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The invisible poison


Trevor Mostyn reports on his visit to Belarus to try to secure the release of a scientist who blew the whistle on nuclear contamination.

The Oxford Writer, no 36, February 2005

As well as being a WiO member, Trevor Mostyn is deputy chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN.  In July of last year he and PEN’s Carole Seymour-Jones, visited southern Belarus, where 70% of the radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl accident fell. Much of the area has been evacuated but some people have remained in villages along the edge of a 30-kilometre exclusion zone. Thousands died from the accident and thousands more have since contracted cancers and radiation-related diseases of the thyroid, heart and kidneys. Some scientists believe that worse is to come.

SITTING IN A RESTAURANT in Minsk’s neo-classical Frantsisk Skorina Street, we planned our trip to southern Belarus with Olga, a young democracy activist. We chose from a menu headed ‘Soviet-style dishes’. It bore the picture of a woman in red. In her raised hand exhorting her comrades forward was a tray inscribed, ‘You can eat better today.’ Across the road was Minsk’s popular Macdonalds. ‘Why do you want to go to the Chernobyl villages?’, asked Olga. ‘You can’t see radiation, you know. Do you think the villagers will have horns growing out of their heads ?’

We had come to try to help secure the release of  Professor Yuri Bandazhevsky, formerly head of the Gomel medical university in the south. Bandazhevsky had blown the whistle on a government cover-up of the impact of the accident. Imprisoned on improbable charges of accepting bribes from his students, he is now in the Peskovsky Village penal colony, to the West of Belarus, cut off from his family and his research facilities. Before our arrival, nine EU ambassadors had visited him, flags flying from their cars. Angered by this, the Belarus government ordered that permission must be sought for visits. His wife, Galina, begged us not to visit without permission. We never received it so we had to speak with him by telephone from central Minsk. Galina told us about her visits to the southern villages where the berries and mushrooms on which poor villagers depend are 300 times higher in radiation than normal, but as everyone kept telling us, ‘You can’t see radiation.’

Deciding to visit the danger zone along the Ukrainian border ourselves, we drove down through deep silver birch forests to Mazyr, a town of wooden dachas with ornate, painted architraves. We expected to see a dying, brown landscape but as we approached Narovlya close to the Chernobyl exclusion zone we saw fields of rye, orchards and herds of healthy-looking cows. In Narovlya, with its huge statue of Lenin and stand-alone golden hammer and sickle in the main square, we met Sergei, the guide Olga had organised, a vibrant 70-year-old. Sergei had entered the forests the day after the accident. Two weeks later he developed a radiation rash all over his legs.

We walked to the banks of the Pripyat River to the memorial to those who had died immediately after the accident. Despite high levels of radiation, people were swimming and sunbathing. Sergei pointed through the trees across the river where he said deadly plutonium patches had been identified. We drove on to the village of Kirov. The forest looked green and healthy and apples lay heavy on the trees behind the colourful wooden fencing. The centre of the village was like a ghost town with its painted wooden houses boarded up and grass growing in the streets so we were astonished to meet one family of farmers who seemed to be flourishing amid the silence. On a pole beside the farm was a nest with a family of storks. The young woman, Svetlana, held a tiny baby and was barefoot, as was her 93-year-old grandmother. Svetlana, who ran the collective farm, said that the government was pretending the problem was over. The only hospital had recently been closed down, subsidies to people who had stayed on had been lifted (only children now qualified), the machine to clean cars entering and leaving the villages had been stolen and not replaced and the government no longer took away the village milk to purify it.

Back in Narovlya we went to the hospital. Outside stood a van marked ‘Chernobyl Children’s Project, Ireland’. We expected to see children with cancers and other radiation-related diseases but the clinic’s buoyant doctor explained that this, the town’s only hospital, was only an emergency clinic. ‘The whole country is poisoned with radiation. Not just here’, she told us with a smile and an evasive shrug. Later I saw from a radiation map that the road we had taken to Kirov passed through zones of high density radiation.

We met Natasha in a bar off one of the fin de sičcle streets of Gomel, the southern capital. She had written for the independent newspaper bdg on Bandazhevsky and had criticised President Lukashenko. ‘I began receiving telephone calls at 3 am. A voice just said, “We will bury you”. It was obviously the kgb. When I went to the police they argued that he had threatened to bury me, not to kill me. So, of course, they took no action.’ She told us how the kgb had drugged Bandazhevsky and, posing as Ukrainian mps, had driven him to the Ukrainian border. Bandazhevsky had managed to alert the Belarus border guards who took him into custody and saved him from being murdered in the forest over the border.

In Gomel we went to a restaurant full of dancing couples and loud music; ‘Much too Soviet,’ said our young translator dismissively. Outside, the tall girls of Gomel in their tiny skirts were doing the Passeggiata along the broad pavements. The girls in the restaurant we dined in only had each other to dance with. We were served pork in pancakes, a local dish, but avoided short-rooted vegetables such as mushrooms and avoided milk. Belarusians take no precautions but as Olga had said, ‘You can’t see radiation.’

You can, however, trace it through the censored works of Bandazhevsky, which English PEN are currently translating. On 2 February 2005 the Belarus press announced that the labour colony-settlement commission had refused to grant him an early release on parole on the grounds of his refusal to confess guilt and his inability to pay off his legal costs. Bandazhevsky remains at the Peskovsky penal colony to serve out the rest of his eight-year sentence. He has recently undergone surgery and is in very poor health. □


To read the report which Carole Seymour-Jones compiled for English pen after she and Trevor had completed their visit, click here (PDF).