The city of Novosybkov is located on the Belarusian-Russian border, in the Briansk Oblast. After the Chernobyl disaster, it has achieved a sad record: it is the worst contaminated city in the Russian Federation.

By Horst Klauser, ARD radio studio Moscow.

It’s never been nice here. 45,000 people live in the gray city today. It used to be 60,000 – before Chernobyl. And for those who don’t know, life here can only be joyless. The Lenin statue looks out over the oversized square in front of the town hall. The neon signs in the few shops are rusting and hanging on cables from the house wall. There was work in the long-closed textile combine and also on the many kolkhozes in the area. The roofs of the tractor halls and stables have collapsed and covered in moss, rusty steel girders point bizarrely into the cloudy sky over the arable soils, which were once among the most fertile in Europe. Nobody grows anything here, and no cattle graze here. The land is dead, birch trees grow where there used to be furrows, waist-high bushes cover the former grain fields.

The roads lead nowhere, after four kilometers the Belarusian border comes. A desolate green border, over which old trucks clatter and smoke, dragging the last usable stones from the villages that no longer exist. 79-year-old Anastasia is still living in the remains of a settlement, one of twelve people who stay in the old log house – 350 times lived here until the rays came. "The ground has gone bad," says Anastasia. “Nothing grows here. People are sick all the time. All children are sick. The legs hurt, the head hurts, the blood pressure is high. Before, we didn’t even know what high pressure was. After the Chernobyl disaster, all my children got sick

Time has stood still

The wind whistles through the half-ruined walls of the neighboring house with the empty window holes. Debris flowers sprout where there used to be a sofa or a school desk. Time stood still here in April 1986. Novosybkov, the city in Russia hardest hit by the Chernobyl disaster, dies a long, silent death. The engineers, the technicians, the young doctors, the shop assistants, the families and who wanted to pursue a career – they are all long gone. The old ones stayed.

“Our life has changed a lot. We used to actively relax in the countryside. In summer we could go anywhere to relax, in the forest or by the river. My husband Pawel is a passionate mushroom and berry collector. But today we have to think about where we should go with our children – and that’s terrible! ”Says Svetlana Vdowitschenko. In Novosybkov she married Pavel and had their son Anton. The life was not bad until April 26, 1986, 120 kilometers away, when the nuclear power plant blew up.

"The consequences are only really foreseeable today"

The then head of the health department, Dr. Josif Kaplun, learned from physics students who happened to be handling Geiger counters during their exams that there was unusual, high level of radioactive radiation. Nobody knew what to do, nobody had a plan. And Moscow was silent. “We didn’t want the children to take to the streets, but we weren’t supported,” Kaplun remembers. “For at least a few days after the explosion, people were not allowed to leave their homes. And of course people should take potassium and iodine to protect their thyroid gland. ”But that either didn’t happen or it happened much too late and then in too low a dose. The consequences are only really foreseeable today because it often takes more than 15 or 20 years for radiation sickness to break out. But on May 1st, 1986 there was the traditional parade, people picnicked in the forest. Nobody knew what was threatening there – that is only becoming clear today. “The number of illnesses in people from the affected areas is more than two times higher than the population in other areas. Cancer diseases have increased, especially those of the thyroid, ”said Kaplan.

Help from Germany for disabled children

Those who stayed in Novosybkov despite the invisible danger either close their eyes or help. Like Pawel Vdowitschenko, who has been giving disabled children a chance for 14 years with the Solingen citizens’ initiative Pro Ost.

“The organization can be for other Russian organizations, for example. With our work we show that a small group of resourceful and active people in a small town can have a major impact on life, ”he says. Why is Solingen helping? Probably nobody in the Bergisches Land knew the city of Novosybkov 20 years ago. Conversely, perhaps only the richest in this provincial small town in the very west of Russia had a knife or scissors from the city of blades in their hands.

Jorg Puttbach is neither a doctor nor an expert on Russia – the misery of the people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia alone drove the young entrepreneur and his friends to do something. But how? Letters to the Russian embassy initially went unanswered. A small organization in Novosybkov responded, as he reports: “Pro Ost and the work here in Russia has somehow become a purpose in life for all of us who work at Pro Ost. And it is not a project that is somehow limited in time, rather we are committed to this long-term. In Novosybkov and in Russia there is, I believe, still to be done in the social sector for many years. "

The first truck transports with medicines and furniture followed – as so often in the first years after the disaster – invitations to the children from the Chernobyl zone. Well meant, but not very helpful as we know today.

Health center built with the help of donations

“This is a unique effect for the children that is controversial, also from the educational background. The cost is high. It was our goal to build something locally in the country, so that we could set up a holiday camp for the children from the Chernobyl region in a non-radiated area, 80 kilometers from Novosybkov. At the holiday camp there, we try to offer the children an unforgettable holiday that surpasses what they would have in Germany or in Western Europe, ”said Puttbach.

Today, 1.2 million euros in donations in kind and more than half a million in monetary donations later, the humble beginnings have become a small health center. It closes the loopholes that the Russian state allows in its health system.

95 percent of the residents still not examined

20 children with mental and physical disabilities are cared for in an exemplary and loving manner. In the next room, doctors treat paralyzed children with the methods of Voita and Bobath – the only application of this therapy in all of Russia. Two doctors examine numerous patients every day with a state-of-the-art donated ultrasound machine to detect thyroid disorders. The whole town of Novosybkov and the surrounding area does not have such a device as in the "Radimichi" home. Actually, according to the 1995 law, every inhabitant of zone two should be examined with ultrasound once a year. In fact, 95 percent of the population has never been there.

Pavel Vdowitschenko is proud of the cooperation between his small, contaminated city and friends in the West: “And our partnership is like a big man with two hands. One German hand and the second, Russian hand. These two hands with one heart, with one head, have been working for 14 years and that’s why we have a very bright future. "