Kevin Barry in Chernobyl: ‘Misha is an example of what happens when a country is on its knees’

In 2000 the Irish Examiner sent Kevin Barry, now longlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel Night Boat to Tangier, to Chernobyl. Here we reproduce what he reported.

Kevin Barry in Chernobyl: ‘Misha is an example of what happens when a country is on its knees’

In 2000 the Irish Examiner sent Kevin Barry, now longlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel Night Boat to Tangier, to Chernobyl. Here we reproduce what he reported

Misha, aged seven, is the victim of not one but many sicknesses. His physical disorders, as can be plainly seen, are many and various.

But Misha is the victim of another ailment too, a kind of compassion deficiency.

Chernobyl isn’t fashionable these days, it’s been around so long now. April 26, 1986 seems a long time in the way-distant past. After the initial blurt of paranoia and charitable outreach, the fickle gaze of public interest quickly flicked from the incident at Reactor No 4 to fresher horrors.

Misha, then, has been shuffled way back in the compassion pack. He has fallen behind the other ravaged children who sombrely people the planet’s trouble spots, in places like Mozambique and Ethiopia.

He’s competing with Rwanda and Chechnya. And it’s beginning to tell Misha’s illness is a direct consequence of the Chernobyl explosion.

The radioactive danger in Belarus is not so much in the air now as in the food chain. Professor Yuri Bandashevsky, a dissident scientist, told the Irish Examiner this week that the mutations caused by radiation in children like Misha have by now entered the gene pool and thus the effects of the ‘86 explosion can stretch to infinity.

After criticising the state’s alleged misspending of research money for Chernobyl, Professor Bandashevsky recently found himself banged up in jail for five months, bound at the feet.

Which isn’t the sort of thing that bodes well for the likes of Misha. Some aid continues to filter through. This week, a convoy run by the Chernobyl Children’s Project has been on a drive through Belarus, dispensing almost £2 million in food and medicines.

One of the institutions the orphanage supports is Novinki, a children’s asylum on the outskirts of Minsk. Such is its Dickensian squalor, its actual existence was long denied by the state. This is where you’ll find little Misha.

Project leader Adi Roche says she has known the child since he was a baby, but has been stunned at his deterioration since she last visited in December.

After finding him emaciated and dying this week, the project has placed a Dublin nurse and a local Chernobyl nurse on 24-hour care alert with Misha, an attempt to make whatever is left of his life as painless as possible

“We don’t know how long Misha will live, or if he will live, but we are morally obliged to do everything in our power to attempt saving his life,” said Ms Roche last night.

“‘He is not the only child in Belarus suffering as horrifically as this. he’s just one of many.” she added. “‘These children are the victims of 14 years of neglect by the international community.”’

Many children in Belarus consigned to mental asylums have no mentaI handicap. “All orphaned children with any kind of disability are put into mental asylums if they live beyond the age of four,” she said.

Meanwhile, staffed by1,000 workers, the Chernobyl plant continues operate a couple of kilometres inside the Ukraine border.

The authorities say it will close this year. The concrete sarcophagus built to contain contamination from the reactor has 200 holes and counting.

Orphans of the nuclear age

Kevin Barry, in Chernobyl, finds a land and its people scarred by a disaster from which they may never recover.

Kevin Barry.
Kevin Barry.

Chernobyl at this time of year is beautiful, the borderlands of the Ukraine and Belarus a pastoral and idyllic place. Vast swardes of rich woodland are full of babbling brooks and twittering songbirds, every way you turn, there’s a postcard vista to please even the most jaded eyes.

The locals, however, are edgy. The President of Belarus, Alaksandr Lukashenko — aka ‘Batska’ (‘The Father’) — has decreed that the farmlands here–abouts are now safe to plant and he’s threatening to fly overhead and make sure the workers are toiling.

If not, he says, there will be trouble. Big trouble.

The notion of Batska in an airplane is enough to prompt sleepless nights for those who remain in the Purple Zone, the area most contaminated by the accident in 1986 at Smelter No 4 of the nuclear plant that lies inside the Ukranian border.

In a tragedy of happenstance, because there was a stiff northerly gusting that day, Belarus took the brunt of the damage and because radioactivity is most lethal when it attacks developing human systems, children have borne most of the pain.

But for these children, the most serious ailment is not the thyroid cancer or the leukaemia or the heart trouble or the kidney failure or the various disorders of colon and spleen prompted by Chernobyl.

The greatest danger is the compassion-fatigue. 1986 seems a long time ago now and the incident at Smelter No 4 is no longer swaddled in the necessary event-glamour or crisis-chatter.

When the evening news is an atrocity exhibition, when daily there are hellish dispatches from Mozambique, Ethiopia and Chechnya, the Belarussians fall ever further back in the line.

The foreign correspondents have long since moved on elsewhere. The story of a child developing thyroid cancer over a period of years doesn’t conform neatly with the sound-byte culture.

By this stage, the Belarussians have had enough. A condition of mass denial exists in the country and a native of the village Solchechy in the Purple Zone says that up to around 1993, everybody fretted and freaked out but then they decided, well, to hell with it.

“The mess got to be too much,” she says.

We don’t think about it now. Life is life and we try to get on with it.

This is easier said than done in Belarus. The country’s economy is shot — agriculture was its mainstay and since Chernobyl, the income from farming has been negligible. Almost 30% of the country’s annual turnover goes to the clean-up operation.

Belarus remains the most Soviet of states. There are thickly-piled layers bureaucracy and this tangle of demented protocol regulations and petty restrictions is amorphic, constantly shape-shifting.

The natives have had to develop a stoic acceptance of a hard frustrating life. On the night train from Gomel city to Minsk, they slug back cheap vodka and paint a picture of the everyday treachery of life in Belarus.

There is talk of the country’s history, of the 35 Year War and The 26 Year War. There has always been trouble, says one woman, but Chernobyl, that was the worst.

Day-to-day living in Belarus amounts to an unfeasible equation. Take Valentina in Minsk, who has been a teacher for 35 years and receives $30 per month.

When she retires soon, she will receive $20 per month: The supermarkets aren’t much cheaper than in the West. She has had a mastectomy but the cancer has surfaced again. “I think it’s the stress,” she says.

In the Gomel region, at the heart of the contaminated zone, the mood is probably bleak. There is a sense of foreboding and anxiety and that native strain of denial blend to a deadening blackness. You can feel it in the air.

Nobody can be openly critical of the current regime. All opposition is pretty much suppressed. By all accounts, President Lukashenko is an honest

and humble and gentle man, but all the accounts come from President Lukashenko.

Belarus, he says, is a presidential republic. He is president, so any decision he makes is automatically constitutional. Elections are due in October but Belarussians smile sadly when you ask if they expect change.

Meanwhile, President Lukashenko’s government is busy juggling a double narrative. The citizens are told all is safe and well, plough the Caesium 167 farmlands, harvest the tomatoes swelled in the Strontium 90 air.

But globally, a message of despair must be projected to keep the aid coming.

If the situation in macro is bleak, in micro it can be unspeakable. This week, an aid convoy worth £2 million mounted by the Irish aid agency Chernobyl Children’s Project has been travelling the country, lending what support it can.

Project leader, Adi Roche, has been in Belarus 30-odd times now and has smoothed out some contacts. A good chunk of her times is spent cajoling and finagling and flirting and hugging the assorted honchos who must be kept sweet if you’re going to operate there.

Ms Roche says she is always conscious of the fact that if there was an accident similar to Chernobyl in the northeast of England, the aid would be coming the other way.

Adi Roche
Adi Roche

The Project is helping out in Novinky, a children’s asylum on the outskirts of Minsk, a place whose very existence was a long time denied. It contains in shabby corridors ripe with an institutional funk — the human flotsam of the nuclear age.

Tattered, ravaged children run in antic gaggles through the grim, crumbling complex. Somehow they manage to laugh and smile a lot.

But one boy isn’t smiling. He sits on the floor in a miserable huddle, rocking back and forth, his eyes squeezed tightly shut, tiny scabbed hands clamped tightly to his ears, an Oppenheimer orphan.

Upstairs at Novinky, you’ll find Sasha. He is a six year old and his world consists maybe 12 inches square of polythene plyboard. That’s all he can see from his cot because he can’t move.

His frame is unspeakably deformed and covered in a thick layer of bedsores. He is not being fed because there are others more needy.

Most upsetting of all is the sight of seven-year-old Misha, his emaciated body barely clinging to life. Since

discovering Misha being left to die, Chernobyl Children’s Project has hired a nurse to look after him.

At the No 1 orphanage in Minsk, the children are sicker still. There is three-year-old Eugene Koslov who is not long for the world. He has a normal torso and intelligent face but down below, he’s just an egg-shaped glob of flesh, impossible to describe, a swelling mass of tumours.

The nurse says he has no chance, it’s much too late. Two-year-old Tamarva Murashovo is nearby, her tumour extends and is bigger than her head.

Travel towards the Purple Zone and you see the land that spawned these children. You journey through endless acres of eerily deserted farmland. Some people remain because they are backwoods folk and life in a cement tower block in Minsk is simply not an option for them.

Children’s bicycles lie around and rust. Birds swoop and carry contaminations. There are collapsed water towers and scrawny radioactive chickens. In the spectacularly bleak town square of Bragen, an electronic screen flashes reassuringly low radioactive readings.

But the whisper is that the readings are manipulated and nobody takes them seriously.

Closer to Chernobyl, the leaves are covered in a grey dust. The Daibier River, the world’s most radioactive, drifts lazily past. Suddenly, the reactor looms and it’s instantly familiar — a key icon of the 1980s.

You’re in the Ukraine now, inching along by an abandoned railway line. It’s a hot day and dust is being thrown up. The plant is supposed to close this year but they’ve been saying that for quite some time.

One thousand people still work there. There are currently 200 holes and counting in the sarcophagus built to contain contamination from the reactor.

Travel agents in Kiev are now offering tourist trips to Chernobyl. For £30, they’ll still take you to within 100 yards of the sarcophagus. More than 1,200 people visited the site last year.

But in the village of Bartolomeevka, tourism is far from the minds of Vala and Misha, who have never left their home. This is a beautiful place, they say.

There used to be 300 families here and now there are 10 people. The rest have died or fled. Vala says he doesn’t worry, it’s better not to. He’s racked by a mystery paralysis. He used to be a welder and has a pension of $8 a month, Misha gets $15.

They have enough for bread but not for sausages. Which is a pity, Misha says, because he is fond of a sausage.

Back in Minsk, a leading Belarussian scientist. Professor Yury Bandashevsky, is talking nervously at secret location.

He has been critical of the way the Ministry of Health has spent the scant resources available for research and he is convinced that the problems are far worse than the government allows. The effects of Chernobyl, he says, is spreading.

For his trouble, Prof Bandashevsky was arrested last July on what he claims were trumped-up corruption charges and was held in isolation for five months, his hands and legs bound.

Sitting with Prof Bandashevsky is his colleague Prof V.B. Nesterenko. “This isn’t something we’re just going to feel the effects of for 10 years,” he says.

It’ll go on for another 10 years and 10 years and 10 years.

As a worst case scenario, Prof Nesterenko says that the Bellarussians have no civilised future feasibly available to them. As the contamination spreads through the nation’s gene pool, he says we may witness the emergence of “a cretinous race”.

Their story may be only now beginning.

How this newspaper reported the April 26 disaster and its fallout

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