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A Voice For Dignity : UCI's John Whiteley Visits Russian Regions Others Dare Not, Trying to Aid a People Torn by War and Scarred by Radiation

November 12, 1995|GAIL FISHER

John Whiteley goes to places where people don't want to be.

Places where children can step out of their front door and onto a land mine. Places where there is so much radiation it seems almost pointless to measure it.

He could be lounging on a patio in Irvine, dealing only with the everyday worries of suburban life, but Whiteley is trying to find solutions to much larger problems--how to clean up a land bombarded with radiation for 50 years, or stop ethnic rivalries from escalating to war.

On UC Irvine's roster, Whiteley is listed as a teacher--a professor of social ecology, global peace and conflict resolution. But there are no classroom walls surrounding him: He is a researcher, psychologist, student of politics and Russian culture, former public television host, shaper of public policy, expert on radiation pollution.

Russian authorities invited him to help draft their nation's first nuclear-waste laws. He has gone to the secret city of Chelyabinsk-65 in central Russia to survey the horrors of radioactive pollution and to war-battered Chechnya in the south. He delivers medical supplies and interviews refugees who fled fighting and families who live in a nuclear wasteland.

"When you talk about the human spirit, it's such an enduring trait in these people," Whiteley says.

He risks radiation sickness and the violent uncertainties of war because--well, he cannot quite explain it.

Nor can those who know him.

"He is like a missionary," says Yuri Sakharev of the Chelyabinsk State Technical University. "He is without any thoughts of personal or financial gain." At age 55, "his soul is young."

"If you believe in a previous life, I think Whiteley was Russian," says Russian-born Marianna Baker of Irvine, who serves as his translator.

"He is an American, but he is with us in spirit," says Gulfarida Galimova, head of a Russian clinic for radiation victims in Muslyumovo. "He comes bringing medicine, courage and support, and the people depend on it. He never asks anything in return. . . . It is very rare to meet a person like him."

Much of Grozny is now rubble--the Parliament building, the university, entire neighborhoods.

Whiteley walks carefully among the toppled stones, broken concrete and spent shells. He is looking for answers in the ruins of this once-bustling city of 400,000 in the Republic of Chechnya.

The damage is more visible--but no less devastating--than that he encountered days earlier in the radiation-poisoned Techa River Valley in central Russia.

There, Whiteley also looks for answers that will help heal the people and the land.

This is his first time in Chechnya, though he has been in the surrounding area often. Russian soldiers now occupy the mineral-rich republic, that, like Russia, used to be part of the vast Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. At the height of the conflict last New Year's Day, bombs rained on Grozny at a rate of 4,000 per hour.

Eight times he has traveled to the Techa River Valley, which is so polluted with nuclear waste that few outsiders will--or are allowed to--come close enough to study it.

Whiteley has visited the former Soviet Union more than 30 times--beginning with his involvement in some early glasnost projects in 1987 and, most recently, this three-week trip in September.

The destruction and illness seem overwhelming, but he remains hopeful. He brings with him medical supplies--more than $500,000 worth so far--from donors in Orange County and elsewhere.

It is little things by many people that may ultimately create change, he believes, so he carries boxes of medicine as he searches for long-term solutions. And, he arranges for Russian scientists and researchers to come to the United States to see the technology and methods that could help them create a safer environment. In the past six weeks, under his guidance, UCI has hosted three separate delegations.

Always, Whiteley is looking for lessons that can be shared with those involved directly in the issues at hand, and with his students back in Irvine.

Testing the Limits

"He knows the way to get to the people," says Baker, Whiteley's translator. "In Russia, it's a specific culture of relationships. Connections are built traditionally. He knows how to communicate with people even without speaking their language. Most Americans don't know how to deal with Russians."

Whiteley's style is deliberate and methodical, and it serves him well, she says.

"When you first meet him, he seems like he's slow . . . like he doesn't get it," Baker says. "Only when you look in his eyes, you know that something is going on. And when you look at the results, you realize he is very quick. It is very difficult to get things moving in Russia."

After the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1986, Soviet officials were inclined for the first time to accept advice and assistance from outsiders, and Whiteley embraced the opportunity.

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