Sense of victimhood and fatalism does more damage than radiation

Different cloud lingers over Chernobyl

April 09, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

CHECHERSK, Belarus -- The aims are decidedly modest: to mow overgrown grass in front of weathered, long-abandoned houses; open a bakery to provide fresh bread to children at village schools; plant small gardens to yield fruit and vegetables free of radiation.

Those small steps are part of the latest chapter of the long recovery effort in this part of the former Soviet Union 20 years after an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, the deadliest accident in the history of nuclear power.

The accident occurred 120 miles to the southeast, across the border in Ukraine. Thousands of workers labor at the site to maintain the protective concrete shell around the plant's destroyed reactor No. 4 and to remove radioactive material from its three other reactors.

But in this rural district of scattered villages and lonely roads, the recovery effort focuses on a different, debilitating problem: the psychological toll the accident has taken on people here.

In a report released last fall, an international team of experts concluded that the population's sense of fatalism had done more than radiation-induced cancers and the contamination of farmland to put the future of communities in doubt.

Nadezhda Kiryushkina struggles to describe how Chernobyl changed her village in the Chechersk district in Belarus. It's as if she finds the question itself somehow strange.

People have houses, she says, and jobs. She has to have her milk and produce checked periodically for radiation. But not that often, she says. She wishes she could go into the forest to collect birch sap and berries the way she once did.

The tens of thousands of deaths some researchers initially forecast have not occurred. As of mid-2005, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation exposure, most of them among emergency workers who participated in the cleanup, according to the Chernobyl Forum, a group of 100 doctors, scientists and economists from eight United Nations agencies and representatives from the governments of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

More than 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer have developed - the majority in children who drank milk from cows grazing on contaminated grass - but most of the people affected could have a normal life span.

Scientists say that so far there is no convincing evidence that the rates of other cancers have risen. They also point to a lack of statistical evidence for an increase in birth defects or a decrease in fertility caused by Chernobyl.

But traditional medicine has no simple measures or remedies for the impact on mental health.

The Chernobyl Forum described the population's "paralyzing fatalism," showing up as dependence on government, apathy about poor living conditions and people's belief that the situation here can't, and even shouldn't, become better.

"If we continue to treat them like victims, they feel like victims," Zoya I. Trafimchik, coordinator for a U.N. effort to encourage economic development, said of people in the affected areas of Belarus.

Many people seem willing to settle merely for survival, trapping them in what the Chernobyl Forum called a "downward spiral" of isolation, poor health and poverty. That is the mentality that experts say must change.

"Don't wait for the state's help," Tatyana Novak, head of the Chechersk Rural Council, urges residents. "You should start caring about your land and your health."

Projects supported by the United Nations in the affected areas of Belarus include master classes to help revive such industries as beekeeping, devastated by the accident. A new sheep farm will provide mutton and wool socks to children and their families. With U.N. help, residents are seeding flower beds and building greenhouses.

They are, in short, working to reclaim control over their lives.

Worst accident

The explosion at Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 began in the early morning of April 26, 1986, because of engineers' errors, mistakes fatally compounded by design flaws in the reactor. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and for two days the Soviet government made no acknowledgment that an accident had occurred. Only after Sweden detected higher-than-normal radiation over its territory did Soviet officials disclose the disaster.

About 116,000 people were evacuated that spring and summer. Authorities later moved an additional 220,000. Twenty-eight workers died in the first months from radiation poisoning, according to the Chernobyl Forum. Nineteen others died between 1987 and 2004, though not all from radiation. Thyroid cancer has killed 15 more.

Belarus, not Ukraine, bore the brunt of the damage. Seventy percent of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl landed here. In a nation roughly the size of Kansas with a population of about 10 million people, 1.6 million live in zones deemed "contaminated" by the government.

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