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Chernobyl: Homesickness is stronger than the fear of radioactivity

The fruits that grow here are contaminated. Still people eat them because a lot of stores are empty.

The Pripyat river flows directly past the atomic powerplant of Chernobyl. An outdoor laboratory for scientists...
Picture by Petr Pavlicek/IAEA

October 1988. The Soviet newspaper "Prawda" announces: "There are governmental plans to tear down the 800-year-old city Chernobyl because 994 people especially of older age by-passed controls and road-blocks to return to their home towns in the restricted area" Their home sickness was stronger than their fear of the radioactive radiation.

They were evacuated within a couple of hours. They were only allowed to take their most essential possessions with them. They had to leave everything else behind: their houses, their gardens, their well taken care of farms, their cattle, their pets and their furniture. Their future looks grim.

A lot of them moved to the housing estate that was swiftly built especially to offer all those who were suddenly homeless as a consequence of the nuclear accident a roof over their heads. But they had to leave their new homes a few months later as it turned out that these buildings were also highly contaminated.

The evacuated were treated like animals: the government had them moved to tower blocks. There were more important things to think about than that a White Russian farmer who was used to working on the field, can't live in a 3 room apartment on the 15th floor on the outskirts of a big city like Kiev.

The refugees are homesick. Especially the elderly don't understand the dangers of the radioactive radiation. They only know that living in a big town is killing them.

Efforts were made to explain them that the fruits and vegetables from the restricted zone are unhealthy. They eat them anyways. The temptation is too big because in the stores radiation-free fruits and vegetables are scarce goods.

An elderly woman returned to her home in Spjeritje in the restricted area in spite of the warnings and bans. "I came back to die here", she tries to convince an officer from Kiev that banishing her is useless because she would come back again anyways. The officer leaves, he "didn't see" the woman.

"Bathing is prohibited! Eating fruits from trees is prohibited! Collecting mushrooms is prohibited! Fishing is prohibited! Wash yourself several times daily!" These survival rules are drummed into children living within a 200-kilometre radius of the exploded "Lenin" reactor starting from a young age. In a lot of towns they have to play soccer on new "clean" fields made of concrete because the great outdoors are "dirty". Rainfall, wind and unpredictable atmospheric conditions have scattered the contaminated zone.

Samosjoly – selfsettlers – these people are called. They returned into the exclusion zone around tschernobyl on their own risk
Picture by Petr Pavlicek/IAEA

There is a town in White Russia approximately 160 kilometres from the nuclear power plant. For the inhabitants the accident from two years ago was something tragic that had happened far far away. However suddenly scientists came with radiation gages and examined everything thoroughly. The town was contaminated but it was officially declared habitable. Since then everybody who is able to moves away. The people don't trust the government's gagging anymore. Soon this town will be a ghost town as well.

Their trust is broken. Professor Kellerer from the university in Munich who intensively kept busy with the situation in the contaminated areas on behalf of the Red Cross speaks out a warning: "If the affairs in White Russia don't change soon, we can count on a steep rise in the rate of refugees leaving the Soviet Union because of the radioactive radiation "

According to him the insincere information policy of the Soviet government is to be blamed: "For two years the government tried to avoid panic by holding back information. However the soothing statements were in contrast to the mass evacuations. On top of that, it is impossible to keep 600000 decontamination workers working on fields and in contaminated towns hidden from the frightened population" Professor Ivan Nikitschenko of the institute for agriculture in Minsk gave further information about the damages of the catastrophe at a seminar in Germany: "4500 hectares of forest died off completely. Thousands of children have thyroid diseases because of the high concentration of iodine 131. There are more deformed animals since the catastrophe. For example in 1989-1990 the first-born of the cows who were born in a highly contaminated area between 1986 and 1987 were a miscarriage. However it isn't for certain that this is a result of the accident."

< Read part 5 of the series: Poisonous milk and radioactive mushrooms

© A report by Tobias Micke (24-04-91) – Contact