Volume 18 Number 1
Children of the Catastrophe
01 February 2005

French photojournalist Isabelle Merminod visited Belarus to meet victims of the Chernobyl disaster who were not born when it took place.

Belarus, which became independent in 1991, is such a new country. But at the same time it is so old, not least because of its experiences as a Soviet ex-republic. After the 1986 catastrophe at Chernobyl, near Ukraine’s border with Belarus, 70 per cent of the fallout settled on Belarus. Its people will be counting the cost for generations.

On a beautiful October day last year I arrived at the Children’s Cancer Hospital in the suburbs of the capital, Minsk.
Ksenia, the psychologist, told us the challenge which she confronts every day to enable the young patients to live life fully...
  • ... despite the pain and suffering

  • ... despite operations and/or chemotherapy ...

  • despite the prospect of a diminishing life...

  • despite the loss of a limb and of the picture of themselves they would like to give to the outside world.

  • I was touched by her professionalism and tenderness and by her gentle and life-bringing laughter.

    The last ward we visited will remain engraved in my memory. There were two adolescents, a child and parents. With my three words of Russian and Ksenia’s help, I asked permission to take photos. Katya, a tall slim adolescent wearing a headscarf, gave her assent and with a burst of laughter disappeared through a small door. She reappeared three minutes later without her headscarf and wearing a wig of red hair. My first reaction was to tell her to keep her scarf on, thinking that it would make it easier to imagine the shining bald head, caused by chemotherapy. Fortunately I kept quiet.

    In each photo I took, she burst out laughing. I was touched by her dignity, the coquetry of a proud young woman, who had not given up.

    She reminded me of the absurdity of that day in April 1986 which remains in the bodies of the Belarusians, and is often forgotten by the rest of us.
    Belarus has been divided into four zones: dead, highly contaminated, contaminated and clean (which includes Minsk). Only the dead zone has been completely cleared of its inhabitants.

    Three hundred thousand children and their families live in the contaminated and highly contaminated zones. They have certain privileges, such as the right to two holidays a year outside the contaminated zone, an annual visit to the sanatorium and priority access to university.

    In the country as a whole, births have fallen rapidly since 1986 and deaths have not stopped rising. More people are dying than are being born, a trend which has become more marked every year since 1994.

    Some of the radionuclides released have already disappeared, such as the I-131. But the Cs-137 will not disappear for 450 years, and the Pt-232 will last for 365,850 years.

    The children who ‘visit’ the Minsk hospital or the newly-opened Research Centre for Radiation Medicine and Human Ecology were born after the Chernobyl disaster. But the effects of radiation on their bodies is devastating. Their country has seen an unbelievable increase of thyroid cancer in under 14-year-olds, a rise in mortality among newborn babies, malformations, chromasomal aberrations, anaemia and cardio-vascular dysfunction in pregnant women.... My list, unfortunately, is not exhaustive.
    What will be the future of this country?
    What is the price of our forgetting?
    What is our responsibility towards these children?

    In summer Belarus is devoid of children: hundreds are invited to go on holiday in other countries and benefit from temporarily improved health. Others are offered treatment in specialist hospitals in the West, paid for by private fundraising. For more information please contact: centreaction@tut.by

    Above: There are little-known projects, which help Belarusians to survive under the constant psychological pressure that the radiation will finally destroy them. For instance, Nathalie and Alexander Pinchook are working to raise consciousness of the role of food in health through an NGO called CentreAction. Pinchook goes into schools with an instrument to measure radioactivity in food. The seriousness of the children’s expressions will stay with me. What are we asking children to understand about our world? (See centreaction.at.tut.by)