Documentary, Uncategorized

The People who Survived Chernobyl

BELARUS. 1997. Novinki Asylum, Minsk. A hydrosyhalic child surrounded by the chaos of the asylum © Paul Fusco, courtesy Magnum

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which took the lives of more than 50 reactor and emergency workers on the 26th April 1986, and has had untold consequences on countless lives ever since.

From 1986 to 2000, more than 350,000 people were evacuated from the most contaminated areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

The disaster is considered to be the worst nuclear accident in history, with the effects still being felt today.

Magnum photographer Paul Fusco has documented the terrible consequences of this disaster in his book Chernobyl Legacy.

The story of Chernobyl is, in some respects, a tale of twin cities: Pripyat, the abandoned city purposefully built to house Chernobyl workers. And Slavutych, the city built after the disaster to replace Pripyat, and to provide a home for those that left.

On a sunny morning in April, the test on Reactor Number 4 Plant went horribly wrong. It took 36 hours after before the Soviet authorities ordered the evacuation of Pripyat, just two miles from the plant.

In under four hours, more than 49,000 people had left their homes, driven away to an unknown location by a fleet of 1,200 buses.

The authorities told them they would be gone for two or three days. They were told to leave everything behind, to carry with them only their identity papers and bare amounts of food and clothing. None of them would ever return to Pripyat.

The city was deemed too dangerous for humans for at least 24,000 years, for the sheer amount of radiation that now coated the environment.

Six months after the disaster, the Soviet authorities announced a new city would be built around 30 miles to the north-east of the decimated power station.

Slavutych – the old Slavic name of the nearby Dnieper River – would be the new home for the many of the families who were forcibly evacuated from Pripyat.

The reality of Slavutych turned out, in many respect, to be as tragic as Pripyat.

“Thirteen years after the explosive catastrophe the awful legacy can still be seen not only in the surviving immediate victims, but also in thousands more who were born with radiation caused deformities and diseases and forever more those who have dangerous buildup of radiation in their bodies from the food they eat and the water they drink everyday. It accumulates and festers and destroys lives in countless ways,” writes Fusco when introducing his series.

“Now the new generation bears the legacy, a bewildering and horrifying array of defects; mangled babies, brain damaged, genetic damage, and physiological, neurological, psychological damages. They carry the malevolent seeds of Chernobyl that will be passed on to the next generation and again to the next, and the next, and the next.

“The photographs are from daily life, hospitals, and institutions that are caring for thousands of young victims. The children are treated when they can be, but most of them have untreatable problems and birth defects. They are simply housed, fed and kept clean.

“Some of the most damaged are kept at Novinki, an insane asylum on the outskirts of Minsk. At birth many of these children are so horrifying a revelation to the parents that they are immediately abandoned to the state and within days are sent to Novinki. There is no perceived future for them. They are not steered to better lives; they are trained if they can be, to eat, to bath, to go to the toilet, to dress, to follow the directions from their keepers. Some play with other children, but others cannot even move without help. Many live solitary lives – frozen in time and space, reacting in secret with the phantoms that inhabit them.

When the children of Novinki come of age they will be sent to the main insane asylum to live out the rest of their lives, their futures a mystery.”

Along with Fusco, Gueorgui Pinkhassov and Jean Gaumy also visited the abandoned area to reflect on the conditions of the people who now try to carve a life out in what is called “The zone”.

You can see their work here.