Published 2:15 am PDT Tuesday, May 2, 2006
YEREVAN, Armenia — Sennik Alexanian’s skin has a strange yellow hue; his bones stick out and his eyes bulge. At 49, his immune system has collapsed. Like thousands of others, he divides his life into two periods — before and after Chernobyl.
Alexanian was one of the 3,000 Armenians who along with tens of thousands of others from across the former Soviet Union was sent to help clear up the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine 20 years ago. Many of them have suffered severe health problems ever since; more than 350 of those sent from Armenia have died.
On April 26, at an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in history, Prime Minister Andranik Margarian promised that the government would provide greater support to those injured by the disaster. But many here say that their government has let them down.
Alexanian recalled being sent to Chernobyl after the plant exploded.
“They put us in a train and didn’t tell me or my family where they were sending me,” he said. “If I hadn’t gone and I’d run away, they’d have put me on trial as an enemy of the people.” He said he had no idea of the hazards he was being exposed to.
“Radiation does not have a smell or a color,” said Alexanian. “We just started feeling unwell and had constant headaches and dizziness and everyone had constant nosebleeds.”
Gevorg Vardanian, now chairman of the Armenian Chernobyl Association, spent 11 months in Chernobyl and today 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 among those who brought people out of Chernobyl. They had no idea they had been brought into a disaster zone.”
Now that the Soviet Union is no more, each individual republic that once made up the superpower is now responsible for caring for the victims of the disaster.
But unlike many other former Soviet republics, Armenia has not allocated substantial funds for the medical treatment of Chernobyl survivors.
Alexanian said that he doesn’t have the money to pay for adequate treatment and that his family has already sold everything it owned to pay for his medical bills.
No longer able to work, he said he receives a pension of about $46 a month, but that won’t even cover the cost of the medication he requires.
“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,” he said. “No one went knowingly to a slow death.”
The legacy of Chernobyl has been passed on to a new generation as well. Alexanian blames Chernobyl for the numerous medical problems that have affected his young son, Vachagan, now 6.
Vardanian said that most of the Armenians sent to Chenobyl are no longer able to 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,” Vardanian said. “Not just the rescuers, but more than 30 percent of their children suffer from a whole host of defects and have serious health problems.”
Vardanian is especially angry with his government for failing to aid those in need.
“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,” he said.
Earlier this year, a parliamentary commission drafted a 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, government ministries are already criticizing the bill.
“In our opinion, Armenia does not need a law like this,” said Jemma Baghdasarian, an official with the Ministry of Labor, who claimed that Chernobyl survivors are already adequately provided for.
Nikolai Hovhannissian, head of Armenia’s Center for Radioactive Medicine and Burns, said he understands the concerns of the Chernobyl rescuers, but that Armenia simply cannot afford to look after them.
“The state envisages spending about $200 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.”
“We have the impression that everyone is against us. We are like walking corpses, whom no one needs,” said Vazgen Gyurjinian, another 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.
“It’s not just us, who are unsuited for life by now, who need this law, but our children and grandchildren,” Gyurjinian said. “Maybe some of us have healthy children, but that does not guarantee us from sick grandchildren. We and our families have been permanently damaged.”
About the writers:
* Marianna Grigorian and Gayane Mkrtchian are journalists in Armenia who write for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 48 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8LT, U.K. Web: www.iwpr.net. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.