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Every year, more then 200 children from the area around Chernobyl receive treatment for radiation damage at the SOS Social Centre, with priority given to children from very poor or single-parent families … more about our charity work in Belarus

Chernobyl 25th anniversary: Living in the shadow of Chernobyl

Children of Belarus continue to be affected by radiation
Children of Belarus continue to be affected by radiation

Sitting in his office on the outskirts of Minsk, Alex Nesterenko, Director of the Belarus Institute of Radiation, looks worried: ‘25years after Chernobyl, we have not learnt anything. It’s happening all over again [in Japan]. It’s déjà vu.’

As Belarus prepares to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster later this month, its legacy remains divisive. Opponents of nuclear power, including Alex Nesterenko, insist that the events of Chernobyl and more recently at the Fukushima plant in Japan, prove once and for all that nuclear technology is unsafe: ‘Humanity is not morally ready for nuclear power technology’ he says.

At 1.23am on April 26, 1986, reactor number four at the Soviet nuclear power plant (sited in modern-day Ukraine) exploded, after an electrical test went terribly wrong. The radioactive material released polluted 80,000 square miles of land across Europe, spreading radioactive rain as far as north-west Ireland.  The disaster, which dropped at least 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, triggered the relocation of tens of thousands of local people, some of whom have never been allowed back to the contaminated towns. 

Chernobyl anniversary: Map
A map of Belarus showing the areas most affected by radiation

It had an enormous impact on Belarus, a small country with a population of 10.4  million. It is estimated that that 70% of the radioactive fallout fell on the country, affecting more than 2.2 million people, including 500,000 children. One fifth of the country's agricultural land was contaminated. Because of its disastrous impact, the first SOS Children’s Village was built just outside the capital of Minsk in 1996.

Its still not known how many people died in total as a result of the disaster  - estimates vary greatly; the World Health Organisation suggest it could be 4,000 while a Greenpeace report puts this figure at 200,000 or more. However, what is certain is that thousands of people in Belarus still suffer from radioactive contamination as well as the psychological affects of the disaster.

A legacy of confusion

Vladimir Babenko, Deputy Director of the Belarus Institute of Radiation shares the frustration of many at the clear lack of information in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, ‘It was 36 hours before we had any information about the event. It was rumoured it was just a small fire at an electric station. We had no idea on what scale the disaster really was. The way in which the government withheld information about what was really happening is as worse as the disaster itself.’ 

Chernobyl disaster
Children from the Health Centre

He, like many other Belarusians, feel authorities tried to ‘play-down’ the disaster and waited almost three days – until drifting radioactive fallout triggered alarms in Sweden – before acknowledging that an accident had even occurred. Confusion surrounding the event itself, but more importantly its ongoing consequences, remains to this day, a situation which the Belarus Institute of Radiation, is trying to improve. The Institute, based in Minsk, was founded in 1990 because of what Babenko calls a ‘mistrust’ surrounding state accounts of levels of radiation. The key purpose of the Institute is to detect radiation levels, record them, and provide educational resources for those who are potentially at risk of radiation.

Their work is particularly important for rural areas of the country where small households continue to consume foods contaminated by radionuclides, ‘We have found that levels of radiation go up in November time in many children. This is because they eat mushrooms and berries during the summer months – all of which come from contaminated ground’ says Babenko. The Institute operates ten local radiation checking centres, ‘education is key’ he says, ‘we want to try and teach families how to cook and prepare food the best way so they can minimise the levels of radiation.’


However, whilst it is clear to Babenko that there is a direct link between radiation levels and illness, his view is not widely accepted. Although there has been a national documented increase in thyroid cancer (it is estimated that thyroid cancer rates in children under 15 years rose dramatically from 2,000 cases in 1990 to 8,000-10,000 in 2001), Dr. Petina, of the Centre of Child Oncology and Haematology, claims the link between cancer and the Chernobyl disaster is not yet clear, ‘we can’t be certain of the link.’

But Babenko remains convinced, and in November 2004, The Swiss Medical Weekly published findings by workers at the Clinical Institute of Radiation Medicine and Endocrinology Research in Minsk, Belarus, which show that between 1990 and 2000 cancer rates have risen by 40% overall, compared with rates before the catastrophe in April 1986. Babenko continues, ‘Of the 400,000 children we have measured for radiation since 1990, 90% of them have potentially harmful levels of radioactive material in their bodies.

SOS Children

Despite international disagreement, SOS Children remains committed to supporting those affected. The SOS H.Gmeiner Mother and Child Social  Centre in the small town of Borovjlany, 20km from Minsk, offers accommodation to children and their families who are undergoing cancer treatment at the nearby Centre of Child Oncology and Haematology. The SOS Social Centre occupies three houses on the SOS Children’s Village Borovjlany site where children and their families from the regions most affected by radiation (Mogilev, Gomel, Brest and Grodno) can stay whilst receiving cancer treatment.

Each year, 250 children families stay at the Social Centre in self-catering accommodation free of charge. Families that are offered the opportunity to stay are those on low-incomes who have travelled long distances to receive treatment. The Social Centre works directly with the hospital and authorities to identify families in particular need of support. 

It is not uncommon for the Social Centre to support different generations of the same family. One family, who recently stayed at the Social Centre, have battled with two cases of illness.  Maxim, 23, was born healthily but his health deteriorated rapidly on his seventh birthday. For ten years he was crippled and had to rely on a wheelchair. Although his health has improved, doctors could not diagnose his mysterious illness. More recently, his nephew, aged 11, has been receiving treatment for stomach cancer. Maxim’s family blame both illnesses on the after-effects of Chernobyl. It cannot be proven - but the radioactive fallout reached their home region of Mogilev. Both Maxim, and now his nephew, Vlad, stayed at the SOS Social Centre whilst undergoing treatment. Vlad is now in remission and is looking forward to going on the SOS summer camp.

SOS Children Villages in Belarus also supports many families who were forced to move from contaminated areas to Minsk, and have found the change of lifestyle a serious challenge. In the three years following the disaster, 100,000 people, many farmers, were re-housed from the radiation hot spots, 55,000 of whom up now live in high rise purpose-built apartments. Although it was essential to move people away from the contaminated areas, the social implication of doing so are clear to see.  According to Lilya Shestakova, Leader of the SOS H.Gmeiner Mother and Child Social  Centre, many families now face unemployment and struggle with a range of social problems including alcoholism and mental health issues.  Together with Social Services and Police, the SOS Family Strengthening Team work to identify families, who Lilya describes, are ‘in crisis’. These families are given a holistic package of support of monthly food packages; access to a counsellor and legal advisor; children receive extra school support and take part in extra-curricular activities; and parents attends weekly parenting classes.

After 25 years, it is clear that millions of people in Belarus still suffer from radioactive contamination as well as the mental and emotional affects of the disaster. SOS Children, through its SOS Centre and Family Strengthening Programmes is actively supporting those who continue to live in the shadow of Chernobyl.

April 26th 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. It is clear that millions of people in Belarus still suffer from radioactive contamination as well as the mental and emotional affects of the disaster. SOS Children, through its Health Centre and Family Strengthening Programmes is actively supporting those who continue to live in the shadow of Chernobyl.

Single mother of three Olga lives in a high rise block in Borovljany, just outside of Minsk. After her husband's death Olga became an alcoholic and struggled to care for her children. Read how, with support from SOS Children, she has changed her family's life around.

Seventeen-year-old Andrey discovered he had cancer when he went for a routine medical screening before his entrance into the military. Every day, he and his mother stay at the SOS Health Centre whilst he undergoes treatment. Read his story.

You can help us continue this work by Sponsoring a child in Belarus