Volume 13 Number 6
From Victims to Survivors
01 December 2000

Alexander and Natalie Pinchook describe their work with Tsentr Deystvie (CentreAction) to help Belorussians cope with the aftermath of Chernobyl.

It was a warm sunny day early in April 1986. The schoolteacher and her class were making the most of the weather, walking near their village. All of a sudden, an armoured car arrived and stopped a few metres away. A man wearing a protective suit and gas-mask jumped out. He put up a radiation warning sign and then got back into his armoured car--the Chernobyl catastrophe had started.

Natalie's uncle was one of a team of six who unloaded railway truckloads of radioactive dust in Chernobyl. All six died.

About 70 per cent of the radioactive material released into the atmosphere from the ruptured Chernobyl reactor came down on Belarus. In all, 46,500 square kms of the country were contaminated, an area greater than Switzerland. Within our province of Gomel 1,390,900 people, including some 400,000 children, live in contaminated areas. The main contaminants, Caesium 137 and Strontium 90, will take some 600 years to decay. The Plutonium 239 will take 50,000 years. Radioactive atoms are entering the food chain. People's reactions can be summarized as: 'Belarus has been invaded many times. But Chernobyl is worse and more dangerous than any invasion of the past.'

Many children have developed enlarged thyroids. Their parents had not been informed of the disaster and could not prevent exposure to radioactivity in the period immediately after the accident.

In his book Promoting mental health--for those living in contaminated areas, San Francisco psychologist Holbrook Teter argued that people must learn to see themselves not as victims, but as survivors. He pointed out that the survivors of the 'trauma' of Chernobyl were overwhelmed by the resulting stress. The issue, he realized was, 'how to release the energy that is being locked up in denial and self-protection.... Remaining passive--feeling helpless, saying nothing can be changed--is a way of continuing the victim status.'

Some parents and pupils deny that there is a problem at all. Many settlements in Belarus are surrounded by beautiful forests. The forest canopy initially intercepted most of the radioactive material. But it is now gradually being transferred to the soil, plants and fungi. People cannot take on board that the forest is unsafe. Children go into the forest and pick mushrooms and berries even though they have been told about the dangers. Game and fish are also dangerous, but they look perfectly normal.

Trying to ignore the problem and deny your feelings is no protection. The main task of our group, CentreAction, is to break the silence. It is hard work. The first step is to win people's trust.

Our experience is that the only way to convince both children and adults of the danger of eating forest produce is to show them the high readings on a geigercounter display. When one school teacher saw the reading from some mushrooms she got rid of them so quickly that a visiting American journalist did not even have time to photograph them!

Education is vital. People need to know the facts. For instance, in some schools pupils are not allowed to walk in the schoolyard, except where it is covered with asphalt or sand, in order to decrease their exposure to radiation. But internal exposure from radioactive nuclei that enter the body through foodstuffs is nine times more dangerous than external exposure.

It also important to teach people the steps that can be taken to reduce the dangers. For instance, processing milk to make cheese or butter decreases the Caesium 137 and Strontium 90 content by 10 times or more. Also, using mineral fertilizers on farms significantly reduces the number of radioactive atoms in both plants and animals.

In one village the people decided to check up on us. Knowing that the milk from the top of the can contains more fat than that lower down, they took samples from both and presented them to us as if they were from different cows. The milk from the lower part of the can was more than twice as contaminated. This won their trust.

In another village the head of the school had got rid of her cow because she was convinced that the milk was contaminated (the grazing area was badly contaminated). When we demonstrated that milk produced in the village was safe she decided to buy another cow. Next time we visited the village we found that other families had followed her example.

In one village our tests showed that mushrooms collected from one part of the forest were unsafe, while those in other places were much less contaminated. The villagers said that they now knew where they could pick mushrooms safely.

When food is tested, people's anxiety is obvious. If the count on the sample being tested is high people react almost as if they have been given a death sentence. Yet facing reality is often a turning point. Indifference or bravado go, and people start to take seriously our lectures on radioactive security. Where people have followed our guidelines they have been found to have low levels of radioactive substances in their bodies.

Often we get angry reactions--though these are not directed at us personally. 'We have already eaten the radiation--you are too late!' But expressing the anger seems to release the energy needed for people to move from being victims to survivors. When we return later, we often find that the villagers are taking positive steps.

In fact it is important that people should be able to express their feelings. On one occasion we met with some teachers who complained that their children had very short attention spans. But we found that the teachers had the same problem. When we had talked and they had aired their anger and frustration, they stopped having a problem with concentration.

Our experience shows that the members of CentreAction, many of whom are heads and teachers in village schools, are not just passive recipients of help. They are remarkably willing to work for change. For instance, with financial assistance from World Vision Belarus, they have started growing pigs for sale. This generates income and encourages villagers to start their own self-help initiatives. We bring people together who want to change things. Then, as one teacher said, 'We can develop hope and spread it around.'

Finally, we quote Teter, who made many visits to the contaminated areas before he died last year: 'Those people who feel that some valuable changes have resulted from the Chernobyl experience are changing the meaning of that catastrophe. Mostly such people are the children themselves. They have said that they feel more compassion and wisdom now. They have a different view of the value of nature. They feel closer together in the community. They support each other. Some believe it has furthered the development of democratic politics. A student said: "Maybe now we will be able to live at a high level." '

Alexander Pinchook is Assistant Professor of Physics at the Mozyr State Pedagogical Institute, Gomel province, Belorussia. He recently edited 'Basic radio-ecology: theory and practice', a book written for schools and the public at large by physicists, biologists, radiologists and forest scientists. Natalie Pinchook is a journalist. They live 50 km from the 'dead zone' created by the Chernobyl, disaster and run CentreAction, a non-profit organization set up to help its victims.