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Cash-Strapped Belarus Struggles With Chernobyl’s Contamination

March 25, 1996

GOMEL, Belarus (AP) _ Alec Zhloba hums along to his portable radio, swaying his frail, bony body, oblivious to the fact that he lives in one of the world’s most unfortunate places.

When the song is over, the bald, blue-eyed 5-year-old is transported back ``home″ _ the children’s cancer ward of the Gomel Regional Hospital, about 78 miles northeast of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

``It’s not a child’s fault he got sick in Belarus,″ says Dr. Tatyana Shuimikina. ``We’re captives of this irradiated land.″

Although the nuclear plant is in neighboring Ukraine, about 70 percent of the radiation that spewed out when a reactor exploded nearly a decade ago fell on Belarus, one of the least prosperous former Soviet states.

As the anniversary of the April 26, 1986, disaster nears, Belarus is grappling with economic meltdown and a political identity crisis and has little energy for dealing with the Chernobyl’s legacy of ill health.

Shuimikina’s cancer ward sees dozens of new children every year, all from the Gomel region, which registered some of the highest levels of plutonium, strontium and cesium contamination after the accident.

While it is impossible to prove all the sicknesses are radiation-related, many doctors have no doubts there is a connection.

Cases of thyroid cancer in children have risen from one every few years to nearly 600 in the affected region since the accident. More than half of those have been Belarussian children.

Disorders from early hearing loss to cancers among Gomel’s 120,000 children have increased tenfold over the past 10 years.

The wetlands of southern Belarus have aggravated the situation by absorbing the radiation from Chernobyl and spreading it across the country in groundwater.

Little Alec’s family lives in a marsh village. For his first few years, he ate vegetables from his parents’ garden and local meat. Since he was diagnosed with Hotchkin’s disease last year, he has eaten little but hospital food.

Katya Rayevskaya, 2, suffers from leukemia. Her father, who sleeps in the ward with her, was one of more than 400,000 ``liquidators″ who helped clean up the Chernobyl power station after the explosion.

The workers went home with chests full of medals and massive doses of radiation. Thousands have died.

Denis Kovalyov entered the world just two months before the Chernobyl disaster. He marked his 10th birthday last month in Shuimikina’s third floor ward, where he is being treated for leukemia.

The dimpled blond was born in a now-abandoned Belarussian village near the plant. When he is well enough to go to school, he plays the clarinet in the school band.

The children at Gomel Regional Hospital are not just victims of disease. They suffer, too, from Belarus’ passivity and ambivalence toward economic reform.

The country is still uncomfortable with the independence it suddenly gained four years ago and has clung more fiercely than any of its neighbors to the centrally directed economy that crippled the Soviet Union.

Its voters elected as president the outspoken and pro-Moscow Alexander Lukashenko and seem to cling to the hope that Russia will take care of Belarus’ economic and Chernobyl-related woes.

Meanwhile, state hospitals are in dire financial straits as demand for services rises in a nation where one-fifth of the 10 million people still live on contaminated land.

To its credit, the government has allocated 11 percent of its 1996 budget for Chernobyl-related matters. But with the country’s economic problems, there isn’t much to begin with and the figure is shrinking every year.

About 80 percent of the money for the Gomel cancer ward comes from outside donors. Its diagnostic machines are Japanese, its medicines are German, and the stuffed bear behind Shuimikina’s desk is a ``gift from America.″

The overwhelming majority of research on Chernobyl’s effects on Belarus has been conducted by outsiders.

Alexander Sushinsky, assistant minister for Chernobyl issues in the Belarussian government, strikes a defeatist note when he talks of solving the ``Chernobyl problem.″

``Of course, the best, fastest solution would be to move everyone to clean zones,″ he says in an interview. ``But it is very difficult. And besides, we consider it unnecessary.″

Belarus’ few environmental activists are dedicated, but their task is daunting.

``The mentality is still Soviet,″ says Yuri Voronezhtsev, head of the Belarus Socio-Ecological Union in Gomel. ``No one here fully understands what Chernobyl did to us.″

The tragedy is no less acute in cash-strapped Ukraine, also heavily hit by fallout. But Ukraine still has the plant itself to remind people of the tragedy and its deadly leftovers.

In Belarus, ``people are already forgetting,″ says Shuimikina, the cancer ward doctor. ``It’s been 10 years. People want to live their lives.″

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