It’s quarter to four on a bitterly cold afternoon in early November 2007, the sun is low on the horizon and my wife and I are standing on the frozen, snow-specked earth of a fledgling orchard in the village of Golovchitsy, southern Belarus. In the slanting rays of the setting sun, we walk round the orchard talking to our local partner, Vladimir Nikolayevich Khlopok (pictured right), who manages it. As we do so, I struggle to take some photographs.with my frozen fingers. ‘What on earth am I doing here?’ I wonder, not for the first time on this trip, as the cold eats into my bones.
Belarus is an independent country of some 10 million people between Russia and Poland, created by the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Governed by Aleksandr Lukashenko, an old Communist-style authoritarian leader, it is marooned in a Soviet past with a central planned economy and torn between a close affinity to its Slav brother to the east and the attractions of EU membership. On top of this, it has had to cope with the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster that occurred in April 1986 that has contaminated land and affected the health of its population – a legacy that will live on for many years to come.
Our link with Belarus goes back 17 years and, like many things in life, happened purely by chance. Eleven year old Tatiana came into our lives in September 1991. She was one of a group of 30 children from the Chernobyl-affected area of Belarus invited to Somerset for a month’s recuperation, fresh air and uncontaminated food. Over the years we kept in touch with her and her family, we invited her back to stay with us and we visited the family home.
Something about that very first connection ignited an abiding interest in this part of the world. Many of the host families from that first visit became the core of a registered charity, focused on children’s recuperative visits and provision of basic medical aid to hospitals in the areas the children come from.
After several years’ involvement, we felt that it was like applying a sticking plaster: providing temporary relief, but not tackling the root causes. So we started to look at more sustainable projects that could have a more far-reaching impact on villages and communities. Initially, we encouraged families to grow vegetables in polytunnels and sell their excess produce in local markets.
Then we were invited to work with the local council in the small town of Narovlya, on the edge of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, less than 40 miles from the site of the nuclear reactor. Just outside the town in a small village called Golovchitsy there is a co-operative based on an old estate that once belonged to an absentee Polish landowner. Could we help the village to regenerate its orchard?
The park, with its impressive gates and wide entrance alley, still stands and is remarkable for the variety of trees found there, unusual in a landscape dominated by graceful birches, solid firs and pine trees.
The estate house dating back to 1820 is still there too (another unusual feature as many were burnt down during the Revolution) and now used as the local hospital. But it is the scale of the old orchards that impresses. The Polish landowner planted 8,000 fruit trees, partly to provide pectin to the sweet factory in Narovlya. Now the trees stand barren and gently decaying, a constant reminder of more productive and congenial time.
This project was intended to be self-sustaining within 5 years. They have an old fruit storage building which was in need of repair and we hoped that they would be able to do this for themselves from the income they generated from the sale of fruit. In addition they were interested in exploring the production of added value products (eg juices and jams).
I’d like to report that it was a great sucess, but unfortunately it all went wrong. In spite of our input, they didn’t take care of the trees properly; people from the village stole some of them to sell for drink; frustratingly, our requests for pictures and updates went unanswered. Who are we to judge? We don’t have to live the harsh lives these people are forced to live. Would we be any different?