In the Ukraine, 18,000 square kilometers of agricultural land was contaminated, but the forests were hit the hardest. Forty percent of the woods are contaminated, totalling 35,000 square kilometers. Many of the inhabitants of the area continue to eat fruits and vegetables from their own gardens and they also continue fishing and gathering mushrooms and berries. This is what they are used to doing, even if it means that their intake of radioactive elements is two to five times higher than is acceptable.
According to the Ukraine government, this is the case for 3.5 million people. In Russia, 19 regions were affected, with 2.7 million people living in the area, and in Belarus a quarter of the nation's territory was hit by two-thirds of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. At the time, 2.2 million people were living there, a number that has since dwindled to 1.5 million. The area around the second biggest city of Gomel was particularly affected.
Grigory and Maria Smeyan, aged 71 and 77 respectively, found themselves uprooted after the accident. They were living 27 kilometers away from Chernobyl on the Belarusian side. Their village was evacuated in June 1986, says Mr. Smeyan. "There was a truck for every two or three families. We were allowed to take one bed, a bag of potatoes and food for three days. They gave us tinned meat, oranges and 1,500 roubles per person." Mrs. Smeyan continues, "We used that to buy new furniture, but we had to leave behind our animals: two cows, a calf and two pigs of 280 kilograms each." The zone was closed off and they were not allowed back in. "My aunt died and we wanted to bury her in native soil." At the checkpoint they were stopped and sent away. "We had to bury her in another village." Maria Smeyan is not bothered about going back anymore, but Grigory is. "If I could, I would go there today even. Over there the nightingales were singing and here there are only crows."
An often-cited story claims that in order to prevent radioactive contamination reaching Moscow, the clouds were manipulated to rain over the southeast of Belarus. In any case, Vetka is still contaminated. "The question was: would the town survive?," says Vasily Bahajev, an economist and deputy leader of the local council. "In the end there was no evacuation. Where could all those people have gone to? Before Chernobyl, 37,000 lived here, now the number is still some 20,000."
Instead of evacuating, they have tried to improve social services and health care. "Gas and waterworks were installed throughout the area. Children are given extra food and pregnant women get vitamin supplies." The newly-built clinic and the school are run by newly-trained staff straight out of college. It is mandatory for them to work in the southeast for some years in exchange for their student loans.
In Vetka, President Lukashenko unveiled a new Chernobyl monument. "So people don't have to go to their contaminated villages anymore when they wish to commemorate the disaster," says Bahajev. Parts of the villages, agricultural lands and forests remain closed territory, but there is hardly any supervision. Close to the residential areas, the contaminated areas start within municipal boundaries and continue for many miles. They are mostly deserted, but cows are grazing on overgrown meadows." Bahaje says, "The farmer has refused to leave, but it is said that if the cows are transferred to clean grazing grounds for two weeks before slaughter, the meat will be clean and edible."
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.