TULGOVICH, Belarus (Reuters) - Ninety-year-old Ivan Shamyanok says the secret to a long life is not leaving your birthplace, even when it is a Belarusian village poisoned with radioactive fallout from a nuclear disaster.
On April 26, 1986, a botched test at a nuclear plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, sent clouds of smouldering nuclear material across swathes of Europe and forced more than 100,000 people to leave a permanently contaminated ‘exclusion zone’ stretching across the Ukraine-Belarus border.
Shamyanok’s village of Tulgovich is on the edge of the zone, which at 2,600 square kilometers (1,000 square miles) is roughly the size of Luxembourg. But he and his wife turned down the offer to relocate and never felt any ill effects from the radiation.
“So far, so good. The doctors came yesterday, put me on the bed and checked and measured me. They said ‘everything’s fine with you, granddad,’” Shamyanok said.
“My sister lived here with her husband. They decided to leave and soon enough they were in the ground ... They died from anxiety. I’m not anxious. I sing a little, take a turn in the yard, take things slowly like this and I live,” he said.
Images of Shamyanok can be seen at reut.rs/1VlhTbt
The forthcoming 30th anniversary of the disaster has shone a new light on the long-term human impact of the worst nuclear meltdown in history.
The official short-term death toll from the accident was 31 but many more people died of radiation-related illnesses such as cancer. The total death toll and long-term health effects remain a subject of intense debate.
Shamyanok says life didn’t change much after the meltdown at Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear disaster. He and his family continued to eat vegetables and fruit grown in their own backyard and kept cows, pigs and chickens for the meat, milk and eggs.
Now that his wife has died and children moved away, he and his nephew, who lives on the other side of the village, are the only people left. “Will people move back? No, they won’t come back. The ones who wanted to have died already.”
Shamyanok lives a quiet life. He gets up at 6 a.m. when the national anthem is played on the radio, lights his cast iron stove to heat his breakfast and feeds his pigs and his dog.
A mobile shop operating out of the back of a car visits the village twice a week and on Saturdays Shamyanok’s granddaughter comes to cook food for the week and clean his house.
He says he doesn’t have any problems with his health, but takes medication sometimes and drinks a small glass of vodka before meals “to help the appetite.”
Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Richard Balmforth