Forget “why are you going?” As I prepared for this trip, the more like question was “Where is Belarus?”
In conversation, it was often necessary to follow up with “… it’s in Eastern Europe” or “… it was a part of the former Soviet Union” or, for the older generation, “… also known as Belorussia.”
We hear about Belarus so rarely, after all, with the exception of national elections, which are predetermined and unsurprising. It’s not called ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ for nothing, after all.
This small country of around 10 million, nestled somewhat uneasily between Russia and the European Union, has a long history of struggle for recognition and survival. But the country’s position as a buffer between East and West has often been detrimental to its people.
Throughout its history, the Belarusian people have occupied lands that have been part of numerous kingdoms, empires and states. As a part of the Russian Empire, it was recognized as a nation and became known as ‘White Russia’ or ‘Belorussia’ (Belo = white in Russian). It flirted with outright independence as the red tide of Lenin’s Revolution swept through Russia, but the Soviet war machine took back Belarus and established the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, its short-lived independent government fled in exile.
Under Stalin’s iron rule, the Belarusian Language and culture was suppressed and Russians were placed in positions of authority. The Great Patriotic War (World War II) was devastating as the country was invaded and occupied by the Nazis until the Red Army slogged through and pushed them back to Berlin. The entire country was a constant battleground throughout the war.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy, though, began on April 26, 1986 when reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded.
“Prevailing winds discarded the intense radiation north [over Belarus],”said Nancy Neal-Oldenettel, former director of the Seattle Children of Chernobyl Project.
But Soviet officials made the decision to stop this radioactive cloud from getting closer to Moscow by seeding clouds over rural areas and, as Neal-Oldenettel puts it, “create rain over Belarus.” The country received most of the radioactive fallout from the disaster, as much as 60%-70% of the total. Though radiated lands are dangerous and will be inhospitable for hundreds of years, poverty and attachment compel many still live in these areas.
Travelling in Belarus, John Brannen returns to images of his childhood
As a kid, I remember having a book called Great Disasters of the 20th Century. Every once in a while, I would turn to a creased part near the end of the book where the pages were full of scribbled notes and highlighted paragraphs. The chapter was “Chernobyl – 1986.” The accompanying photos showed workers eerily dressed in rubber suits, staring blankly at the smoldering remains of the power plant.
This disaster is why the child victims of the worst nuclear accident in history left their homes to spend summers in Canada, some of them at my house. My age, we were kids from opposite sides of the world and only one of us really knew what a nightmare was.
Belarus rarely registers as even a blip on Canadians’ radars. A land-locked country in Eastern Europe, it received most of the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. About 60% landed in Belarus while the rest landed in Ukraine, Russia and the rest of Europe. Farmers, workers, their families and children were uprooted and their livelihoods, destroyed. The Soviet and post-Soviet governments did their best, but did not have the resources to offer support and long-lasting care to victims of the disaster.
But thanks to the efforts of Belarusian diaspora in Canada, the Canadian Relief Fund for Chernobyl Victims in Belarus (CRFCVB) was formed in 1989 “to provide medical and humanitarian aid to the people of Belarus who continue to live each day amidst the radioactive pollutants of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.”
For over ten years, children from contaminated areas of Belarus stayed in our home each summer. In Canada, their immune systems received a respite as they ate healthy foods, breathed healthy air and had Canadian medical care.
In some amazing and serendipitous way, our family in the Southwest corner of Nova Scotia is forever tied to these now-young adults half a world away. Up to six children stayed in our home at any given time. We shared in their joy and sadness, their pain and grief and over time they became a part of our family. And why? Because my parents saw an ad in our local newspaper soliciting funds for the CRFCVB, but decided they could do better and opened up their home, as well as their wallet.
Clothing stores, grocery stores, dentists and physicians were all eager to help these children, not just in Nova Scotia but all across Canada. It was a great example of that often idealized Canadian zeal to help those we’ve never met simply because we have the means and desire to do so.
Now a generation of young people are, in a way, as much Canadian as they are Belarusian.
From November 3 to 28, I travel to Belarus to visit those who called Barrington, NS, home for many summers. With them, I will travel this gem of Eastern Europe through Minsk, Homiel and the town where the CRFCVB began to help Belarusian children, Chavusy. On November 18, I will cross the border into Ukraine to visit the place that forever changed these then young children’s lives – Chernobyl, and the abandoned city of Prypiat.
Read more about John's trip