From Chechnya to Chernobyl
The tiny, little-known country of Belarus suffered more than any other in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Winds scattered the heaviest radioactive deposits across the country, where, even after a decade, 25% of the land is judged uninhabitable. Thousands of villages and towns were abandoned or evacuated, and their populations resettled to safer areas.
When I learned that local governments were encouraging people to resettle these irradiated villages, I decided to go there with a camera. I arrived in the village of Besiet, which was evacuated several years after the Chernobyl accident. I was met by a ghost town: most of the houses had been burned down, others still stood, abandoned and looted.Ohers seemed to expect their owners' momentary return, with coats still on their hooks and dishes still on the table. Life and activity are eerily confined to the cemetery, where even today people return to bury their dead alongside relatives.
Seven miles down the River Sosh, I find the village of Raduga, or "Rainbow" in English. Raduga is located 80 miles downwind from Chernobyl, in an area which was heavily showered with radioactivity in the hours following the accident. The 700 hundred inhabitants of this village, almost all of them employees of the local state farm, were never evacuated. Years later, the residents were given the option to leave, and many seized the opportunity. Some eventually returned, but the majority made new lives for themselves elsewhere.
In an attempt to lure new workers to the area, the state farm offered free housing and work for anyone willing to resettle. It is here in Raduga that I meet the Tsiplaevs, a family of ethnic Russians who had been living in Chechnya. Lena moved here in 1992 along with her two daughters. Her husband Valery, age 40, came along a year later. Both are employed at the State Collective Farm "Raduga." Their daughters, Olga, 17 and Natasha, 14, attend the local school.
Today, the old photographs from their Chechnya homeland bring back memories."Back home, tanks would roll along the streets day and night. We were afraid to leave the house and shooting forced us to stay in the basement for weeks," says 39 year-old Lena Tsiplaev. "Here, I sleep safe and sound, and shooting doesn't wake me up at night. I especially enjoy the nearby river. I really don't give the radiation much thought. I prefer living with radiation over living in a war zone."
Life has become so unbearable in many of the former Soviet republics that people are now seeking a kinder fate in the radioactive farm pastures surrounding Chernobyl. Until recently, the Tsiplaevs lived peacefully in their city of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Lena was a lab technician, her husband, Valery, a mechanic. When civil war broke out and Lena's father was killed, they decided it was too dangerous to stay.They packed their belongings and boarded a train to Belarus.Four days later, they arrived at their new home.They came here lured by work, availability of housing, and the beauty of the countryside. Although aware of the radioactivity scattered throughout the land, they came anyway, doubtful of its effects.The Tsiplaevs are among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who, in recent years, have fled wars and political turmoil in Chechnya, Tajikistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan in order to find peace in the radiated areas surrounding Chernobyl.
The government of Belarus, meanwhile, wants people back in its irradiated areas, to till the rich farmland that has lain fallow for a decade. The ads inviting people, however, don't mention that this quilt of pastures, grain and vegetable fields is laden with plutonium isotopes and strontium 90.
The memory of war is still vivid for many, and living amid the radiation and poverty of Chernobyl's contaminated zones seems the least of many evils. The family of Anya and Grisha Kerakasian is from Armenia. Neighbors of the Tsiplaevs, they settled in the village of Raduga several years ago and also work on the state farm. They arrived here with a small baby, and a son was born a year later.The Kerakasians came to Raduga to escape the bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. "I'd rather die a quiet death here," says Grisha Kerakasian, whose younger brother was killed during the war, "It's better than being murdered when I turn a corner."They are one of five Armenian families who have resettled to the village of Raduga in recent years."
All who came to Raduga are here to work on the collective farm. Since families earn only about $30 a month, they must also raise their own produce. Because they work on the land and eat its produce, families like the Kerakasians and the Tsiplaevsinhale and ingest the radioactive particles in the soil and food. "We work so much, we don't have time to worry about radiation," says Lena, who is in charge of over 200 calves. She works 8 hours a day, seven days a week and earns $12 a month.
In this region, incidences ofthyroid cancer and malignant tumors have risen drastically since 1986, especially among children. Belarussian authorities, however, play down the health risks in an effort to have people stay in or move to the irradiated areas.Mrs. Tsiplaev is convinced that radiation is harmless. "We feel very good here, both mentally and physically," she says.
It is estimated that the Chechen war has killed as many as 50,000 people, mainly ethnic Chechens.Most Russians left early on, but those who stayed say they felt the rage turn on them. The Tsiplaevs have always lived among Chechens. "They were our neighbors, our best friends," says Olga, seventeen."My grandmother is still there, and I pray she is alive. We have not heard from her in four months."
The Tsiplaevs and Kerakasians fled to a place that needed their labor -- but doesn't make them feel welcome.In order to obtain health benefits and be eligible for financial assistance, they have to apply for Belarussian citizenship. "It a very expensive procedure and I cannot afford it," says Mrs.Tsiplaev. "If I apply, I will have to wait for seven years to obtain citizenship. Meanwhile, I have to pay medical expenses out of my pocket. "Both families feel outcast in their new environment. "What can we do?" Mrs. Tsiplaev says, "What could we do? How could we leave when we don't have money? Where would we go?"