This woman is made with a cardboard cone covered with grey fibers. Her “dress” is trimmed with rick rack and embroidered ribbon. She has a hand painted, round wood bead for head, and braided fiber for hair. She is holding several wheat plants in her hand.
Location: Eastern European
Main language: Belarusian, Russian
Currency: Belarusian ruble
Construction: cardboard, fiber
Height in Centimeters: 23
Height in Inches: 9
Reading Level: 6.20
My name is Itka and I live in Belarus, a country between Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine. Until 1991, we were all part of the Soviet Union. Since then, Belarus has been an independent country, although still closely aligned with Russia. Our country is very flat, and many people live in apartments in big cities like Minsk.
I was actually born in the Pripyat, Ukraine, a town just south of Belarus. Most of the people in Pripyat worked at Chernobyl, a large nuclear plant. When I was 7 years old, the plant caught fire, and I was lucky to survive. It happened late one Friday night in 1986 when most people were asleep.
The next morning I went to school, Dad went to work, and Mom stayed home with my baby brother. That night, Dad told us about the fire at the nuclear plant. We could see the glow from our apartment’s balcony. We didn’t realize then that the glow was as deadly as it was beautiful. Young as I was, I realized that something was not right.
The next morning, school was cancelled. We listened to the radio and watched the fire. We felt relieved when we saw military trucks taking men to the plant. They all had gas masks. “Good,” we thought, “They will take care of everything and keep us safe.” We didn’t understand that no army is a match for the invisible radiation that seeps into the air, the soil, and everything else.
I will never forget the moment, later that day, when the radio announcer said that everyone should prepare for evacuation. They told us we would have to leave Pripyat while they cleaned things up. They said to pack for 3 days. After that, they said, we would be able to come back. We packed small bags and boarded the bus with others in our building.
After 3 days, it was clear that we could not go back. In fact, we were told that we would never be able to return for the rest of our things. Instead of going to an evacuation center in the Ukraine, we decided to relocate to a small town in Belarus where we had relatives.
It took us two days to travel the 150 miles to Belarus. When we arrived, our relatives did not want us to stay with them. Instead, they helped us find a small house near the outskirts of the small village. The house only had one room. For water we had to rely on a stream in the back. The toilet was a hole in the yard surrounded by a wood shed. For warmth, there was one wood burning stove. All of this was very different than our apartment in Pripyat. However, we were grateful for being alive.
People of the village were not friendly. When we went to the village, they would cross the street to stay away from us. I did not understand why they were afraid of us. When I enrolled in the public school,
the girl next to me shouted, “I don’t want to sit next to Itka. She is contaminated with radiation.” The children began to call me “Shiny.”
When the teacher heard them calling me names, she silenced the entire class and said, “It is no fault of Itka’s that the atomic plant caught fire. It is not her fault that radiation spread throughout the land. You must not forget that our village is only 150 miles from Chernobyl. In fact, due to the winds, the majority of the radiation came this way and contaminated our area too. Itka did not contaminate us, it was the Chernobyl fire that is to blame. So instead of avoiding her and making fun of her, be nice.”
As time went on, my little brother developed thyroid cancer. My mother did not have any more children because she was afraid of birth defects from the radiation. For many years, we were warned not to drink the water from the stream, eat vegetables from our garden, or sell the grain from our fields. Most people ignored these warnings – what else were they supposed to eat?
As for myself, I finished public school in the village and then went to the university in Minsk. Now I am a medical doctor, working with people who lived through the explosion and suffered the aftermath.