Twenty years on, a new generation of children is not getting the treatment it needs for Chernobyl-related sickness.
Marianna Grigorian and Gayane Mkrtchian in Yerevan, 27 April 2006
The skin of Sennik Alexanian has a strange yellow hue to it, his bones stick out and his eyes bulge. Alexanian is only 49 but his immune system has collapsed. Like thousands of his compatriots he divides his life into two periods – before and after Chernobyl.
Along with 3,000 Armenians – and tens of thousands of people from across the Soviet Union – Alexanian was sent to help clear up the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine twenty years ago. Half of the Armenians sent there have severe health problems caused by the radiation they suffered and 350 of them have died.
On April 25, a group of Armenian rescuers were presented with awards by the prime minister Andranik Margarian. He promised them greater support, but many say the government of independent Armenia has let them down.
“I went to work and they did not let me in,” recalled Alexanian, who worked as a driver in 1986. “They put us in a train and didn’t tell me or my family where they were sending me. If I hadn’t gone and I’d run away, they’d have put me on trial as an enemy of the people.”
The rescuers were not told about the invisible dangers of the zone they were entering.
“Radiation does not have a smell or a colour, you can’t define it,” said Alexanian. “We just started feeling unwell and had constant headaches and dizziness and everyone had constant nose bleeds.”
Gevorg Vardanian, now chairman of the Armenian Chernobyl Association, spent eleven months in Chernobyl in total and suffers from serious radiation sickness.
“In Ukraine, the public didn’t know what had happened and during the May Day parade radioactive rain fell on people,” he recalled. “The most terrible thing was that there were students amongst those who brought people out of Chernobyl. They had no idea they had been brought into a disaster zone.”
Six years after the Chernobyl accident, the Soviet Union broke up and the rescuers became the responsibility of the new independent states such as Armenia. But unlike many other countries, Armenia has not allocated substantial funds for the medical treatment of Chernobyl survivors. Although entitled to free medical check-ups twice a year, the sufferers say they generally do not get even these.
Alexanian says his health is deteriorating every day but he has not been given the money to treat his illnesses. His family has sold everything they could, including their apartment. He receives a pension of 21,000 drams, equivalent to 46 US dollars, every month, but says he needs far more than that to pay for even one of the medicines he needs.
“When we apply to the appropriate offices hoping for help, they tell us sarcastically ‘You shouldn’t have gone’, but it wasn’t up to us,” said Alexanian. “No one went knowingly to a slow death.”
Six years ago he and his wife had a son, but the effects of Chernobyl left their mark on the baby too. Little Vachagan was born with chronic health problems and suffers from epilepsy and nervous fits.
Gevorg Vardanian says that most of the Armenian rescuers are no longer fit for work. They live in poor conditions and lack the money for their basic needs.
“We thought the troubles that began for us in Chernobyl would end in Armenia, but it seems there is no end to them,” said Vardanian.
“Not just the rescuers, but more than thirty per cent of their children suffer from a whole host of defects and have serious health problems. Many don’t even have the chance to take their children to the doctor.”
Vardanian says that the Armenian government has been particularly lax in its responsibilities, “We have no special law which defends the rights of those who took part in the Chernobyl emergency and gives them the benefits that others from all over the former Soviet Union are receiving.”
According to Vardanian, the Armenian government ratified a treaty undertaking to pass a special law to protect Chernobyl survivors, but since then no such law has been adopted.
Only at the beginning of this year did the parliamentary commission on social issues, health and the environment draw up a draft law that would guarantee the welfare of the Chernobyl victims and their children.
“The draft law is being discussed,” said Gagik Mkheyan, head of the commission.
However, the bill is already being criticised by government ministries.
“In our opinion, Armenia does not need a law like this,” Jemma Baghdasarian, head of the department for the problems of invalids and the elderly at the labour ministry, told IWPR, arguing that the Chernobyl survivors are sufficiently well looked after by current welfare legislation.
Nikolai Hovhannissian, head of Armenia’s Centre for Radioactive Medicine and Burns, says he understands the concerns of the Chernobyl rescuers, but that Armenia simply cannot afford to look after them.
“The state envisages spending 100,000 drams (222 dollars) on each sick person, which includes the cost of the electricity used by the hospital, the salaries of the medical staff, medicine, food,” said Hovhannissian. “What can you say? This amount is not enough to solve even a part of the problems of the sufferers.”
The survivors themselves say they have pinned hopes on the new law and that existing social provision is woefully inadequate.
“We have the impression that everyone is against us, we are like walking corpses, whom no one needs,” said Vazgen Gyurjinian, a Chernobyl survivor.
Gyurjinian, an electrician, was 28 when he was sent to the Chernobyl disaster zone. Now 46, he talks in a hoarse voice and is short of breath. He has had three heart attacks. His third daughter Lusine, born on his return, was an invalid at birth and gets just 3,600 drams (around eight dollars) a month in state benefit.
“It’s not just us, who are unsuited for life by now, who need this law, but our children and grandchildren,” said Gyurjinian. “Maybe some of us have healthy children but that does not guarantee us from sick grandchildren. Our genes have been damaged.”
Marianna Grigorian and Gayane Mkrtchian are reporters fro Armenianow.com in Yerevan.