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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chernobyl: Life in an Alienation Zone

GDEN, Belarus -- A rabble of children ran up the dusty street toward the car. Their dirty faces cracked in excited grins, they jumped up and down at the arrival of strangers in their deserted village.

Just five families live in this forgotten place, and they should not really be here. Barely 15 kilometers away stands the Chernobyl power station, scene of the world's worst nuclear disaster that, 10 years ago Friday, spewed radioactive contamination over their homes and land, making the village uninhabitable forever.

Some half a million people living in a 30-kilometer zone around the plant were evacuated after the accident. But Nina Belokhnova brought her children back after one year.

"It is better to be at home," Belokhnova said, waving at her family who looked to be the poorest, most disadvantaged kids in Belarus.

"Where they sent us was worse, it was more contaminated than here," she said. "They feared us and feared the food we brought. They called us the 'contaminated ones' and 'refugees.' They were even frightened to bring us soup," she said.

Belokhnova's story was repeated by people throughout the "alienation zone" where authorities have forbidden them to live but, in fact, no longer bother to stop them from returning.

At least 500 people, mostly elderly, have returned to their homes in the zone. They are ready to live off the land, despite the dangers, rather than live a life of unhappy exile.

"People should go, but they carry on living here. It is difficult to leave your home, where you were born, where you know every pothole," said Vladimir Klimenko, 39, himself a local and now the mayor of the Belarussian town of Bragin, on the edge of the 30-kilometer zone.

The pull of home territory brought 100 people back to Ilinzy, just 18 kilometers west of the nuclear station, and another 100 to Savichi, near Bragin in Belarus and 25 kilometers northwest of Chernobyl. Both are dangerously contaminated areas.

The thick forests and overgrown countryside appear normal and wildlife has thrived in the absence of humans. Birds, hare, deer, boar and even moose abound, making the countryside a hunters' paradise.

Sveta Sadavodova, 29, was hanging on the fence outside her wooden home on the main street. Evacuated by the army eight days after the accident, she came back after three years with her husband and two children. So far they are healthy, she said. "We have adapted." The water in their wells, the vegetables in their gardens and the berries and mushrooms in the woods are banned, but Sadavodova, living at subsistence level, said the family ate them anyway.

Doctors and scientists said they are running an increased risk of developing cancer by doing so. Carcinogenic radioactive particles are in the air, earth and water and become concentrated in food and animals raised on contaminated land.

The World Health Organization has said it is too early to guess at the hazards of living in the contaminated zone. Scientists at a recent conference on Chernobyl in Vienna said that only now, 50 years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have they seen a high incidence of breast cancer in women irradiated as children.

There is, in fact, a staggering ignorance about radiation and its long-term effects, as well as a deep mistrust of what officials say. Vodka is widely believed to be an antidote to radiation, and locals will tell you, "You can eat the apple but must bury the seeds in the ground."

Belokhnova's 15-year-old son said he did not know what radiation was. "I know it is dangerous, but what can I do?" his mother butted in.

"The authorities said it was dangerous but we did not believe them," said Valentina Kurtonenko, 60, sitting in her wooden house in Apachichi, with hot mushroom soup on the table.

She came back after a year to find fruit and vegetables growing in abundance. "We feared to eat them at first and then a neighbor found a bottle of wine and we said, 'Let's drink,' and then we decided it was all right," she said.

"I do fear the mushrooms a bit," she said, "Then a Japanese expert told me I could eat mushrooms twice a week but just not to eat 10 kilos at once."

Official policy in Belarus is not just careless but intentionally encourages people to return to the zone, according to Valery Buivel, deputy leader of the Belarussian Popular Front, an opposition movement which has campaigned vociferously against the government's handling of the consequences of Chernobyl.

As people have returned to the area, the authorities have reconnected electricity supplies, started paying pensions locally and sent in uncontaminated food supplies to the few shops. People in Savichi said Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko gave them a bus. And there is a school operating near Gden, Belokhnova said.

The situation is similar across the border in Ukraine. In Pripyat, the deserted town where workers from the nuclear plant lived until the accident, sweepers were clearing up the leaves along the main avenue.No one lives in the town and police have fixed alarms on the nine-story apartment buildings to prevent people from moving in. Barely two kilometers from the plant, the town received the heaviest dose of lethal radionuclides, so much that they still send a Geiger counter spiralling upward alarmingly.

And yet, people sweeping the leaves were working without masks or protective gear, tidying up the town before former residents returned on an annual visit.

Not far away, workers milked their 20 cows at a farm kept open for research into the effects of radiation. Maria, 64, never left. She lives in a hostel where the radiation count was three times the uppermost limit set by authorities.

It was the politburo of the Soviet Union that led the way when it ordered the Chernobyl plant to be cleaned up and put back into operation. At the same time, it ordered a new town to be built to house the workers.

Outside the zone, Slavutich, a classic Soviet town, built by brigades from the different republics of the Soviet Union, is praised by all who live there as a happy, young, healthy town. Tall fir woods surround the pretty cottages built by the Baltic brigades. Even the Soviet-style apartment blocks do not yet look run down.

People constantly repeated that the average age is 25 to 30 years, that there are 9,000 children. The doctors in the city hospital said the standard of living is higher than in most Ukrainian towns and the incidence of sickness is lower.

But behind the happiness lurked a great dread. The land on which the Slavutich was built turned out to be contaminated, said the deputy mayor, Vladimir Zhigallo.

In 1991, the authorities removed topsoil to a depth of at least 70 centimeters from the playground of Kindergarten No.1, among other places. Local ecologists have said the water is contaminated and advised residents not to walk in some parts of the surrounding woods.

But Zhigallo insisted the water, drawn from a depth of more than 100 meters, and the area were safe. "There is a circle of people who are professionals and cannot be deceived. They know best and they come and live here with their children," he said.

But under the bravado, people in the zone did show flashes of worry.

People changed after the disaster, Klimenko, the energetic mayor of Bragin, said. "It is not like before. No one says anything but the spirit has grown heavy."