This week, a convoy run by the Chernobyl Children’s Project has been on a drive through Belarus, dispensing almost £2 million in food and medicines.

One of the institutions the orphanage supports is Novinki, a children’s asylum on the outskirts of Minsk. Such is its Dickensian squalor, its actual existence was long denied by the state. This is where you’ll find little Misha.

Project leader Adi Roche says she has known the child since he was a baby, but has been stunned at his deterioration since she last visited in December.

After finding him emaciated and dying this week, the project has placed a Dublin nurse and a local Chernobyl nurse on 24-hour care alert with Misha, an attempt to make whatever is left of his life as painless as possible

“We don’t know how long Misha will live, or if he will live, but we are morally obliged to do everything in our power to attempt saving his life,” said Ms Roche last night.

“‘He is not the only child in Belarus suffering as horrifically as this. he’s just one of many.” she added. “‘These children are the victims of 14 years of neglect by the international community.”’

Many children in Belarus consigned to mental asylums have no mentaI handicap. “All orphaned children with any kind of disability are put into mental asylums if they live beyond the age of four,” she said.

Meanwhile, staffed by1,000 workers, the Chernobyl plant continues operate a couple of kilometres inside the Ukraine border.

The authorities say it will close this year. The concrete sarcophagus built to contain contamination from the reactor has 200 holes and counting.

Orphans of the nuclear age

Kevin Barry, in Chernobyl, finds a land and its people scarred by a disaster from which they may never recover.

Chernobyl at this time of year is beautiful, the borderlands of the Ukraine and Belarus a pastoral and idyllic place. Vast swardes of rich woodland are full of babbling brooks and twittering songbirds, every way you turn, there’s a postcard vista to please even the most jaded eyes.

The locals, however, are edgy. The President of Belarus, Alaksandr Lukashenko — aka ‘Batska’ (‘The Father’) — has decreed that the farmlands here–abouts are now safe to plant and he’s threatening to fly overhead and make sure the workers are toiling.

If not, he says, there will be trouble. Big trouble.

The notion of Batska in an airplane is enough to prompt sleepless nights for those who remain in the Purple Zone, the area most contaminated by the accident in 1986 at Smelter No 4 of the nuclear plant that lies inside the Ukranian border.

In a tragedy of happenstance, because there was a stiff northerly gusting that day, Belarus took the brunt of the damage and because radioactivity is most lethal when it attacks developing human systems, children have borne most of the pain.

But for these children, the most serious ailment is not the thyroid cancer or the leukaemia or the heart trouble or the kidney failure or the various disorders of colon and spleen prompted by Chernobyl.

The greatest danger is the compassion-fatigue. 1986 seems a long time ago now and the incident at Smelter No 4 is no longer swaddled in the necessary event-glamour or crisis-chatter.

When the evening news is an atrocity exhibition, when daily there are hellish dispatches from Mozambique, Ethiopia and Chechnya, the Belarussians fall ever further back in the line.

The foreign correspondents have long since moved on elsewhere. The story of a child developing thyroid cancer over a period of years doesn’t conform neatly with the sound-byte culture.

By this stage, the Belarussians have had enough. A condition of mass denial exists in the country and a native of the village Solchechy in the Purple Zone says that up to around 1993, everybody fretted and freaked out but then they decided, well, to hell with it.

“The mess got to be too much,” she says.

We don’t think about it now. Life is life and we try to get on with it.

This is easier said than done in Belarus. The country’s economy is shot — agriculture was its mainstay and since Chernobyl, the income from farming has been negligible. Almost 30% of the country’s annual turnover goes to the clean-up operation.

Belarus remains the most Soviet of states. There are thickly-piled layers bureaucracy and this tangle of demented protocol regulations and petty restrictions is amorphic, constantly shape-shifting.

The natives have had to develop a stoic acceptance of a hard frustrating life…….. https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/views/analysis/kevin-barry-in-chernobyl-misha-is-an-example-of-what-happens-when-a-country-is-on-its-knees-941735.html

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August 6, 2019 - Posted by | Belarus, children, PERSONAL STORIES, Reference

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