Three decades after being sent to Chernobyl, Belarusian cement workers press for their state benefits to be restored.
A memorial to those who took part in the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster stands in Vasily Gulay’s hometown of Rechytsa, Belarus.
Gulay, now 67, was one of the cement workers sent from the state-run oil company Belorusneft to reinforce the foundation of the exploded reactor two weeks after the accident on 26 April 1986.
The memorial at Rechytsa, 165 kilometers north of Chernobyl, bears a list of names of cleanup crew members, called liquidators, and images of a helicopter and a fire engine. Gulay believes a cement mixer should be depicted too.
“There were 80 of us there, although now it may seem that it never happened,” he says. “We commemorate the anniversary every year. We were never shown in the documentaries, although our organization is the only one of its kind in Belarus.”
Gulay worked at the Chernobyl site twice, in May and October 1986. The second time the task was to drill a 2-kilometer-deep well to hold the solution left from washing buildings.
“And they [bureaucrats] claimed that my work was not directly connected with the cleanup operation. It took me four years to achieve the right to retire at 50!” Gulay told Euroradio.
In 2007, Chernobyl liquidators who did not have disabilities were stripped of benefits such as higher-tier health care and medication, health resort packages, and free public transport. In 2012, they also lost their liquidator status and were placed in the general category of Belarusians affected by the disaster. They still qualify for doctor visits with less wait and a pension supplement of 25 Belarusian rubles (about $10) per month.
In 2010, Gulay and 30 fellow former cement workers petitioned President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, asking him to reinstate their initial benefits. They have sent four more letters in the past two years.
“We have sent a pile of documents, but to no effect,” Gulay says. “Out of the 80 of us, just one-fourth are still alive, and of the 31 people who petitioned Lukashenka in 2010, two-thirds have already passed away. How many of us should remain alive for us to get back what he promised? It turns out that we do not have privileges, but only ears to hear how they take care of us, how we are honored once a year. And that is it.
“How could it have happened that not a single country, even a capitalist one, has abolished these privileges [except for Belarus]?” Gulay says. “Not to mention the post-Soviet countries, even those that are no longer within Russia’s sphere of influence. They have not abolished the privileges either. They [Belarusian officials] keep saying on TV that we live better than anyone else, but they strip us of our privileges.”
The group would like their benefits back, but the most important thing is better care for those who are still alive, he stresses.
“We want the opportunity to see good doctors and have access to modern medical equipment. The liquidators must have the right to receive [good] medical treatment free of charge. After all, many of them died only because no one had taken care of them, because they had no access to free medicines and didn’t know what to do. Moreover, some of them should not have been sent to work there [for health reasons]. We were supposed to be examined by doctors before going there, but it never happened. We were just sent to Chernobyl, but it was not an ordinary job. … Ever since, I have had blood pressure problems, and I was just 32 years old at the time.”
Gulay says his most important job these days is being a grandfather of four. “My grandchildren know that I’m a liquidator,” he says. “I showed them both the memorial and my liquidator’s badge.”
He says he regrets that children today see that the state doesn’t value the liquidators’ efforts.
“Back then, none of the 80 people, not a single person, ran away. No one dodged. And no one thought about any privileges. They just did what they thought was their duty. And now, looking at how Lukashenka treats us, the younger generation may think twice whether it is necessary to be patriots if, God forbid, something happens at our nuclear power plant.”
This article originally appeared on Euroradio, a Poland-based site for news about Belarus.