New Internationalist

Chernobyl: a fever of forgetting

September 2005

In 1997, photographer Paul Fusco documented the lingering effects of the world’s worst nuclear accident – Chernobyl. What follows are photos and excerpts from his diary.

Paul Fusco / Magnum Photos
BELARUS. 1997. Novinki Asylum, Minsk. Unable to walk, these boys move by crawling, rolling, or sliding. Paul Fusco / Magnum Photos

Nineteen years ago, Chernobyl exploded, vomiting 8 tons of radioactive ash into the air which swept across the lands poisoning 25 per cent of the population and 25 per cent of the lands of Belarus. And now the new generation of children bears its legacy through a horrifying and bewildering array of afflictions. Some children are born brain-damaged, others have genetic, physiological, neurological and psychological damage.

Paul Fusco / Magnum Photos
BELARUS. Minsk. Children’s Cancer Hospital. Maria is a 9-year-old orphan receiving chemotherapy. ‘At first I cried a lot, but now I think it is a wonderful place.’ All of the nurses in the hospital treat her like family. Paul Fusco / Magnum Photos

Some of the most damaged children are kept at Novinki – a psychiatric institution on the outskirts of the capital Minsk. At birth most of these children are immediately abandoned to the State and within months sent to Novinki.

Paul Fusco / Magnum Photos
BELARUS. Maiski. 1997. Nikolai Yanchen, one of 600,000 ‘liquidators’ conscripted to fight the fires and clean up the radioactive ash and contaminated villages. He lost his right leg to cancer. He can no longer work and lives alone in a small village in a contaminated area near the 30km ‘hot zone’. Paul Fusco / Magnum Photos

They are kept clean and fed but they live lives of almost total deprivation. There is no perceived future for them and they are left mostly to themselves. They are not steered to a better life, they are simply trained – if they can be – to eat, to bathe, to go to the toilet, and to follow directions from their carers. Some play with other children but many cannot even move without help. Many live solitary lives, frozen in time and space, reacting in secret with the phantoms that inhabit them.

Paul Fusco / Magnum Photos
BELARUS. Minsk. Children’s Home No 1. This hospital receives many of the most deformed babies soon after birth. Nurse Alla Komarova hugs 3-year-old Yulya, whose brain is in a membrane in the back of his head. Paul Fusco / Magnum Photos

Very few of these children ever see their mothers or fathers, most having been abandoned to the State at birth. They grow up isolated without a concept of family, or parents, or even of being a child – lives devoid of historical and biological relationships.

Paul Fusco
BELARUS. 1997. Novinki Asylum, Minsk. A child with hydroencephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Paul Fusco

Paul Fusco is a photographer with Magnum Photos.

This feature was published in the September 2005 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 teka 20 Mar 11

    Poor people, God bless you all!

  2. #2 Christine Strickland 26 Nov 11

    I am so sickened by all of the horror that the people of Belaruss and all those affected by Chernobyl must endure. This will never end unless we unite together, all of humanity, and end nuclear for good. The only safe nuclear is NO nuclear, and my deepest sadness abounds for those who have been the unwilling victims we have learned from: Chernobyl-the damage will go on for a long time to come, and now, sadly, we can add the damage from Fukushima to the grand total...adding up to sorrows for humanity for a long time to come. Protest nuclear!!!

  3. #3 Ruan Fourie 14 Mar 12

    I am a Medical BioScience student at UWC in South Africa. We have been looking into Chernobyl and the effects of this man made disaster, And I would just like to express my emotion after reading ’A fever of forgetting’. I am deeply saddened,was never ever really aware of Chernobyl and its after effects. Seenig those abandoned kids striks my gut. I pledge to make the difference thats needed one day, and fully accept my responsibilities as a fellow scientist. This can never happen again.


    Ruan Fourie

  4. #4 rebecca 03 May 12

    R.I.P to all that died, and you wil never be forgotten O:)

  5. #5 Kaye Brown 22 Jun 12

    Reading this made my gut clench, I cried and felt for these poor children. This should never have happened to the beautiful little angels xxxx

  6. #6 Flo 21 Jul 12

    My heart goes out to all the little angels God bless & much love from New Zealand xo

  7. #7 Jyl Lytle 26 Apr 13

    Those poor little babies! That's just terrible. The picture of the nurse hugging the baby is very sweet. It's nice to see how much nurses care.

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