This page has been archived, and may no longer be up to date

The farmers - Mr and Mrs Smeyan

Background - 27 March, 2006
In the Ukraine, 18,000km2 of agricultural land was contaminated, but the forests were hardest hit. Forty percent of the woods are contaminated, totalling 35,000km2. Many of the inhabitants of the area cotinue 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.

One of the many thousands of homes deserted after the Chernobyl disaster.

According to the Ukraine government, this is the case for 3.5 millionpeople. In Russia, 19 regions were affected, with 2.7 million peopleliving in the area, and in Belarus a quarter of the nation's territorywas hit by two-thirds of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. At thetime, 2.2 million people were living there, a number that has sincedwindled to 1.5 million. The area around the second biggestcity of Gomel was particularly affected.

Grigory and Maria Smeyan, aged 71 and 77 respectively, found themselvesuprooted after the accident. They were living 27km away from Chernobylon the Belarusian side. Their village was evacuated in June 1986, saysMr. Smeyan: "There was a truck for every two or three families. We wereallowed to take one bed, a bag of potatoes and food for three days.They gave us tinned meat, oranges and 1500 roubles per person." Mrs.Smeyan: "We used that to buy new furniture, but we had to leave behindour animals: two cows, a calf and two pigs of 280 kilograms each." Thezone was closed off and they were not allowed back in: "My aunt diedand we wanted to bury her in native soil." At the checkpoint they werestopped and sent away. "We had to bury her in another village." MariaSmeyan is not bothered about going back anymore, but Grigory is. "If Icould I would go there today even. Over there the nightingales weresinging and here there are only crows."

An often-cited story claims that in order to prevent radioactivecontamination reaching Moscow, the clouds were manipulated to rain overthe south-east of Belarus. In any case, Vetka is still contaminated."The question was: would the town survive?", says Vasily Bahajev, aneconomist and deputy leader of the local council. "In the end there wasno evacuation. Where could all those people have gone to? BeforeChernobyl, 37,000 lived here, now the number is still some 20,000."

Instead of evacuating, they have tried to improve social services andhealth 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 staffstraight out of college. It is mandatory for them to work in thesouth-east for some years in exchange for their student loans.

In Vetka, president Lukashenko unveiled a new Chernobyl monument: "Sopeople don't have to go to their contaminated villages anymore whenthey wish to commemorate the disaster", says Bahajev. Parts of thevillages, agricultural lands and forests remain closed territory, butthere is hardly any supervision. Close to the residential areas, thecontaminated areas start within municipal boundaries and continue formany miles. They are mostly deserted, but cows are grazing on overgrownmeadows." Bahajev: "The farmer has refused to leave, but it is saidthat if the cows are transferred to clean grazing grounds for two weeksbefore 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.