Quarantined for life
A journey through the Internats of Belarus
Text, photos and video Alessandro Tesei

Quarantined for Life

April 26th will mark the 34th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. By a strange twist of fate this year will have a different feel to it. The pandemic has forced the world to come to a stop, push pause and reflect, almost under house arrest, or on probation.  There are many similarities between the two scenarios. To this day there are still those who live with the consequences of Chernobyl and are forced to spend their existence in “quarantine”.  Belarus for example was affected by 70% of the Chernobyl fallout and suffered a steep increase in the number of children born with physical and mental disabilities.

Bogushevsk Internat, Belarus. Children with mental disabilities. The little one is blind and has been abandoned by his family. He will spend his entire life in the internat

In all the former Soviet Union states disabled people have always been a problem, discriminated and marginalized. The disabled should be kept hidden, they have neither rights nor duties, they are unfit to live in society. Therefore, it is up to the State to take control of their lives. Belarus has state institutions to take care of disabled people: the Internats. To Italians and especially the more elderly, the word might bring back memories and make them think of simple boarding schools.

Outside Begoml Hospital, Belarus

However in the Belarus of dictator Alexander Lukashenko the “internat” is an institution somewhere between an orphanage, an asylum and a hospice. People enter at a young age, for any number of reasons, and often never leave.

In a country which has been first in the world for alcohol consumption and where the economic crisis never seems to abate, the State takes away approximately 4000 children a year from families with problems.

Begoml, Belarus. Monument to the fallen of World War II. Patriotic sentiment is very strong in the former Soviet Republics. And with it, the exaltation of machismo and sacrifice. In similar societies, disability is a weakness to be concealed

To these we must add a variable number of children abandoned by their families. In fact, in Belarus 90% of families abandon a disabled child as soon as they become aware of their condition. The rate of abandonment is extremely high also among non-disabled children. According to UNICEF there are currently 25,000 minors in the Internats. Only some of them, upon reaching the age of 18, will be able to take an exam which will evaluate if they are fit to live among society.

Begoml, Belarus. Theater of the internat, Festival “Beyond the Mirror”. The children and adults of many Belarusian internees meet once a year in Begoml for a theatre festival promoted by the Italian Association “Il cavallo bianco”. It’s the only time of the year when they can go out and meet other people

At that point, the State provides those who succeed with a house for five months, after which they will need to prove that they can live independently and will start paying for the house. Few succeed, because life in the Internat scars people profoundly, making it hard for them to establish relations and to fully develop the consciousness of an adult. Many therefore end up turning to alcohol and drugs, taking a path which will lead them to prison or once again locked up in an Internat.

Begoml, Belarus. Vova supports AC Milan. Vova is one of the many disabled kids who made it out of the internat. He was hosted as a child in Rome and speaks Italian. He is supported by his Italian family, otherwise he would have difficulty surviving. His dream is live in Italy

Yet Italy shares a special bond with Belarus. After the nuclear accident, groups of volunteers were formed spontaneously in Italy, with the objective of providing help, especially to the younger ones, who came to be called “the children of Chernobyl.” Every summer they would spend a month with their host families in Italy, allowing them to partially cleanse themselves of the radioactive substances accumulated. Those initial experiences have gone on to become firmly established realities which continue to help those living in the contaminated territories of Belarus. 

Text, photos and video Alessandro Tesei