Hasty evacuation haunts Belarus's Chernobyl survivors


The sudden switch by Soviet authorities from calm reassurance to evacuation alarm is etched on the memory of Makar Krasovsky and others like him, 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Despite a swirl of rumour about the extent of the explosion at the Chernobyl plant in then Soviet Ukraine on April 26, 1986, three days went by before Moscow announced the catastrophe in a terse, cryptic communique.

Meanwhile, a long tongue of radioactive debris from the destroyed No. 4 reactor, driven by a south-east wind, licked across the neighbouring Soviet republic of Belarus.

Today, the Belarus border region from which Krasovsky and others were evacuated in 1986 is a wierd, overgrown wilderness -- teeming with wildlife but virtually devoid of people, its shops and homes fast disappearing under a tangle of foliage.

The same fate could be in store for parts of Japan's northeast coast if technicians do not succeed in averting meltdown at reactors in the quake-crippled plants at Fukushima.

As much of the Soviet Union relaxed in pre-May Day holiday mood in 1986, a frantic, unpublicised disaster control operation was under way not just at Chernobyl itself but in Belarus border villages such as Khoiniki and Pogonnoye.

"They were telling us to go on working and not to panic. American radio was saying something but it was being jammed. Music was playing -- so everything was okay," said 73-year-old Krasovsky.

"But we could see for ourselves the military trucks moving around and helicopters overhead as if there was a war on," said Yevgeny Kravchenko, then a young student who had gone to visit his parents in Khoiniki.

"You had to be an idiot not to realise that something extraordinary had happened," said Kravchenko who now heads the zone's administration.

When the evacuation order came in early May for Belarus villagers living within a 30 km (19 miles) radius of Chernobyl, the mood changed in an instant and they were told to just take some cash with them and get out fast.

Most went and did not return.

"Police, soldiers, went through the village with sirens, shouting: "Move out! Move out!" It was terrible. They just stuck whoever they could find in buses," said Krasovsky who was hurriedly evacuated from his village of Pogonnoye. As people moved out, teams moved in to exterminate domestic pets and livestock.

"A special brigade shot dogs, poisoned hens, geese and ducks. They killed everything and left behind what they had killed. I went back in on May 18 or 20. There was a terrible stink, stench and flies. It was awful," said Krasovky.

The nuclear drama in Japan has brought memories of the Chernobyl disaster, the world's worst nuclear accident, flooding back for Belarus evacuees.

Next month Ukraine will host an international conference in Kiev aimed at galvanising the world community to stump up $600 million in extra cash to help build a new protective shield to cover the stricken nuclear reactor No. 4 to contain radiation.


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