Two decades ago, Reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. Although the plant itself is in northern Ukraine, 70% of the fallout landed in neighbouring Belarus. The disaster contaminated large patches of the bitterly poor country, which is reliant on agriculture.
Ahead of the 20th anniversary of what remains the world's worst ever nuclear disaster, I accepted the invitation of the Austrian aid agency Hilfswerk Austria to visit the contaminated region of Belarus and see how Austrian solidarity is helping the victims.
The 30 km contamination zone was evacuated and is now protected by a fence. A few residents refused to leave.
It is spring in the Chernobyl contamination zone, the bird-song is loud and the first buds have arrived in the thick wood-land. 81-year Ivan welcomes us proudly to his paradise lost.
Ivan is one of 8 villagers who refused to leave when the area was evacuated. This is where he was born, he says with feeling, this is where he wants to die. He's brought bi-weekly parcels of food from the cleaner parts of the country, but insists on fetching his water from a rustic little well. He claims he is fighting fit, and proves his point with a bone-crushing hand-shake.
Ivan. He says he is fit and healthy and will never leave.
Uprooted and depressed
But Ivan cuts a lonely figure, surrounded by over 300 abandoned wooden huts. His village is a slowly decaying time-capsule. Most of his neighbours decided to follow the authorities advice and move away.
I ask him if he still heard from them. They've died, he answers. They've died of home-sickness.
It was clearly an expression of self-righteousness from a stubborn man, but questions have also been asked about whether it was right to evacuate so many people. The uprooted communities have suffered severe social problems, including alcoholism, and mental health complaints have sky rocketed.
These are the forgotten victims of Chernobyl. The disaster didn't just rob Belarusians of their health; it took away their homes and their hopes. It took away their little piece of wooded paradise.
Most of Ivan's reghbours left. Hundreds of houses are slowly being reclaimed by the Belarusian wilderness.
A Health Nightmare
Ivan's story is no exception. According to most surveys, the health of people living on contaminated land has, so far, proved better than expected.
That's cause for relief, perhaps, but certainly not for complacency.
20 years on, it's still not clear what the full effect on people exposed to radioactive materials will be. Hundreds of thousands of people inhaled or ingested radioactive particles. Those radioactive particles were absorbed in the thyroid, the stomach and in breast tissue.
In Belarus, Ukraine and Russia there have been 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and young adults, resulting in 15 deaths. 1.8 million people still live in the Gomel region of Belarus and there are already indications that the breast cancer rate in the region is double that which would be expected.
The estimated final death tolls vary wildly from around 4,000 (IAEA) to nearly a hundred thousand (Greenpeace). This is principally because there are so many factors involved in determining the cause of cancer.
Olga Alinikova, from the Children's Cancer Clinic in Minsk shows me the cancer figures.
The heavily contaminated south-east of Belarus is reliant on agriculture. The crop fields start just a few kilometres from the exclusion zone.
When the numbers game is over, the fact remains that the growing number of cancer patients in Belarus face a bleak future. The crippling poverty of the country often translates into sub-standard facilities and has made medication, at times, unaffordable.
That is where Hilfswerk Austria comes in. They fund and support a mobile health care team that offers medical and mental help to terminally ill children and their families.
Meet Anya's family, for example, a beneficiary of Austrian aid. Mother Anya is suffering from cancerous growths, her two daughters, 2-year old Sasha and 10-year old Natalya, suffer from brain tumours. A third child has already died and the doctors say there is nothing they can do to save Natalya.
I ask Anya if she thinks the illnesses are related to Chernobyl. Yes, she answers, without blinking. Medical experts disagree - brain tumours are not thought to be caused by radiation and have been decreasing in Belarus since the Chernobyl disaster.
It hardly seems to matter where the plague of illness comes from. It's there and now the family is trying to cope with it. Medication is expensive, so is the journey to medical clinics. Anya's husband, a worker, cannot cope with the rising bills.
Hilfswerk Austria pays the salaries of doctors and nurses, who visit these families. It also helps provide medication and also supports the training of the health care workers. No-one it seems can rescue Natalya, but the regular visits help reduce the opressing phsyical and mental stress. They show that somebody cares.
Anya, Natalya and Sacha. Bearing the seemingly unbearable.
We are back in Minsk, and the tears are welling up behind the glasses of the energetic Anna Gorchacova. She is explaining why she founded 'Hospice', another cancer charity funded by Hilfswerk Austria.
A few years ago, Anna watched a 13 year old little girl die of leukemia in a Minsk hospital ward. "I can't remember what my bedroom ceiling looks like", were the little girl's last words. She had spent 7 years in a futile struggle against a terminal disease in lonely and sterile hospitals.
From that moment on, Anna was determined. She decided that from the point that there was no hope of stopping the disease, the children should at least be helped to enjoy the little time they have left.
Hospice runs a day centre and pays house visits, bringing medical care in a familiar environment. The programme is not only funded by Austria but also physically supported by Austrians. Paul Strohmeier is spending his year of Austrian Zivildienst helping out at Hospice. He sums up
"Basically I just try to be a friend, just try to be someone they can trust and relate to."
Hospice. Trying to restore a quality of life.
Perhaps the greatest success of Hilfswerk Austria's engagement in Belarus has been the establishment of cancer clinic for children in Minsk. It's director Olga Alinkova proudly boasts that it is the best clinic in the former Soviet Union; and the figures back her up.
10 years ago only 12% of children diagnosed with leukemia would survive. Most died slowly in filthy hospitals. At Olga's clinic 7 out of 10 young patients are now cured. Many clinics in western Europe could envy that success rate.
"Everything was done with the help of Austria." she beams.
The Shadow of Reaktor 4
Olga's clinic, like Anna's Hospice, are rays of hope in Belarus. But they are too small and the hang-over from Chernobyl will last for decades to come.
While experts argue over the extent the dangers are real or imagined, the local population feels abandoned to an uncertain future.
Chernobyl remains a living problem. It is also a living warning that we should all heed.
The Soviet-designed RBMK is an inherently unsafe design. After much resistance all reactors at Chernobyl were finally shut down in 2001, but there are many other similar reactors still at work, 11 in Russia and one at the Ignalina plant in Lithuania.
Let's hope those regions are spared the fate of Belarus.
"Belaruse forgotten by the blind
That is until the next time" Belaruse, The Levellers.