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Environment : Chernobyl : The Full Impact of the Nuclear Nightmare in the Soviet Union Is Just Beginning to Emerge


BARTALOMEYEVKA, Soviet Union — Doors bang with the wind. Fences have fallen around the village's stout houses. The post office, the school, the community center are all padlocked. And yellowed weeds, some shoulder high, wave in the fields where Bartalomeyevka's farmers grew rye, potatoes and vegetables.

Bartalomeyevka is a modern ghost town--it was killed by radiation.

Home to more than 3,000 people just five years ago, it is one of the hundreds of villages in the western Soviet Union that were abandoned after clouds of radioactive particles from the explosion at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station passed overhead in 1986 and made them uninhabitable.

"The young have all gone--they understood that all this radiation would be a living death," said Anatoly E. Popkov, 58, whose family is one of 17 still living in Bartalomeyevka, about 100 miles north of Chernobyl. "We should leave, too. There is still lots of radiation here, and it churns up your stomach and makes your bones ache and just eats away at you.

"But how can you leave a place that has been your whole life and the life of your parents and their parents and their parents before? Bartalomeyevka is where God put us--this is our place in the world. Where will we go?"

As destructive as the original explosion was, the full consequences of the Chernobyl disaster are only becoming clear five years later:

* Hundreds of thousands of farmers from Byelorussia, western Russia and the Ukraine have been resettled, or must still be, from land so poisoned that it cannot be farmed for a generation or more. Yet, the massive migration from villages that go back centuries threatens to destroy the very societies it is intended to save.

* Upward of 4 million people from the region are thought by doctors to be in high-risk groups susceptible not only to cancer but a range of severe illnesses, already on the rise, that include heart and lung diseases, nervous disorders and digestive tract ailments. For doctors, the sharp increase last year in cancer of the thyroid gland among children and adolescents is a portent of the human suffering still to come.

* The exploded reactor at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station in the northern Ukraine remains a serious threat. Although stabilized at tremendous cost in 1986 and encased in a concrete sarcophagus, the reactor is still highly radioactive and far from leakproof, and a fierce dispute is raging over what to do about it.

* And the cleanup, the resettlement and the health care that will be required now seem beyond the capability of the crisis-ridden Soviet Union and its Byelorussian, Ukrainian and Russian republics. At the same time, there is widespread distrust of all government, a feeling that it will abandon Chernobyl's victims to their fate.

"A sense of doom is settling on our people that, if we accept it, could condemn our nation to extinction," said Natalya P. Masherova, president of the Byelorussian Znich Union, which takes its name from the holy fire with which ancient Byelorussians sought to ward off evil spirits, and which was formed to aid Chernobyl victims. "People ask, 'What have we done for God to punish us this way?' And it does seem a punishment. Every fourth Byelorussian was killed in World War II, and now every fifth Byelorussian--2.2 million people--was in the Chernobyl radiation zone. It is a real question, 'How will we survive?' "

In Bartalomeyevka, an instrument placed on the window sill of one of the houses to measure radiation screeches its warning of unsafe within seconds. The state farm that formerly was based here was dissolved last autumn; its fields have been poisoned with cesium, strontium, plutonium and other elements spewed forth by the reactor. And veterinarians are starting to find cancerous tumors and leukemia in the village livestock and household pets.

" 'Leave,' they tell us, 'leave,' " Alena N. Muzichenko, 60, one of Bartalomeyevka's remaining 100 residents, said. "Three times, the authorities have ordered us out. But where do we go? I have lived my whole life here. I married here, had my children here and will probably die here. Look, we had just built a new house, 15 meters by 6 1/2, with 11 windows, and you don't abandon a house like that, not one with 11 windows. . . .

"Besides, what is this radiation? It doesn't stink, and it doesn't bite. They talk about it, but we don't see it. Oh, yes, sometimes we feel bad, but after we lie down and rest a bit, the feeling passes."

Under the central government's resettlement program, more than 163,000 people have been evacuated from territory where radioactivity measures more than 40 curies per square kilometer, and 73,000 more remain to be moved this year. But Byelorussia, Russia and the Ukraine, setting stricter limits than Moscow, want to resettle people living in areas that received 15 curies or more. Altogether, officials estimate that more than half a million people will eventually be moved.

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