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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April 2005, 18:57 GMT 19:57 UK
Belarus cursed by Chernobyl

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Gomel, Belarus

A radiation warning sign
One-fifth of Belarus' farming land is contaminated

Komarin state farm is just 18km (11 miles) from the crippled Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

When reactor number four exploded on 26 April 1986, this land across the border in Belarus was directly in the danger path.

Almost two decades on, the Belarussian authorities are investing heavily in the region, saying it needs to be exploited.

The farm's sheds are now filled with rows of rust-red coloured cattle. Producing radiation free-milk was too costly to turn a profit, so state funding helped buy this elite breed of cow that is ideal for meat.

"Of course the radiation makes life complicated, and farming here is more expensive. That's why the state compensates us," farm director Grigory explains.

"But we can't just abandon this land. People have always lived here and they plan to stay, radiation or no."

Grigory insists regular checks mean his meat is safe to eat - even though one-fifth of his land lies inside the exclusion zone that surrounds Chernobyl.

Devastating blow

Belarus took 70% of the fallout from the power plant; one fifth of the country's agricultural land was contaminated.

Anastasia checking radiation levels in a cow shed
Anastasia says people's fear of radiation is falling
These days the authorities here are keen for normal life to resume where possible.

But living safely in the Chernobyl-affected regions requires considerable effort.

In and around Komarin it is Anastasia's job to ensure the food people eat does not contain dangerous doses of radiation.

At the local radiation control centre, she checks samples on an ancient-looking apparatus.

"If food is contaminated we tell people how they can make it safer - by boiling it, or sometimes soaking in salt water," Anastasia explains.

"Of course it's better if they throw it out. We try to give people information."

Anastasia runs around 600 tests a year, but she admits it is getting harder to persuade people to keep bringing their food in.

The fear level is falling; and in many areas the test centres have been closed.


Three hours' drive north of Komarin, Doctor Valentina Smolnikova has to deal with the consequences.

Baby Christina was born with a serious heart defect her family blame on the after-effects of Chernobyl. It cannot be proven - but the radioactive fallout reached this area too.

An abandoned house
Many houses in Belarus were abandoned after the accident
It is not only 10-month-old Christina who is sick.

Her grandmother's neck is badly disfigured by a tumour on her thyroid; her two teenage aunts have the same condition; two other close relatives have cancer.

Like most people in the affected zone, grandmother Valia keeps her own cow for milk, and grows most of the family's food on their allotment.

She knows there is a risk of contamination, but confesses she has never checked.

"I think the less you know the better," Valia whispers, her breathing shallow, obstructed by the tumour.

"Even if we found out our food was contaminated, we'd still eat it, we'd have no alternative.

"But the fear will always remain. It's not fair, but there are so many sick people here, and you can't evacuate them all."

Doctor Smolnikova checks baby Christina's heart through her stethoscope, and advises Valia on the chances of an operation.

She has a long list of other patients like them.

"Those who say there is no link with Chernobyl should open their eyes and look at the medical statistics," Doctor Smolnikova says.

She has been the village doctor here since long before the nuclear disaster.

"Before Chernobyl I'd never seen a child with cancer. Now it's common.

"I treat many more children now with heart defects and kidney damage. To say it's nothing to do with Chernobyl just isn't honest."

Travel restricted

The children of Chernobyl have always had a temporary escape route through international charity.

Doctor Valentina Smolnikova
Dr Smolnikova blames Chernobyl for the increase in cancer

Eight-year-old Katya went to Germany last year for a month of fresh food and fresh air.

But now Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has threatened to ban such trips, saying children are being corrupted by capitalism.

He has already tightened the rules and because Katya has a heart murmur, she is not eligible anymore.

Her father Ivan cannot understand why she has to miss out.

"I think the president believes there are clean places in Belarus the kids should go to. But if people are inviting them abroad, why refuse?

"It's not right. Chernobyl was not the children's fault. We have to help them."

But Ivan doubts President Lukashenko will change his mind.

Katya's host family is coming to visit them from Germany next week instead, so her friends have been preparing a performance to greet them.

As well as national songs and dance, they are practising a candle-lit mime that tells the story of the Chernobyl disaster.

Nineteen years on, they say the most important thing is that no one should forget.

Timeline: Belarus
18 Apr 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Belarus
18 Apr 05 |  Country profiles
Chernobyl victims remembered
26 Apr 04 |  Europe


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