Cover Story


Issue: "Children of Chernobyl," April 13, 1996

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.

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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.


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