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GROUND ZERO

Dr. Sergei Chumihovskii reads his statistics right off the corner of his desk. They spill from a handwritten ledger in a well-thumbed folder, kept in his own precise lettering.

Kossiakov, Anatoly, he reads. Born February 1987 in Mogilev District, a contaminated area. Died June 1994 after two relapses in his fight with leukemia. (A twin brother died of leukemia at age 2.)

Chernenkov, Peter. Born May 1988. Died 1995 from hepatitis, contracted from a blood transfusion following bone marrow surgery. He, too, had leukemia.

Zyben, Genia. Two years old, now a patient beginning her first treatment series for leukemia. Born to a mother who was in the midst of puberty at the time of the nuclear accident, Genia represents a new generation of Chernobyl victims whose potential health risks are only now being plotted. Later Genia is spotted in the playroom, her face puffy with prednisone and wrapped in gauze to ward off the flu viruses.

All their records are in the notebook. Dates of birth, places of birth, treatment history and-too often-dates of death. Poor nutrition combined with suppressed immune systems and Third World medical facilities present tall obstacles to survival. The individual histories mock the official Soviet death toll reported from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion-31.

April 26 marks the 10th anniversary of a disaster caused by Soviet-era incompetence and aggravated by Communist disinformation. Eighty percent of the radiation from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl fell on Belarus. Cleanup costs have crippled its economy and devastated the health of its people. A decade of political and economic upheaval has only tightened the Gordian knot.

The nuclear accident sent clouds of cesium-137 and radioactive iodine north across the republic and into western Europe. In Scandinavia, Germany, and Poland, very abnormal levels of those materials were recorded airborne. Closer to the explosion site, Soviet authorities failed to record the levels of radiation that fell on 12 million people in the path of the prevailing winds, mostly in Belarus.

It was 1990 before the Soviet government invited the International Atomic Energy Agency to study health problems of the population in the area of the destroyed reactor. The IAEA team of experts relied on data provided by the Soviet government and did not verify it with local physicians or regional clinics. It concluded there was an increase of health problems, but dismissed any connection with radiation exposure. Many of the illnesses were termed psychosomatic and were attributed to "radiophobia." The IAEA's report, endorsed by the World Health Organization, became a verdict that reduced both outside aid and research in the Chernobyl aftermath, leaving Dr. Chumihovskii, the head of hematology at Mogilev Children's Hospital, and others to fight a horrid battle-unarmed.

On a warm spring evening ten years ago, Dr. Chumihovskii, then a young pediatrician, was ordered south to the Ukraine to serve military duty. A Soviet army bus deposited him at the town of Chernobyl, where he was made chief physician of a tank division, but given no other instructions.

He and his men were issued regular army uniforms-"no mask of any type or any other protection," he says-and within a day they began to notice that exposed areas of skin felt sunburned. Dr. Chumihovskii rubs the top of his hands as he talks now, describing how the skin of his hands and wrists peeled three times during his first week at Chernobyl. It was May 4, 1986, nearly one week before government officials publicly acknowledged the nuclear disaster. What sort of help did Dr. Chumihovskii and his team offer locals during a one-month tour of duty near the crippled reactor site? Besides dispensing some basic medicines, "Nothing," comes his frustrated reply: "We could do absolutely nothing."

These days the sense of futility Dr. Chumihovskii felt back in 1986 at the nuclear station site has disappeared. Last summer, after a six-week tour of American medical centers that included St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., Dr. Chumihovskii returned to Mogilev, near Chernobyl. At the Baptist Church, he announced his own newfound faith in Christ, which had been shaped by witnessing the ministry of Christian groups to local Chernobyl children. "The [Russian] Orthodox Church only took," Dr. Chumihovskii told WORLD. "It did not know how to give. In the United States I saw real Christians, who first gave. Before, I read the Bible but not seriously. Now I have learned to take it seriously and to know the freedom that is found nowhere but Christ."

Now, the doctor's waking hours are consumed with the most poignant victims of Chernobyl, children whose lives have been entirely spent in a contaminated zone, breathing its air, playing in its soil, eating its radiation-laced produce and dairy products. Twenty percent of the country's population lives in areas with radiation above safe levels. Forty percent of the children in those regions have medical problems related to radiation exposure, Dr. Chumihovskii says.

Researchers are only beginning to understand the long-term effects of exposure to low-level radiation. Since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima they have tended to focus on high-level exposures and their relationship to cancer. Day-to-day exposure, more likely to be experienced by people living near a nuclear reactor or in the path of civilian or military fallout, has been overlooked. Now that kind of exposure, inhaled or ingested from radioactive emissions and contaminated soil, looks more serious than what's caused by external gamma ray exposures, the A-bomb variety.

Childhood cancers, particularly leukemia and thyroid cancer, are only the top of a long list of dramatically increased ailments thought to stem from short-term to low-level exposure. Asthma among children exposed in utero at the time of the Chernobyl accident is eight times the normal rate of occurrence. Other respiratory, cardiovascular, and central nervous system disorders also have risen significantly in this group, suggesting suppressed immune systems.

Three years ago, says Dr. Chumihovskii, his 200-bed hospital might have treated three children with leukemia at a time. Now 30 children on any day will be leukemia patients. Many were born just before or soon after the Chernobyl accident. In other parts of the hospital high numbers of thyroid cancers ("It was very rare before," says the doctor, who attributes the thyroid problems to radioactive iodine) and central nervous system disorders like Hodgkins Disease also appear to attest to the work of Chernobyl's fallout. Frequent bouts with pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses in the 10- to 12-year-old age group fill a disproportionate number of beds.

On the busiest of days, Dr. Chumihovskii takes time to make coffee for guests. A flu epidemic is keeping patients quarantined and nurses in gauze masks scurrying, but Dr. Chumihovskii keeps the conversation going and his humor at the ready. It isn't hard to make him laugh, and it is the large laugh of a Tolstoy folk hero, bending him at the waist and shaking his whole body. His dress and demeanor are oddly fresh, given the challenges each day holds in this worn-out Soviet relic of a Belarussian hospital.

Dr. Chumihovskii needs more healing power than humor to cure what ails this state-run facility. No amount of American-donated medicine can turn on the lights in his dim hospital hallway, or restore the water supply that the hospital loses five hours each night. No gift of German blood analyzers or other needed technology can keep him from pounding floors of loose linoleum in corridors cold enough to watch his own breath. And no amount of Western education-from summers spent in Memphis, Tenn., and Chapel Hill, N.C., hospitals, to specialized training at Scandinavian conferences-can equip him to cut through the government red tape and official corruption that typify all transactions, including those to help sick children, in this republic.

Ura Tchekhovski understands Dr. Chumihovskii's plight. It is one that he shares. Mr. Tchekhovski is a Mogilev engineer whose more inspiring job is coordinating the Belarussian side of the American-Belarussian Relief Organization. The private group works with American churches to help children affected by Chernobyl. Studies cited by Dr. Chumihovskii show that even a month or two outside the contaminated area can reduce the level of residual radiation in body tissues by 25 percent. For children, that can significantly reduce the risk of illness.

Today, Mr. Tchekhovski's child-relief efforts have blossomed into an all-out crusade; the initial seed was planted a few years ago when he brought 14 children to spend a summer month in American church homes at the invitation of Rich Culpepper, who then pastored a Southern Baptist congregation in Connecticut. Mr. Culpepper's wife, Allison, now heads the American side of ABRO, which this summer plans to bring over 300 Belarussian children to the United States.

Processing that many people out of Belarus is a feat in itself. Mr. Tchekhovski has mastered the bureaucratic hurdles, even striking a deal with the government in Minsk that allows it to choose up to half the children who will leave. He uses that system, plus his own network of local officials and members of the Baptist church he attends in Mogilev, to pull together an impressive array of candidates: children who can afford to travel as well as subsidize the travel of those who cannot; the already sick together with those who might be; rural kids from neglected towns like Maisky as well as city dwellers from the contaminated zones; regular church attendees and kids who've never seen a Bible.

Medical care is the paramount goal of ABRO for the children it assists, but no opportunity is lost to present the gospel to each child. "The politicians don't tell us, 'I will never leave you or forget you,'" Mrs. Culpepper counsels the visiting children before they return to Belarus, "but our God does."

Mr. Tchekhovski has found his ABRO tasks, especially paperwork and passports for the children's travel, more difficult over the last year with the resurgence of Communist influence. He expects that trend to continue now that Belarus is more openly interested in its Moscow alliance. Nonetheless, he blames the country's halting steps toward freedom and democracy on the people. Belarussians, particularly the older generation that grew up under Communism, are too dependent on their pensions, he says, and on price controls that ensure cheap vodka and sausage.

"The Russian word is abuylzovost," he said. "It means 'taking things too much as they are.' You lose God and you lose your mind that way."

Abuylzovost also seems to mean that the bitter ironies of the Chernobyl saga keep piling up. For instance, last month a Ukrainian hospital that treats Chernobyl victims lost its electricity for failing to pay its bill. The power source? Chernobyl's last remaining nuclear reactor, which has been plagued with its own problems (like nuclear waste seeping into the nearby Dnepr River) and will be shut down some time this year.

Belarus really never wandered far from the Communist fold it left five years ago. It has a largely ethnic Russian population that has kept strong sentimental and economic ties with Moscow since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Privatizing factories in a country heavy on the industrial base actually meant cronyism for former party officials. It elected a Communist president nearly a year before the Communist Party in Russia caught the popular wave last December. With the announcement two weeks ago that Belarus will form a "union state" with Russia, a move likely to lead to merging budgets and a combined government clearly directed by the Communist Party leadership, the once-independent republic is the first to rush back into the Russian bear hug.

While the Communist-backed move to rejoin Russia is gaining steam, this month Moscow holds a summit on nuclear safety. U.S. officials are eager to put to work a $12 billion accord by then, with the United States buying 15,000 metric tons of low-enriched uranium converted from 500 tons of Russia's bomb-grade uranium over 20 years. So how do the Belarussians feel about their future nuclear safety, especially if it is directed from Moscow? A recent poll showed that fewer than half of them would object to government construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus-in spite of the Chernobyl accident. It seems these weary Belarussians are ready to feed the hand that bit them.

Why haven't some Belarussians learned more from Chernobyl's 10-year-old catastrophe? The unanswered question lingers over Mogilev. The city sits on the cusp of Belarus's largest radiation-contaminated zone, which spreads like a bad stain across a government-issued topographic map. Mogilev (the name means "Lion's Den") is 150 miles north of Chernobyl, and between it and the reactor site are large pockets of contamination marked in red and flame orange.

To enter the red areas of the map requires a permission slip from the military and a drive of several hours into a solitary world defined more by what's not there than what is. Houses, farms, and sawmills sit abandoned. Where government soldiers took an aggressive approach, whole villages and factories were bulldozed, and residents and workers were forcibly relocated.

"We welcome you!" reads a sign outside the empty town of Vepryn. Beliassova Eudokia, 71, delivers mail and bread once a week to the 11 other residents left in Vepryn. All are elderly and refused to relocate five years ago when the government built a new town for them.

"The government does nothing but give out pensions," she said. "I don't care about the government and I don't listen to them."

Most others did, and moved to the new town, called Maisky, just ten miles away. Multi-storied apartment buildings were completed several years ago, and a new school opened in January. Many adults work at a nearby collective farm. But residents say soil contamination at both the farm and in the new town is nearly as high as it was where they used to live. Andrei Lushchev runs a repair shop that is still located in the zone, but he lives in Maisky; he takes regular soil readings in both places. He says they are nearly identical. According to Mr. Lushchev, the government compensates for its miscalculation by sending children away every summer. They go to the Belarus Sanitarium in Latvia to breathe good air and eat radiation-free food for a few months.

Ivan Sheroburkov, 73, is sorry he listened to the government. He and his wife moved from her family farm just off the road from Vepryn to a three-room flat in Maisky. His new home is drafty and never has hot water, he said, and radiation readings are higher than they were on the farm. Soldiers leveled his farm, but a few times each week he hitches his horse to a sleigh and rides to the site. In summer he will pick apples from the few trees of his orchard the soldiers left standing. He won't worry about their radiation content. Much of his life has been completed, spent before the Chernobyl disaster.

No, says Ivan Sheroburkov, as he surveys what is left of his apple orchard, "I'm a lucky one."

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.