Every year Orthodox Christians in Belarus throng to local cemeteries to commemorate their deceased relatives and loved ones on the ninth day after Easter, following an ancient Slavic rite on a revered day called Radunitsa. They tidy up tombs and adorn them with wreaths, and bow their heads in somber silence.
But in the southeast of Belarus, people stream to a tightly guarded area surrounded by solid fences and barbed wire, where whole villages were evicted 25 years ago after being contaminated with deadly radiation spewed by a blown up reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in neighboring Ukraine.
The glum evacuees stream into the dangerous exclusion zone, not only to tend to the graves of their kinsmen, but also to cast a glance at their former homes in forlorn villages often plundered by looters. Fellow villagers come from all parts of Belarus, as well as Russia and Ukraine, to use the four days given by the authorities during Radunitsa to clean graves, lay flowers, leave sweets and a glass of wine at the tomb, to give each other a hearty hug and share news.
In the village of Pogonnoye, around 500 of those 2,000 who were evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster have already died, according to official lists hung at a local cemetery. Many of the dead are brought by their relatives to this desolate village to be buried in their native land.
One of the former villagers, 76-year-old Natalya Belkovets, told me her mother could not survive resettlement from her birthplace and died in May 1986, just two weeks after leaving Pogonnoye. It was next to impossible to persuade the authorities to allow for her burial in her village, Natalya said. The funeral was tightly controlled by army servicemen, she said. Now, formalities have been simplified – the dead are just brought in and interred, no special permits are required.
Many of the local houses are now in ruins, despoiled by gangs of marauders. A quick glance at the ruins, a quick drink of vodka – and a visitor is rushed away from his former yard tainted with radiation.
Unable to rein in their emotions, some of the former villagers burst into tears – like Sergei Belkovets, who found a picture of himself when he was 50 years younger.
In Pogonnoye, I overheard an old man asking his younger relative to bury him “in this very cemetery, under this very pine, with a stunning view of sunrises in one direction and a village landscape in another”.
There is little doubt the old man’s request will be respected – for many years to come, deceased evacuees are set to return to rest in peace in their native land. And for more years to come, despondent survivors of the world’s worst nuclear disaster will stream to their birthplace from which they were once uprooted.