As a child, I really did not like the milk no matter how much my mother tried to put sugar or chocolate in it. I still don’t like it much. This was a little issue when I grew up between my mother and me. Today I am a Greenpeace campaigner and I came to a remote village in Ukraine. Our mission was to test the milk contamination in the area. We were about 4 hours drive from Chernobyl and even here you can see the contamination - especially in milk, something that is very important part of the daily diet here.
We knew it was contaminated - it was documented soon after the Chernobyl accident - but we were hoping to not to find it. You do not want to measure the milk of these subsistence farmers and tell them that they are poisoning themselves and their children. Long term accumulation of the radioactivity in their bodies is the reason that many children have unusual headaches, lose consciousness, have birth defects. How can you say that to those people whose livelihood depends on? It took us only one day to find samples of milk that were 5 to 16 times higher than the Ukrainian limits for children, 30 times higher than the control samples we had in Kiev where the markets are closely regulated and regularly checked. I wondered if those mothers also insist their kids to drink their milk in the mornings.
When asked, they said they knew the problems with the contamination in their food. Some remember the Chernobyl accident, and the fear at the time that they might all die within a year. They did not die within a year but the consequences of Chernobyl continued and they learned to live with it as a part of their lives. At the local children’s hospital we were told that it was getting worse. There are more and more children every year with problems; weak bones, anemia…etc. The ones with more serious problems are send to the regional hospital and if even more serious, directly to Kiev.
I talked with one of the locals who asked me about our findings. Women were queuing up where we set our portable station measuring activity in milk. They brought their food and asked us to let them know about our findings. I explained one of the women what the situation is, and that necessary support needs to be given to these communities, that Chernobyl is not only the exclusion zone - there is a much wider affected area. She laughed at my ignorance: “no one will care about us” she says. I couldn’t answer her, I couldn’t tell her that they will care.
A lady stopped us in front of the hospital with a little kid four years old. She was crying and asked us if we were doctors, if we could help her. Her little Ivan faints very often. Nobody really explained her what the problem is. Ivan looked at us from his big coat, all his face covered because of the cold weather apart from his eyes. He was a little shy and did not want to talk to us. I couldn’t help Ivan, I won’t be able to help to any of them. I felt so powerless. We went there to find the milk contamination and we found it. It took our little team only one day to find that contamination. It is known by officials in Ukraine and by international institutions that these areas are still very contaminated yet they choose to ignore it and do not do anything about it.
You see if it is far from the public eye in a remote village in Ukraine, it is not a problem for them.
Next month will be the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl. There are already many scientists and officials saying the consequences are not too bad, and it has already passed. There is even talk of opening some of the previously excluded areas for agriculture to symbolize that it is over and we can forget about it. They want to open the land for agriculture, for cattle to graze. Who is going to drink the milk of these cows? Which young mothers will ask their kids to finish their milk? The very people that you and me will never see on TV. They will never be professional spokespeople. Their stories will never be told. The government is working on a new law to lift the status of the Chernobyl invalids , so that they will not get the little financial support they were getting until now. It seems like if those people lived for 25 years after the Chernobyl - well that should be good enough for them.
We cannot forget about Chernobyl, what it has done and what it will continue to do many generations to come. The Chernobyl accident is what every nuclear power plant in the world is capable of doing. When Chernobyl was first built it was thought to be the best, the one that will never have any problems. You know the rest of the story. Hundreds of kilometers away from the exclusion zone there are kids losing their consciousness every now and then again, if they fall when they are riding their bikes they are more likely to break their bones, and it will take longer for them to recover.
Aslihan Tumer is a nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace International.
Photos: © Greenpeace / Steve Morgan, © Robert Knoth / Greenpeace