Europe | Belarus – Nothing Else Matters
The Chernobyl Childrens Appeal helps people in Belarus whove been badly effected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. My parents are involved in the Irish arm, and through them I got in touch with Luba, an overwhelmingly helpful Belarussian lady, who organised the invitation I needed to get my visa. She also arranged for me to stay with a family in her hometown of Mozyr, a southern city about 120km from Chernobyl.
When I was ready to leave Minsk she set me up with Pavel, a student who spoke English and who was getting the same train. He bought the tickets and produced some beers from his bag. We got on the train in high spirits.
We travelled overnight. My bunk folded down from high on the compartment wall, and I was supplied with blankets. They went under me because the bunk was rock hard and the carriage was hot as hell. Babies screamed, the train banged along. I didnt sleep much, but we got there.
My host family met me at the station and we drove to their apartment. From outside their apartment block looked like your typical decaying Commie block with cracks, weeds, graffiti and a bad smell on the stairs. But behind their heavily fortified door everything was grand. There was a microwave and big screen TV. I wasnt to want for anything.
The parents Nikolai and Elena didnt speak much English, but their beautiful 19 year old daughter did. Irina was my guide for the next few days. Ah Irina, you Belarussian Britney. Such deep brown eyes. We went swimming at a deserted lake in the country. She taught me to play cards and billiards Belarussian style. She showed me photos of her when she was little, and more flattering ones of her all grown up.
We talked for hours. We both liked David Beckham. She was always asking me did I want anything more, catering to my nearly every whim. But her boxing champ boyfriend Andrei was generally somewhere near to make sure she didnt succumb to any malign western influences. Which was unfortunate.
I also spent a lot of time with Pavel and his precocious 12 year old brother Anton, who both supported Man Utd, and who were staying downstairs. Antons English was better than mine [present perfect?] and Pavel told me a lot about Belarus. He wasnt a fan of current president Lukashenko. Lukashenko pretty much rules the country on his own, and he doesnt seem to be doing a great job. He shuns the west and reckons radiation from Chernobyl isnt a problem anymore. Hes wrong.
The radiation hasnt gone away. All the local crops are contaminated, but the people have to eat. They dont know what harm its doing, but they know its not good. Pavel says everyone wants to get out, but theres nowhere to go. Even to move to Minsk is impossible for most people. They just cant afford it. The average monthly wage is $45 and stagnant.
But despite this ignorant management of the country, Pavel said Lukashenko still has support, especially in rural areas and among older people. Theres an election this autumn, but Pavel reckoned Lukashenko would keep power no matter how the people voted. Its a pretty shitty situation.
On my third day I got to meet and thank Luba. They were unloading an aid truck from Ireland and I went down to help out. The container was filled with clothes, blankets, medical books and equipment, toys, paper, and lots of other badly needed stuff. A customs official was there to keep an eye on the proceedings,but the only things on the truck even remotely dangerous were cases of out of date whiskey marmalade.
One night Nikolai and Elena were giving a dinner party for some friends and I was invited. There was plenty of good food and vodka. Every time I turned around someone piled more potato, or chicken, or beans, or cucumber, or fish,or tomato, or some stuff I didnt recognise but was well tasty, onto my plate.
And every few minutes there was another toast. After wed all had a few Nikolai proposed we drink to me finding a wife in Belarus. I reddened and Irina legged it for the TV, leaving me without an interpreter. But I stayed. Twas good vodka. I couldnt follow the conversation too well, but when they laughed, I laughed. I was drunk and it was funny.
On my last full day Irina left me. It turned out she had postponed her summer holiday to look after me. I was chastened, but sad to see her go. I wasnt sure what I was going to do, but Luba had organised for Alesya to step into the breach and make sure I didnt get lonely. Alesya was also a looker. It seems they didnt want me to leave.
Having spent most of my time gazing into Irinas eyes, I hadnt seem much of Mozyr, so Alesya brought me on the grand tour. The city is very flat and sprawling and ugly. The streets are wide and dusty. There are no traffic jams. At one junction the lights are broken, one is always green, the other always red. But the drivers get by.
There arent many shops, but a few huge open air markets. As well as irradiated food, knock off Adidas T-shirts and Malaysian clock radios, there are stalls dedicated to selling plastic bags advertising western companies. I got me a nice lime green one emblazoned with the logo of a German hair care company. I think the name is Scheisskopf.
We also saw the newly rebuilt and sparkling Orthodox church, the brightly coloured school#13, Lenin, the river, and a very cool WWII fighter plane that is now a memorial to those who died during the Great Patriotic War.
We had to tread carefully, as the town resembled a building site. There were people digging and sweeping and painting everywhere. Mozyr was being spruced up because the benevolent Lukashenko was due to visit in a months time. And everyone wanted to show him how nice their city was.
Alesya was kinder to Lukashenko than Pavel, pointing out how many problems he was up against. She was more convincing talking about the problems facing girls from Mozyr. They are afraid to get pregnant, not knowing what they will give birth to.
She agreed that everyone wants to get out. Some girls go to the Middle East to work as hostesses or escorts. Unless you are well off or well connected, it can seem there is nowhere else to go. She pointed out the homes for the dying that some call hospitals. I didnt know where to look.
On my last night I was invited, along with Nikolai and Elena, to the dacha of their friends Vladimir and Irina. As night fell we sat out in their vegetable garden and stuffed ourselves with good food and vodka. My Russian was still pretty infantile, so we played the name game. Vladimir would hold up a cucumber and Id say cucumber. Then hed say something in Russian that Ive already forgotten. It was fun. I even made a toast to my hosts graciousness. I think they understood. Then the men went down to their private lake and we stripped off for a spot of nightswimming. It was fantastic.
The next day I had to get the train. My visa was up. It had been a super four days in Mozyr. I made some great friends, had some brilliant times, and saw some enlightening sights. But I dont think I saw much of your average Belarussians life. Nikolais TV was bigger than mine. Luba had made sure I saw
the best of the country. When I said Id like to see an orphanage or hospital I was carefully outmanoeuvered.
Still from talking to Alesya and Pavel, and just from looking around the city, I realise that for most people things are pretty shitty. While we were unloading the aid truck Pavel pointed at a box of second hand blankets and said This is how we live.
But they didnt want me to feel sorry for them. Though they might not live as long, theyre not turning over and giving up. Things have never been particularly glorius for the Belarussians, so theyve had plenty of time to get used to getting by.
Alesya told me a story about three soldiers captured by the enemy during a war. The French, English and Belarussian soldiers are all sentenced to death and hanged. After a week the enemy returns to cut down the bodies and finds the English and French long dead and starting to go off, but the Belarussian is still hanging in there. The enemy asks him how come he is still alive.
It was tough at first, but you soon get used to it, said the Belarussian.
The radiation wont go away, and Lukashenko will probably win the election. Life will go on as before. The vast majority of the Belarussians will stay hanging there because there is nowhere else to go. I will go back to Ireland and be OK. Its just the way things are I suppose. And I had a great time with all the vodka and swimming and pretty girls. Which, in the end, is all that matters.