I’m in the Bryansk region of Russia. Despite being over 180 kilometres from Chernobyl and thirty years after the disaster, my geiger counter still picks up elevated levels of radiation.
This invisible radiation hazard is a day-to-day reality for the five million Chernobyl survivors that live in contaminated areas of the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. They eat contaminated berries and vegetables. And they breathe radioactive smoke from fires in nearby forests contaminated by Chernobyl.
Here in the Bryansk region many communities should have been evacuated, but never were.
Worse, the Russian government is now cutting radiation protection measures and support programs for people here to save money. Last year, three hundred thousand people lost support when the government changed the status of several hundred settlements without any public consultation.
I met a surgeon, Dr. Victor Khanayev, in a nearby town of Novozybkov. With its old churches, it reminds me of many historic Russian towns, except in this town Chernobyl’s invisible radiation looms in the background.
Dr. Khanayev worries about the local food his patients must eat because they lack the money to buy more expensive imported food. He told me: “It is impossible for rural people to refuse local produce from the land and their garden, especially with the official monetary compensation being so small.”
“Regional authorities are trying to do something, but little can be done without money. The budget is like a short blanket, being pulled to one side or another — some parts always remain naked”.
But these people are not going to give up.
Over 50 people from Bryansk region went to the Russian Supreme Court last week to overturn the government’s decision to eliminate social support programs and their right to resettle.
One of the plaintiffs Natalia Kandik told me: “We’re living people. It’s not acceptable to deal with us like that. They’ve provide no evidence our towns and villages are clean. We know they aren’t.”
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court sided with the government and not the Chernobyl survivors from Bryansk. The judges dismissed their case.
But when I talk to locals here they are determined to fight on.
“We are going to appeal this judgement,” says Maxim Shevtsov from the Chernobyl Union-Novozybkov, an organisation that supports Chernobyl survivors, “and we will go as far as the European Court of Human Rights to defend our health.”
And Natalia tells me: “We will go on struggling. We have nothing to lose.”
But ultimately it is the government that should assume its responsibility to support and protect Chernobyl survivors.
In spite of all odds people are fighting for their rights and standing up to an irresponsible government bureaucracy.
We can support them by making sure they’re not forgotten. And by speaking out together we can remind their governments the world is watching.
Please join me and stand in solidarity with Chernobyl survivors.
Rashid Alimov is a nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace Russia.
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