Ten years after the world’s worst nuclear calamity, Mel Gunasena joined an international women’s vigil in Eastern Europe in memory of the victims.
Squall 13, Summer 1996, pg. 55.
Ten years after the world’s worst nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, millions of people are still suffering from the lasting effects of radiation; contaminated food, air and water.
More than 150,000 people in the Ukraine were forced to leave their homes after the accident, and approximately four million people still live in contaminated areas. Children are particularly affected: only 25 per cent of babies are born healthy and many children suffer from a condition scientists call ‘Chernobyl AIDS’. Their immune systems are so weak that it can take them months to recover from even a common ailment.
When I visited Kiev in December 1995 a flu epidemic had forced all the schools to close and I saw only a couple of children on the streets during the week I spent there. In most cases no material assistance is available from the government for families with sick children. In 1990 young mothers worried about their children’s health founded the organisation ‘Mama 86’ to provide free practical assistance and information on health and environmental issues for women and children. They run a laboratory where children are tested and monitored free of charge and given preventative healthcare based on herbal treatments and vitamins. The group also organise holiday camps for mothers and children in a non-contaminated area of the Ukraine which gives tired immune systems a chance to recover from constant exposure to radiation.
In partnership with the Women’s Environmental Network in London, Mama 86 is working to set up a public information telephone helpline. The aim of the group is to empower people to take action on individual and community levels: “In a post-totalitarian society an easy-access public information system on these issues is a new and radical step”, says Anna Syomina, Director of Mama 86.
Three hundred miles away in eastern Lithuania, the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant is of the same generation as Chernobyl with the same reactor design, causing many people to live in fear of a similar catastrophe occurring in their homeland. Local women are noticing that their whole families sometimes feel tired and lethargic. The birth of mutant farm animals is becoming common and people fear their lands and children are being poisoned by unacknowledged radioactive releases.
Last year the fire chief in Daugailiai village measured levels of radiation three times higher than those taken after the Chernobyl accident. As in the Ukraine, the plant was built by the former Soviet Union, but the environmental and health costs of an accident will have to be bourne by the Lithuanian Government.
85 per cent of Lithuania’s energy is produced by the INPP, making immediate closure impractical. Although the Energy Minister admits energy- conservation measures could save up to 40 per cent of output and a further 15 per cent could be replaced by renewable alternatives. However, he also claims there is not enough funding to realise these figures for forty years.
Western funding is directed towards training, radiation monitoring and safety improvements on the Eastern European nuclear reactors. Yet the crucial task of strengthening the concrete sarcophagus at Chernobyl remains an argument between governments as to who should foot the bill. Predictably the funding is minimal when compared to the amounts BNFL and others spend on their propaganda.
On March 9 th 1996 the Utena Women’s Club organised a peaceful demonstration outside the Ignalina NPP to celebrate International Women’s Day. Women from all over Lithuania and international supporters (including women from the Sellafield Women’s Peace Camp) gathered to remember the victims of Chernobyl and to demand a nuclear-free future. Women of all ages and occupations stood silently in the freezing snow holding candles and colourful banners. Paintings by local children portraying their fears of death and contamination were also displayed.
The action ended with everybody doing a somewhat surreal hokey-cokey with the ominous red and white striped reactor towers as a backdrop. Despite being portrayed as KGB agents and Western imperialists by a section of the press, we were welcomed warmly by the Lithuanian women and linguistic and cultural differences were celebrated in sisterhood and solidarity.
Sellafield Women’s Peace Camp, Peace House, 34 Byron Street, Todmorden, West Yorks, OL14 5HS. Tel: 01706 812663.
Utenos Motery Klubas, Kurdirkos 28 - 11, 4910 Utena, Lithuania
A short film on the work of Mama 86 is available from: Women’s Environmental Network, Aberdeen Studios, 22 Highbury Grove, London, N5 2EA. Tel: 0171 354 8823.