For the children that come on our programme, life in Belarus is tough. Our children either live in the Mogilev region or Mogilev city itself. Mogilev is around 180 miles north from Chernobyl and the Mogilev region was one of the areas most affected by the disaster with around 35% of the land contaminated. Over half of the region’s land is used for agriculture and many of the families work on collective farms.
Many of the children on the programme live in the villages to the east of Mogilev, surrounding the towns of Chausy and Cherikov. These remote villages vary in size, but lack all but the most basic infrastructure. Much of the the land surrounding the villages is contaminated and will remain that way for thousands of years. Glimpses of radiation warning signs between the trees are a sobering reminder of the impact the disaster has had on Belarus and its people.
Arriving in the villages feels like stepping back in time. Although the main roads in Mogilev region are reasonably good, the local streets are often little more than snow-covered dirt tracks. Most of the children live in small single storey houses, of wood or rough brick construction, with scrubland filled with a variety of tumbledown wooden structures for gardens.
The living space in a lot of the houses was essentially a single room, partitioned off by thin wooden walls, or in some cases, wardrobes and curtains, to make small bedrooms. There are also plenty of examples of living rooms doubling as bedrooms. With several generations of the same family living under the same roof living conditions can be cramped with four or five children sharing a small bedroom.
Kitchens tended to be very small with elderly cookers powered by gas cylinders, ancient fridges and bare shelves. Running water, if there is any, was of the cold variety and those without running water rely on public wells that line the main streets. Inside bathrooms and toilets are a rarity. Most toilets are outside in the yard — a hole in the ground surrounded by a crude wooden shed.
For our children who live in Mogilev city, most live in incredibly run-down blocks of flats surrounded by heavy industrial areas. The flats are small and facilities basic with many people sharing the same bedrooms, beds in living rooms and inhabited by several generations. There is little opportunity for children to go out and play and the atmosphere is bleak and oppressive.
The Chernobyl disaster continues to have a devastating effect on Belarusian families. They are existing in incredibly challenging circumstances, where high unemployment, very low incomes, alcoholism and serious social problems are prevalent. There is an overwhelming feeling of resignation and lack of hope and it’s difficult to see how things will improve for them or what the future of these children will hold.