Albion Monitor /Features

Healing in the Shadow of Chernobyl

by Diana Scott

Holbrook Teter, a bearish man with a shaggy moustache, speaks in soft, deliberate tones, and listens more than he talks. Every now and then, when humor animates an otherwise serious conversation, his attentive eyes fill up with laughter. A social worker trained in community mental health, he's spent a lot of time over the last the last decade listening to survivors' stories.

At the end of March, Teter left on his tenth trip since 1990 to Belarus, the former Soviet republic that received 70 percent of the fallout from the Chernobyl reactor explosion ten years ago, to help residents of traumatized communities there begin to share their stories.

"People need to tell the story and can tell the story, no matter how bad it is"

"My business is community healing following trauma that affects the whole community," Teter says.

He has worked with Salvadorean torture victims, Cambodian refugees, incest survivors, and homeless street people in the Tenderloin. He recognizes the value of being a good listener, bearing witness to tales that need to be told, even though the narrator re-experiences pain in the telling. For this is a way for individuals and communitites to get past trauma: to acknowledge it and begin to heal.

"People need to tell the story and can tell the story, no matter how bad it is," says Teter. His earlier work with incest survivors "who hated to talk about [their experience] and wanted to talk about it" led to work with torture victims. Working with Central Americans, "It became clear that the community was traumatized, and we needed to figure out a healing response/treatment response at the community level," he recalls. As a consultant for World Vision International (WVI), a Seattle-based Christian humanitarian aid organizations, he worked last spring with Dr. Vladimir Savenko, a Belarus physics instructor at the local teacher's college to develop a mental health manual for people living on contaminated land, and a school curriculum for teaching radiation safety.

The manual, now incorporated into a book on the effects of radiation and community healing methods, was distributed to residents, educators, and health officials who attended a recent conference in Mozyr, the closest inhabited city (pop. 80,000) to the destroyed reactor, 45 miles away. The conference, entitled "Chernobyl, 10 Years After," held April 24-26 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the nuclear disaster (April 26), was planned in part as a catalyst, to help residents of the area initiate self-help actions, and to optimize humanitarian aid to their communities.

School floors are washed every 40 minutes to get rid of radioactive dust

The physical health consequences of the Chernobyl explosion, which released 200 times the combined radiation unleased on Hiroshima and Nagasaki into the atmosphere, will undoubtedly be debated for decades. The death toll so far is variously estimated (depending largely on time-frame considered) between hundreds and hundreds of thousands; the incidence of leukemia, thyroid cancer, and birth defects have risen precipitously; and there are competing claims as to whether myriad less specific physical complaints are due to stress or long-term, low-level radiation.

Residents report that colds seem to last much longer now. Teachers report that children fall down and faint for no apparent reason, are passive, and have trouble concentrating and remembering. Women, fearful of bearing deformed children of which there have been many, have had a record number of abortions, Teter notes. Detailed statistics have not been kept.

Doctors, with insufficient proof that radiation is the cause of undiagnosed complaints, concede that stress can depress immune function. Given weak government and academic support (if not outright hostility) since the 1940's for studies of the impact of low-level radiation on human health, much about this subject remains unknown. Nonetheless, Dr. Alice Stewart, a British pioneer in the field, demonstrated a link between child cancer and pre-natal explosure to X-rays in 1956; and her subsequent studies in the '70s linked radiation to lowered immune response in children incubating cancer [see In These Times, April 29.]

Mental health professionals, however, agree that the psychological impact of the nuclear accident and its cover-up on residents of contaminated areas has been devastating. "[It] is an ongoing trauma of the highest magnitude. The psychological consequences are severe," says Teter. "Everywhere a loss of faith in a future -- hopelessness and helplessness is expressed." Residents exhibit symptoms of "psychic numbing" (loss of feelings, interest, concentration, faith, hope), depression, hyper-ness, sleeplessness, and anxiety triggered by recollections of the trauma.

These symptoms have also been associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a frequent diagnosis for combat survivors that is usually characterized by nightmares and flashbacks--symptoms conspicuously absent among Belarussians. That's because their trauma is still occurring, invisibly, notes Teter; it's not "post" because they re-experience it each day.

It's there in boarded up houses of neighbors who have moved away, (marring the beauty of sunlit birches on a bright autumm day). It's there when food is tested; when residents become sick; when children are medically of leave for health camp vacations in clean (non-contaminated) areas. It's there, though some choose to ignore it, in the ban on picking berries and mushrooms that grow in the forest. Ethnic delicacies once gathered for pleasure and profit, they now send Geiger counters off the scale.

Radioactivity invades public buildings, like the high school in the town of Vetka, where students are not allowed to touch soil and floors are washed every 40 minutes to get rid of radioactive dust that kids track in. And Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where streets were washed three times a day after the accident, while officials denied there was a problem.

Fears abound around the dead zone, where orchards of poisoned fruit flourish

Fear of radioactivity is revived by events like the fires that broke out recently in abandoned villages near the defunct reactor, sending radioactive smoke into the air. Since smoke is dispersed by wind currents, measuring its toxic impact is imprecise at best.

It is common for residents to repress anger (symptomatic of psychic numbing), or to deny the danger, or claim indifference, or become agitated when reminded of it; alcohol is used to numb pain, too. Yet, these survival mechanisms that have helped Belarussians live through this and previous catastrophes -- stoically claiming they've accepted their fate, can't do anything about it, and have no wish to discuss it -- remain, after ten years, formidable barriers to healing, Teter says. "The pain behind these statements and the painfulness of hearing them immobilizes the helper," notes the mental health manual he helped develop for those living in contaminated areas.

Information, itself a potential source of healing, has paradoxically operated as a stress trigger in this rural region, where 25 percent of land will remain contaminated for thousands of years (24,000 years is the half-life of plutonium) -- a reminder of the enormous toxicity that is otherwise invisible, Teter observes. Forests in the "dead zone," which markers designate are radioactive, abound with game (no hunting here) and rosy, poisoned apple trees -- a grotesque post-modern Garden.

Even useful information, about health precautions, is stressful, and avoided or rejected, as are offers of help from outsiders until they earn residents' trust. "It's along-term rebuilding of a community, both on a physical and psychological level," notes Carol Bridgwater a San Francisco songwriter and volunteer for a City branch office of World Vision International. "You can't just come and go; you come and stay."

But without information, fears can run rampant. Fear of eating contaminated produce, for example, causes people to eliminate parts of their diet needed for good health, says Bridgwater. There is food that's safe, though; some foods are less absorbent of radioactive elements than others. While honey, milk, and mushrooms absorb more, corn and grains absorb less, says Bridgwater.

Since the reactor-spewn radiation was spread by wind, one garden plot may be contaminated while a neighboring one is clean. A mobile radiation testing unit, funded in part by World Vision, travels from village to village screening food.

It is easier to concentrate on severe economic problems than to look inward

While psychological survival mechanisms are grounded in current reality, says Teter, they are double-edged, keeping residents passive -- victims -- and perpetuating the trauma. Education, based on community experience and reliable information is basic to healing, he says; expression and integration of fears, anger, despair is needed to restore ability to feel, and energy to act--to rebuild community.

Not feeling anything extinguishes hope, and will. "So much of human behavior is motivated by willingness to live; imagine the effect if a whole community is suffering from this kind of hopelessness," says Bridgwater. (Her song "Children of Chernobyl," which aired on Russian TV last month, was written four years ago as a hope offering.)

Re-associating feelings, however painful, with the events that caused them allows healing to begin. "Telling the story is a fundamental part of healing," Teter observes. (To re-experience memories repressed as a survival mechanism, and "understand they no longer control you--you can control them," has, for example, allowed Salvadorean torture victims to become political activists, he asserts.)

An older woman from a contaminated village, Yurovichi, recalled: "It was a pleasant day. The sun was bright and I was sitting with my daughter in front of the house feeling the tender touches of the warm spring breeze. Suddenly a huge combat machine stopped right in front of us. Men wearing gas masks and some kind of protection suit jumped out and started to walk around us looking at the readings of the device on their chest. Then, one looked at us and stuck into the ground a little sign with a strange symbol we had never seen before, climbed back [in]to the machine and they left. All this happened in complete silence. Not a word had been spoken. We were looking at them leaving, not understanding what was happening. The day was still the same, but it was no longer as pleasant."

For other Belarussians, it is easier to concentrate on severe economic problems in the once fertile, now blighted agricultural region, than to look inward. "The social problems are more immediate. It seems preferable to focus on them. I can work on the economic problems. If I resolve them, I am a good mother," said one young woman.

"By talking directly and openly about things which are taboo, people can start feeling themselves more clearly: [separating] physical results and what's psychological," says Teter. "Touching pain is a route to emotional health. But it often seems better to avoid this." Expression and integration of fears, anger, and despair, are needed to restore feelings and tap into energy for community-building. "The psychological problem now is how to help children and adults, the whole community, to change from being victims to becoming survivors. How to release the energy that is being contained by defence and self- protection," he observes.

Finding ways to tell the story -- and heal

Widespread receptivity to useful information will ultimately hinge on rebuilding trust, which was undermined by officials' initial denial of the accident and subsequent attempts to minimize its seriousness. Had iodine pills been distributed immediately, as they were in Poland, children would not have metabolized the airborne radioactive form as they marched on May Day, 1986. With toxic iodine's short half-life of eight days, this danger soon would have passed. Instead, child thyroid cancer in Belarus (where diets were iodine-deficient because its soil is iodine-poor) has jumped from seven cases in the decade preceding the explosion, to 300 cases since 1990, according to the New York Times (March 31).

The conference in Mozyr was a pivotal event in efforts to break the self-perpetuating silence of those living on contaminated lands. It differed from a flurry of other recent commemorations (including conferences in Minsk, Vienna, and Kiev) in its grassroots emphasis. The intent was to involve Belarussian citizens -- parents, children, teachers, public servants -- along with specialists and international guests, in discussing current problems and working out solutions. One hundred-fifty people participated, including 115 from Belarus. The mayor of Nagasaki was an honored guest.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which, increasingly, is being attributed to the disillusionment caused by Chernobyl and its cover-up, came an end to Soviet economic aid (the implications of a late March agreement between Russia and Belarus to form closer financial, political, and cultural ties remain unclear). Meanwhile, Belarus leadership recently announced its intention to cut assistance programs to those living on contaminated land, according to the San Jose Mercury News (April 21). Self-help and humanitarian aid are clearly important resources for residents.

Conference participants considered radiological, medical, social, and psychological aspects of the catastrophe; health effects of low-dose radiation; citizen participation in solving community trauma; how schools can teach ecology to children living on contaminated land; the politics of Chernobyl; international cooperation around resulting problems; and (to paraphrase Lenin) what remains to be done.

"A major problem in Southern Belarus, a rural area, is that a lot of social networks have disintegrated," says Annette Aalborg, a researcher evaluating the Wellness Project, a community outreach program at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. "People feel alienated, not actively engaged in public life."

Aalborg attended the Mozyr conference to share information about the Wellness Project's own community organizing efforts: to train parents and teachers here as community leaders and health promotors, able to identify concerns and develop programs to address them, using local resources, and not relying totally on specialists. She hoped to set up an exchange program between UC's School of Public Health and the Independent Radiological Laboratory of Mozyr, to share approaches for community-based health promotion.

With other participants she visited medical centers, NGO's and village schools, where discussions with students took place. An well-attended evening rock concert featured a hot local band, Mirror Reflections, and Gothic Alternative, a band from Santa Rosa, playing music written for the occasion. A prize-winning memorial to the victims who have died was unveiled.

Participants also adopted resolutions recommending future actions: shutting down the Chernobyl reactor (two units of which still function), repairing the leaking "sarcophagus" built to contain the radiation, banning reactors from Belarus, establishing an independent radiation monitoring facility in Mozyr, and a social networking center to aid rehabilitaiton and education.

A book in Russian by Teter and Savenko, "Radiation. Physical and Sociological Aspects," was distributed to all those who attended and is being made available to schools and community groups. Among the peer counseling techniques for community healing it recommends are: breaking the silence; establishing trust; education; self-help and mutual help; support groups; non- judgmental listening; advocacy; questioning authority; participation and social action.

And finding ways to tell the story.

There are many ways, it notes, to tell the story of the Chernobyl disaster: with words, drawings, music, drama, or community commemorations, like the conference itself. The process of doing so can reveal unanticipated outcomes.

According to Teter, some children say that as a result of Chernobyl, they feel more wise and compassionate now, closer as a community, closer to nature. Some believe the crisis furthered democratic politics. Retelling the story can activate choices, deconstruct old meanings, and create a social network that brings the future back to life.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor May 5, 1996 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page