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Cover of the NI Issue 276 The NI and The Big Issue have done well to produce a magazine on homelessness (Brave New World, NI 276). A home ranks as the third basic physical need after food to eat and clothes to wear. It ought to be accepted as a right that all should enjoy. A government that does not make efforts to provide this right to all its citizens is failing in its obligations.

Britain has the means to cure such wretchedness, to provide everyone with an acceptable home, but lacks the will to do so. ‘Brave New World’ indeed!

Peter Little
Henley-on-Thames, England

Critical mass
Your dockless persecution of world power abusers (In the Dock NI 275) could start an ongoing non-governmental alternative for world citizens.

A growing grassroots movement could press for ‘police’ to locate and arrest, ‘judges’ to ‘indict’, and ‘bailiffs’ to exact compensation from those who broke treaties on human rights and the environment.

Existing institutions rarely identify and deal with international perpetrators. An ‘Adjudication International’ or ‘Conflict Resolution International’ could shame officials as Amnesty does; it could campaign like the anti-slavery cohorts for nations to implement treaties; it could encourage the unempowered as women’s international organizations do; it could sustain peace workers as the Red Cross does soldiers, and confront exploiters in the same way as Greenpeace and the Club of Rome.

In general, it could strengthen civil society and challenge social injustice through the use of law and order with a human face. It would link a critical mass of citizens towards a world democracy of peace.

Hon Doug Everingham
Adelaide, Australia

Bigger boycott
I was outraged to see the Pakistani twins, one breastfed, the other on Nestlé’s infant formula (In the Dock NI 275), even I who have had my own personal boycott of Nestlé for the past 20 years since I read about their cunning promotions of infant formula. But seeing the result is a horror.

When billions of people are in bondage to a few who are comfortable, well-fed and apparently hateful of their fellow-humans (but need them to make their profits bigger), I wish I were three billion people rather than one person so that my boycott would have some meaning.

Nancy Slagle
Springfield, Oregon, US

Inflated condoms
I have a picturesque memory of Afghan refugee children playing with long pink balloons: an entertaining and thoughtful gift from the Western-run population control agencies to the father-of-ten camp residents. As well as offering astonishing insights into the lengths to which condoms can be inflated, the scene appears to highlight a few differences in outlook between giver and receivers.

It is not difficult to prove to anyone that condoms can be used to prevent disease, or worse still, babies, which so many persist in regarding as precious assets; whether this knowledge can affect the blend of love, hope, poverty, expectations, needs and values which constitute human sexuality is another matter.

And what does the Pope have to say about this? Unfortunately we will never know. He was tried without defence by a kangaroo court (In the Dock NI 275) and forthwith stabbed to death with the pens of righteous journalists (or is that just a bit of unsubstantiated opinion posing as reportage?).

Mary-ann Laarveld
Devon, England

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Gene slaves
The theories of mind and evolution promoted by Arthur Koestler are confident, eccentric – and wrong. He failed to demolish Darwinism because he didn’t understand it. It was irresponsible of Macdonald Daly to give credence and publicity to his ideas (Classic NI 275).

Evolution does not happen as and when required but there is no reason for despair. Humans have hardly undergone any genetic evolution for perhaps 50,000 years, yet in a quarter of that time we have changed from hunter-gatherers to farmers and urbanites. Genetic change is not a prerequisite for cultural and intellectual development.

Our intellectual capacity and our ability to learn allow us to transcend or modify any instincts no longer suitable for our modern circumstances – and to overcome our physical frailties as well. We are truly responsible for our actions and for our environment. To say otherwise plays into the hands of odious right-wingers with their theories of innate racial and class difference.

We are not slaves to our genes, and there is all to play for in the fight for a fairer society.

Stephen Lance
Cambridge, England

Acquired tastes
Bim Prodhan (Letters NI 273) complains that fairly traded coffee should taste better than other coffees as well as merely appealing to the conscience of consumers.

Although it is true that the first fairly traded coffee was not high quality, this is certainly not true of products like Café Direct. It may not taste exactly the same as Nescafé or Kenco or whatever your unfairly traded brand is, but it tastes at least as good (as well as satisfying your conscience!). I would be surprised if anyone liked coffee the first time they drank it as it is an acquired taste – so why not give fairly traded coffee the same chance?

Edward Richards
Manchester, England

Animal activists
I would like to respond to Eileen Davies’ derisive and dismissive aside on Animal Liberation Front activists in her letter on abortion (Letters NI 273).

These brave and compassionate people have the greatest love and respect for the whole of creation. They are prepared to sacrifice themselves to a far greater extent than salaried RSPCA officers and their whole lives are lived with a view to limiting as far as possible the destructive effects of human selfishness, arrogance and indifference.

Whilst the reactionary hysteria to their activities is only to be expected, it should be deplored. And whilst women such as Ms Davies feel confident to sneer so smugly at them in public, I would like here to express my admiration, gratitude and undying support for their courageous and compassionate actions.

Rosalind Fisher
London, England

On April 26th 1996 it will be the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Could you do an issue on it? Perhaps I’ve missed something – but I haven’t seen a word in your pages about it except in the Ukraine Country Profile (Country Profile NI 269).

There is a conspiracy of silence about what is by far the world’s worst environmental disaster. And why? Because if the public knew the truth, the nuclear industry would be dead.

Dr Sally Reynolds
Abingdon, Oxon, England

Ed: We haven’t done a whole issue on nuclear power, but you will find an Update and a Letter from Belarus about Chernobyl in this magazine.

The NI Quotes book

Have you got any favourite quotes? We’re looking for quotable quotes for a new small book, and we’d love to include your suggestions. We’re particularly keen to find words of wisdom and colourful views on life, humour, politics and the environment, especially from developing countries. If you can help please send to: Troth Wells, NI, 55 Rectory Road, Oxford OX4 1BW or e-mail: [email protected]

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

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L E T T E R [image, unknown] F R O M [image, unknown] B E L A R D S

Ghosts in a purple land
On the tenth anniversary of the nuclear accident, Olivia Ward travels
into the contaminated zone around Chernobyl.

It was a picture-perfect ghost town, a small punctuation mark on a dusty road to nowhere.

But as we heaved the clapped-out Zaparozhets vehicle along narrow lanes overgrown with lilac blossoms, we were suddenly aware that not all the ghosts had departed.

A man whose face sagged like an ancient leather duffle-bag was staring at us with equal disbelief. In one hand he held a makeshift hoe, in the other the top of his trousers. As our eyes met we both flinched, as though I had intruded on a private scene, or he had been caught trespassing by strangers.

‘Wait a minute,’ he muttered. ‘I’ll get my wife.’

As his blackened feet disappeared into the tumble-down wooden cottage I glanced at my map. The tiny village of Bartolomeyeka, 170 kilometres north of Chernobyl, was clearly marked. It was outlined in brilliant purple, as were all the surrounding areas deep inside the Contaminated Zone created ten years ago by the invisible death rays of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

If I were in any doubt about the extent of the pollution, a young soldier a few kilometres down the road set me straight, waving his machine gun toward the gateway of the forbidden area. The road was closed ‘officially’, he said. But if we were so reckless and headstrong, well, he had done his duty. We passed him in a cloud of gritty dust. Unsettlingly, no cars followed us and we met none on the road.

A ragged elderly woman now stood in front of me, grinning in toothless amusement. What brought us to her village, she wondered, when even her own children and grandchildren refused to visit?

In the garden behind the house her husband was beckoning shyly. ‘We have no proper clothes,’ said Anyuta Popkov, jerking her head toward her husband’s tattered and buttonless trousers, ‘because officially we don’t exist.’

The solid little woman shook with laughter, her voice deep and hoarse enough to fill the empty street where once her neighbours had bickered and hugged.

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY

‘You know what we say? This radiation stuff doesn’t exist.’

‘How could we tell there was anything wrong?’ said Anyuta. ‘We just went about our business and it rained and rained. We saw yellow puddles on the ground and journalists came and looked at them. They tried to create a panic but we didn’t listen.’

The Popkov’s two daughters did, and so did most of their neighbours. Poor but never hungry or homeless, they found themselves in a cramped communal flat provided by the Government in a drab provincial town.

Before they left they had watched armed Government troops destroy their cows and chickens. The village was closed off and soldiers posted to stop people returning.

Most took the warning. But the Popkovs took their few worldly goods, climbed into a bus and rode back to the home where they had lived for nearly 50 years. They walked in under cover of darkness, like fugitives returning to the scene of a crime.

A bitter tide of history moved for them. Belarus, which bore the brunt of the Chernobyl fallout, was swept into post-communist collapse. With almost no outside aid, the Government struggled with massive new healthcare costs. In the face of such panoramic problems, two stubborn peasant farmers escaped attention.

In their village’s silence the Popkovs mourned for their vanished family and friends. Then they settled down to the rest of their lives, shuffling back in time to the existence of their forebears, without electricity, gas or running water.

I could scarcely imagine the endless winters the two old companions spent in the draughty cottage. He chopping logs for the huge ceramic fireplace that supplied their only heat, she knitting and mending with scraps of material scavenged from abandoned houses.

And food? I hardly dared ask. But Ivan led me gleefully into the lush garden, where neat rows of vegetables popped up in defiance of nuclear physics. Defying the odds was the obsession of their lives now, their only purpose. Each year lived, a small but perfect triumph of denial and survival.

‘Can you see or feel this radiation?’ said Anyuta. ‘Of course not.’

She patted Ivan’s grimy shoulder. ‘I can feel that. People think we’re just stupid farmers. But we’re human beings. At the end of our lives, there’s nothing else.’

Olivia Ward is bureau chief for the Toronto Star in Moscow.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 278 magazine cover This article is from the April 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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