Children of Chernobyl - Annya

Page - April 20, 2006
When she was just four years old, little Anna Pesenko, trying to be a good girl, sitting up straight and eating her food nicely, would sometimes just pass out and fall flat onto the table. "Annya" as she is called, could not explain very well what was wrong with her. No wonder her mother Valentina got very worried and took her to the doctor, who discovered a tumor in the girl's head. The cancer was removed, but Annya never regained her health and has seen so many doctors that she gets terrified whenever she sees a white coat.

Even so, a committee of doctors decided she should have a "Chernobyl certificate" because Annya's father, Vacheslav, was from a village highly contaminated as a result of Chernobyl. They visited Zakopytye often before the village was destroyed and buried. Annya carries certificate no. 000358. It reads, "This person has the right to the privileges that are given by the government of the Republic of Belarus for the victims of the Chernobyl catastrophe as specified under article 18/ issued by the Gomel Municipality." The much sought-after piece of paper gives the holder access to certain health institutions, a selection of free medicines, a 50 percent discount on utilities bills, and free public transport.

Now, at 15, Annya is still trying. When she is strong enough, she studies together with her teachers, who come and visit her at home: "Our republic is rich in resources: limestone, salt, chalk and oil are amongst them," Annya wrote down in the spring. A week later, the neat, regular handwriting continued, "The Russian scientist Mendeleev created the periodic table of elements. The city of Gomel has a chemical plant." There are no recent entries.

Recently Annya was rushed into the hospital and kept on artificial respiration at the intensive care unit for 17 days. This has become almost a routine since the brain tumor reappeared in 2000. Back home, she lies back onto her pillows like a wilted plant, too weak to move, surrounded by her cuddly toys.

Two boys from the neighbourhood, Andrei and Zhenja, have been her faithful friends. Annya's mother shows a picture where her daughter has cut out the face of a girl. "Last autumn Annya's hair fell out," she says, "I think boys understand her better." Girlfriends have stopped visiting, deliberately or out of cruel forgetfulness. The young, the strong and healthy are maybe too pre-occupied with growing up and living or afraid of being confronted with someone who is so obviously not.

Annya whimpers in pain as the massage therapist kneads her legs to improve blood circulation. "Especially the places where we inject her medication are very painful. We have to use force and press the skin to keep the medicine in," her mother explains. This week the therapist has come every day, and each time he presses more firmly. "Don't cry Annya. Don't cry," Valentina repeats her soothing mantra, trying to calm her daughter down.

She takes a picture of the Holy Anna, her daughter's namesake, and bends over to whisper a prayer into Annya's ears. At night, Valentina and Vacheslav sleep on the floor next to their daughter's bed, for Annya has to be turned every 15 minutes to prevent bedsores. The girl needs help with everything. While Vacheslav washes the soiled sheets by hand, Valentina carefully replaces them from a pile of freshly washed and pressed cotton towels, stacked in a corner. Nobody in the family gets much sleep; all three are exhausted.

Vacheslav leaves for his chauffeuring job at the chemical plant first thing in the morning. "And I drink coffee all day to stay awake, but I am so tired," says Valentina.

When the nurse comes and busies herself with looking after Annya, Valentina has time to show the picture albums that she is putting together to document her daughter's life. There are pictures of Annya on her trip to Scotland and silly ones of the girl dressed up as the Russian rock idol Zemphira. There are also pictures of the last trips to the farmhouse with the frail girl all wrapped up in a big thick coat to cushion her, a wide smile under a woolly beanie hat.

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The above text is an extract from the forth-coming book; Certificate no. 000358/Nuclear devastation in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, the Urals and Siberia. © (Photography) 2006 Robert Knoth, © (Text) 2006 Antoinette de Jong.

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