- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002

RUDNIA SHLIAGINO, Belarus The churchyard soil is radioactive. The house where he grew up has been ransacked.
Ivan Katsubo, 61, recently returned to the prohibited radioactive zone to commemorate his childhood and his deceased relatives by drinking vodka and eating bread in the place he once called home.
As the asphalt road leading toward the village Rudnia Shliagino turns to bumpy gravel, visitors are met by a sign stating, "entrance prohibited."
Nailed to the post below is the infamous triangular symbol for radioactivity. All traffic beyond this point is still forbidden, 16 years after the Chernobyl disaster in neighboring Ukraine on April 26, 1986.
However illegal it is to venture into the "dead zone," there is much activity here.
In the fields, cows graze on radioactive grass. In the forests, criminals hack down and haul out radioactive timber. Houses left empty by families evacuated or resettled after the accident are slowly being dismantled and taken away.
The zone has become a lawless refuge for the Russian mafia and asylum-seekers from former republics of the Soviet Union, Chechnya being the one brought up most often.
Mr. Katsubo is sad because he is not allowed to regularly visit the cemetery where his mother, Maria, and sister Ann are buried. The churchyard lies inside the prohibited area.
"We are only allowed to visit the place once a year," he said. "Even then, we have to bribe the police to get in. It is sad for me to come back. This place is a part of my soul."
Mr. Katsubo swallows mouthful of vodka and eats a piece of bread in memory of those who lived here and to his childhood home, which exists only as a shell of its former self.
He looks over the remnants of where he spent the first quarter of his life. Only the shambles of what was the red-brick chimney are still there. Most of the house has fallen apart.
On the ground among the ruins, the remains of a bed catch his eye. Further toward the chimney, sits the skull of a cow. The oak tree he planted in the front yard as a child has been chopped down and sold.
Mr. Katsubo's middle-aged nephew, Vladimir Verbovikov, accompanies him this day. He also has childhood memories from this small village tucked into the southeast of Belarus, a crow's flight from the Ukrainian border and Chernobyl.
He spent many summers visiting his grandmother here. Before the accident, the village had 108 households and about 1,000 inhabitants. The only thing left is the row of empty, rusting mailboxes. The field where Mr. Verbovikov used to play soccer with his friends is deadly empty and silent.
"Those who survived World War II and rebuilt their houses were hit by a new 'war,'" Mr. Verbovikov said referring to the Chernobyl accident and the mass evacuation that followed.
The wooden fence around the churchyard, next to where Mr. Katsubo grew up, has mostly fallen apart. It is full of 3-feet-high brambles that make it difficult to access the graves, covered with colorful plastic flowers. No one can reach them with fresh ones, as visits are only allowed once each year.
Unemployment and poverty force many people to live illegally inside the radioactive zone. A woman and her son, Dima, cycle along the dusty road. She will not give her name because she is afraid of repercussions from the authorities. "We have no choice but to live here," she said.
The house in which her family lives has neither electricity nor running water. Both she and her son are unemployed. Her husband's income, the equivalent of $30 a month, is all the money the family has. Dima's full-time job is to safeguard the family's home.
"Since it is illegal to live here, there are many people who want to dismantle and steal the house and earn money on the materials," he said. "But we have agreed to stay here together for the rest of our lives."
Inside the zone cows graze, even though the radioactivity is still far above the legal level for farming. Thousands of children who were exposed to radioactive iodine in milk after the accident have developed thyroid cancer as a result. The number, according to a recent U.N. report, is expected to rise sharply.
Scavengers not only bring wood out of the area, but also different types of mushrooms and berries from the forest that are sold at markets. No one knows exactly where or whether what they are getting is radioactive.
The radioactive zone is supposed to be guarded by the much-feared Belarussian police force, but today, the checkpoint is empty. A group of loggers can access the area and bring out illegal radioactive timber they have cut from the woods here.
Six men are about to conclude work for the day. They have two trucks full of large logs and are not happy about the attention from watching outsiders.
"They bring out timber, which is sold for big money, also on foreign markets such as Poland and Ukraine," Mr. Verbovikov said.
Mr. Verbovikov is the editor of the local independent newspaper, Sparetime, and has been covering the Chernobyl problems since they began.
"The illegal forestry is a well-known phenomenon," he said. "These people are criminals. And they are dangerous."
Because of the dangers of being exposed to radioactivity, 350,000 people, among them 135,000 Belarussians, were evacuated or resettled after the accident. A report published by the United Nations in February shows that the social problems caused by the Chernobyl accident and the resettlements that followed were at least as serious as the medical ones.
In the severely affected Gomel region of eastern Belarus, where Mr. Katsubo and Mr. Verbovikov live, the average life expectancy decreased by five years from 1986 to 2000. This development is not caused exclusively by the skyrocketing number of cancer victims. Unemployment and psychological problems have become a huge problem among those resettled. Poor diet, alcoholism, heavy tobacco use and extreme living conditions also factor into the decrease in life expectancy.
Ten years ago, the Belarussian government spent 20 percent of its national budget on Chernobyl expenses. Last year, the corresponding figure was only 5 percent, said Galina Skarakhod, from the private aid group, Civil Initiatives.
"The consequences of the accident are being overshadowed by other national problems, such as poverty, alcoholism and low salaries," she said. "The attempts to reduce the damaging effects of the disaster have almost stopped."

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