In April 1986, nuclear reactor number 4 in a power station up-river from the city of Chernobyl in the Ukraine exploded. Thirty-one people died immediately and radiation spread to contaminate the surrounding area. Seventy per cent of the fallout was blown north into the southern regions of Belarus, contaminating a vast proportion of the country.
Whilst many people have forgotten or discounted the aftermath of the Chernobyl catastrophe as not being a 'major disaster', the people who continue to live with its legacy can do no such thing. Although the government of Belarus evacuated approximately 135,000 people from the contaminated regions, the people, mostly farmers, returned to their land and livelihoods because they were unable to find work (due to their limited skills and literacy) and support their families. As a result, over two million people in Belarus are now estimated to live in contaminated regions and suffer the effects of continual radiation exposure through their food, water and air.
The rate of thyroid cancer is estimated to increase by 5000% since 1986 in affected areas, as has leukaemia and birth defects, although to lesser degrees. It is estimated that the rate of birth defects and chromosomal abnormalities will increase greatly when the generations born after the disaster reach reproductive age. It has been estimated that the radiation will continue to contaminate the land for a further 25,000 years. Whilst the government makes every effort to support its people, it is very difficult to supply good medical care to so many people, in a dispersed area and with limited financial capabilities.
The people in these regions live in extremely poor conditions. The wooden houses do not have running water, so there are no bathrooms of any sort. Despite this, the people are usually very proud and keep their properties as best they possibly can whilst the whole family works in the fields to feed themselves and often have other jobs as well. The region used to supply foodstuff to the majority of Belarus, this income has been severed as people do not want to buy radioactive produce.
The children rarely have good quality shoes that fit, despite the temperatures dropping below minus 30oC in the winter months. Clothes are often worn and thin and transport is most frequently by horse and cart or bicycle. 'Over-the-counter' type medications are available but often beyond the means of many families and iodine is still used as a 'cure-all'. Unfortunately, there is a high rate of alcoholism in the poorer regions, which means that many of the children are neglected and/or abused.