Photographers' Blog

The Soviet ticking time bomb legacy

By Vasily Fedosenko

The Soviet Union collapsed overnight more than two decades ago. In Belarus, which suffered most in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, the sudden demise of the nuclear superpower five years later left enough lethal legacy of other types to endanger the lives of several future generations.

In a forest near the village of Savichi, some 160 km (100 miles) southwest of Minsk, one of these Soviet-era time bombs is still ticking. Here, under a thin layer of ground, hundreds of tons of highly toxic Soviet-made pesticides are stored in leaky dumps.

Located just 3 km (2 miles) from a busy motorway, the dump spreads the pungent smell of chemicals far beyond its perimeter marked by rows of barbed wire. The poisonous substances hastily buried here back in the 1960-70s include the dreaded dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, more widely known as DDT, banned worldwide for several decades because it can cause cancer in humans.

Belarus’s independence has given a new lease on life to places like Savichi, a forlorn area marked with signs reading: “Danger. Toxic chemicals.” A $5.5 million U.S. grant helps finance work aimed to clean up the pesticide disposal site. People clad in white chemical protection overalls and wearing gas masks load a greyish mixture of soil and chemicals leaked from rusty barrels into new blue-colored 70-kg (154 pound) plastic containers.

Last year, workers loaded and sent a total of around 950 tons of the toxic substance to Germany for environmentally safe processing. This year they are completing work at this old dump, having packed more than 600 tons of pesticides in more than 9,000 containers.

Chernobyl graves

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.

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