”We don’t talk about Chernobyl. That was the way it was in Belarus. Nobody talked about it. You don’t want to know and hear the truth when you have kids. ”
A member of WNSCR interviewed a young mother of two from Belarus, who is now living in the US. What was it like to live under fear of radiation? Did the government protect the citizens?
The Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred on Saturday, April 26, 1986.
Seventy percent of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl landed in Belarus, affecting the majority of the land, and 2.5 million residents. The Belarus National Academy of Sciences estimates 270,000 people in the region around the accident site will develop cancer as a result of Chernobyl radiation and that 93,000 of those cases are likely to be fatal. The radiation effect continues even today, 28 years later.
“Our government didn’t tell us the truth.”
I was 2 years old at the time of the accident. The Belarus government kept the information secret and told us that the matter was not serious. Elderly people refused to leave and remained the area. Radiation didn’t seem to affect their bodies. But radiation affected kids. There was a museum in my hometown to commemorate Chernobyl victims. The museum used to be open to the public. It was later shut down but some school children were able to visit there for educational purposes. I was one of them. I saw pictures of children with birth defects such as a child with 2 heads and the like. Lots of lots of mutant animals’ pictures were displayed there, too. Every year doctors came to my school and examined our necks. I remember many children had swollen glands in their necks. 3 or 4 out of 20 children in our class had oversized lymphoma glands. We all got minerals and iodine treatment. The government paid for the medical expenses and for education. I remember we had an event for Chernobyl when I was in 6th grade. We offered a prayer in silence. Many died after the accident even though I don’t know how many. My family and I didn’t know how much our country was contaminated. The government acted as if the accident was not important. They didn’t care and didn’t do much. Life meant nothing in our country. No compensation was provided. Most people didn’t really care.
“We got help from Germany.”
The government offered recuperation programs for the children. But only a small number of kids could participate in the programs. Instead, German farmers volunteered to host the Belarus children for a couple of months every year. It lasted year after year and helped us greatly.
“Don’t eat mushroom and fish.”
We were told not to eat mushrooms and also not to eat fish from the lakes. We noticed the fish became larger than normal and that the size of mushrooms was huge. I guess radiation affected what we ate. We stopped eating fish. But mushrooms were a part of our daily meals and not something we easily could give up. We were poor and didn’t have enough food. We kept eating them in spite of the warnings. People including my family avoided talking about Chernobyl and pretended everything was fine. I think my family actually believed it was not a big deal. I didn’t think about what was really going on, either. The government didn’t provide anything and didn’t care about anything. They kept saying, “No big deal, No big deal”. They didn’t want us to panic, I guess.
If the accident had happened in other countries, their governments would have helped evacuate residents. But our government didn’t.
“I escaped from Belarus.”
I came to the US alone when I was 18. There was no hope in my country. American people asked me, “What’s wrong with your hair? “ They were puzzled since I didn’t have much hair. Everyone in Belarus has thin hair. In fact, I used to believe everyone in the world had thin hair. I didn’t know it was normal to have lots of hair. People in Belarus also have weak, brittle, cracking, splitting nails. Again, I thought it was supposed to be that way. As time went by, my hair became thicker and fuller. My nails got stronger as well. My family tells me their overall health improves every time they visit us here. My mother has lived with tinnitus (ringing in ears) for a long time. But it stops whenever she stays with us for a while. The problem starts again when she returns to Belarus. In my country, you start to think about dying when you hit 50 years old. Many Belarusian women suffer from painful cysts in their breasts. It’s like having thorns in there. Every member of my family has them, too. My sister had surgery and had one breast removed. The area left her feeling like having a hard- boiled egg. The cysts might develop cancer. She underwent surgery after surgery to remove them. Medication and hospital and education expenses are free in Belarus. But the conditions in the government run hospitals are terrible. You see cockroaches on the floors. The doctors are not well trained and don’t get paid well, either. Patients are expected to give money to them to get decent treatment. Such money is an important income source for those doctors. A woman next to my sister didn’t have $200 to pay for anesthesia. She was very sick after the surgery, and it took a long time for her to get recovered. People with money choose to go to a private clinic. They get better treatment there. We thought our government would have helped us evacuate from the contaminated area. But they didn’t. Many young people, like me, have moved out of the country. I don’t know if they are healthy or sick now.
“More cancer patients in Belarus than US?”
My health has improved ever since I came to America. But I don’t see much difference in cancer rates between Belarus and the US. Many Americans have cancer, too.
“I may visit Belarus but never want to live there.”
I am now an American citizen, so is my husband. I missed my people first but connections got weaker over time. My family members have green cards and they can visit us here anytime. We don’t talk about Chernobyl. That was the way it was in Belarus. Nobody talked about it. You don’t want to know and hear the truth when you have kids. I don’t know how much radiation I was exposed to while in Belarus. My health is improving and my children appear to be healthy.
“No, I didn’t know the Poland’s government distributed iodine pills to the people right after the accident.”
We were under influence of Soviet Union. Our lives meant nothing to the government. Say, you go to a store, break something and injure someone. People in the US would gather around and say, “Are you OK?” In Belarus, they say, “How are you gonna pay for the damage?” Human life is nothing there. Even now.
“I think people in Fukushima are in a similar situation.”
To talk about evacuation and radiation was a taboo subject. I remember someone went to a doctor for her health problem in Belarus. He said to her, “No big deal. Everyone has the same problem.” Doctors lie about the radiation effects.
“My messages to Fukushima children are …..”
You have to speak up and talk with children of your own age from other countries. Find your problems. Take lots of minerals and vitamins. Go to a safer area for a month, during summer and stay there for a long period of time. Just stay out of radiation as much as you can. Get out of Japan. Breathe fresh air, ocean air. Learn what normal life is like. I didn’t know what it was like when I was a kid.
I hope people in Fukushima stay healthy and that the government will help them.
Her courageous decision to leave Belarus early in her life changed things for the better. We could not tell if she was from Belarus or a victim of Chernobyl by her looks. She might not have had lots of hair when she came to America. Now she has stunning, black of the blackest, full hair. She IS happy, indeed. We thank her for sharing her story and wish her and her family nothing but a healthy and blessed life.” We also learned the bitter truth that the government doesn’t help its own people. That is the reality in Fukushima, too.
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