Thirty years later, some returning home to Chernobyl

Olena Fedorova was just six years old when a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine exploded.

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The explosion would spread radioactive material and deep uncertainty over large parts of the western side of the Soviet Union and on across Europe.

And a week after the accident, Olena Fedorova and her family were forced to evacuate their home in Ukraine, leaving everything behind.

She says she was playing in the yard when the word came to leave.

“My mum called me back immediately, and she said, ‘Uh, we need to go. We need to go.’ And I asked, ‘Where do we need to go?’ And she said … she didn’t answer me anything. She said, ‘Oh, you’re not allowed to bring anything. No dolls, no clothes, no books, nothing. Anything.’ I thought, ‘Oh, it’s strange.’ And I was thinking, ‘Oh, well, we’ll come back.'”

Now living in Melbourne all these years later, Ms Fedorova says Ukraine will always be her home — just as she thought then.

“It still remains in my memory today that (I was thinking,) ‘We’ll still come back, we will come back.'”

Thirty years on, the magnitude of the Chernobyl disaster remains unknown.

At the time, two people died in the explosion, and another 29 workers at the nuclear plant died from acute radioactive contamination.

Amid heavy regional concern, early predictions estimated the eventual death toll, resulting from radiation exposure, would be in the thousands.

But United Nations Development Program representative Louisa Vinton says there is no evidence those predictions are coming true.

“Aside from high rates of thyroid cancer, there was no statistical evidence of any direct consequence from radiation. No cancer, no reproductive problems, no deformations, no nothing. But what people don’t realise is that thyroid cancer is, in 98 to 99 per cent of all cases, treatable.”

Ms Vinton says stress from displacement and fear of radiation has had far greater impact on public health than radiation exposure.

“The consequence of fear, in health terms, has been more potent than the exposure to radiation. So the need was to really find a way for communities to recover their confidence, their social cohesion, their economic well-being, and, really, just resume normal lives — to start returning to normal life without fear for the future from radiation, and learning to deal with some of the more potent health threats.”

But in the United States, University of South Carolina professor Timothy Mousseau insists radiation exposure has specific health impacts.

He and a team of scientists have been studying the effects of Chernobyl for more than 15 years.

He says studying wildlife living within the 30-kilometre exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl allows his team to examine the specific effects of radiation.

“There’s really no doubt there are consequences for the wild populations, and, because they’re not subject to stress-related, emotional kinds of responses, we can disentangle the effects of various environmental factors to look purely at the radiation effects.”

Their studies have detected tumours, reduced life spans, developmental abnormalities and high rates of cataracts in the animals.

Despite those findings, Griffith University science professor Ian Lowe says many people in Ukraine are choosing to return to evacuated zones rather than face lifelong displacement.

“Something like 1,000 people who lived in areas from which people were evacuated have moved back, because they’ve decided that they would rather have the risk of extra radiation than be permanently displaced from the place that they’ve always lived. They’re mainly older people who, I suppose, have taken the calculated risk that the latency period for cancer from radiation is typically decades, so, if you’re in your seventies or eighties, you’re not taking a big risk moving back there.”

Chernobyl researcher and filmmaker Merilyn Fairskye, at the University of Sydney, says residents returning to Chernobyl have a powerful connection to the land.

“For them, quality of life isn’t to do with the amount of radiation that might be in the ground. It’s to do with being in their home.”

 

Canadian beheaded by Filipino extremists

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has condemned the execution of a Canadian hostage by Abu Sayyaf militants in the Philippines, calling it “an act of cold-blooded murder.

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John Ridsdel, 68, a former mining executive, was captured by Islamist militants along with three other people in September 2015 while on vacation on a Philippine island.

The Philippine army said a severed head was found on a remote island on Monday, five hours after the expiry of a ransom deadline set by militants who had threatened to execute one of four captives.

“Canada condemns without reservation the brutality of the hostage-takers and this unnecessary death. This was an act of cold-blooded murder and responsibility rests squarely with the terrorist group who took him hostage,” Trudeau told reporters on the sidelines of a cabinet meeting.

“The government of Canada is committed to working with the government of the Philippines and international partners to pursue those responsible for this heinous act.”

Trudeau declined to respond when asked whether the Canadian government had tried to negotiate with the captors or pay a ransom, or whether it was trying to secure the release of the other Canadian being held, Robert Hall.

The captives included Ridsdel and Hall, along with one Norwegian man and a Filipino woman, who had appealed in a video for their families and governments to secure their release.

Residents found the head in the center of Jolo town. An army spokesman said two men on a motorcycle were seen dropping a plastic bag containing the severed head.

A Philippine army spokesman said al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants had threatened to behead one of four captives on Monday if the 300 million pesos ($A8.32 million) ransom for each of them was not paid by 3pm local time.

The initial demand was one billion pesos each for the detainees, who were taken hostage at an upscale resort on Samal Island on September 21.

Abu Sayyaf is a small but brutal militant group known for beheading, kidnapping, bombing and extortion in the south of the mainly Catholic country.

It decapitated a hostage from Malaysia in November last year on the same day that country’s prime minister arrived in Manila for an international summit. Philippine President Benigno Aquino ordered troops to intensify action against the militants.

Security is precarious in the southern Philippines, despite a 2014 peace pact between the government and the largest Muslim rebel group that ended 45 years of conflict.

Abu Sayyaf is also holding other foreigners, including one from the Netherlands, one from Japan, four Malaysians and 14 Indonesian tugboat crew.

Some refer to us as ‘boat people’ — but we are survivors

Today marks 40 years since the first boatload of refugees fleeing Vietnam arrived on Australia’s shores.

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In the decade that followed more than 80,000 Vietnamese people came to Australia to find refuge.

We are two of those 80,000, both of us arrived in Australia while we were still quite young, only 3 and 11. So it wasn’t the memory of the dangerous sea journey that left its mark on us, but the stories from the journey that have cast a long shadow over both of our lives.

Family and friends who were taken by pirates while they tried to escape Vietnam, years spent languishing in refugee camps in Malaysia and the fear of not knowing ones fate. 

Our journeys to Australia followed a similar path. We were both ‘boatpeople’ escaping war torn Vietnam in the 1970s. The traits we needed to survive the boat journey and the years in a refugee camp are the same traits we had to draw on growing up in Western Sydney – resilience and determination.

We saw the same traits in many of the refugee and migrant families who settled in suburbs like Cabramatta, Liverpool and Fairfield. As a community we didn’t have much, but we certainly had the will to work hard, to do well, to make our parents proud, and most importantly to be able to give back to Australia, a country that had welcomed us with open arms.

One in 10 Australians are from an Asian background. Yet if we look to the corporate sector, only one in every 50 executive managers is from an Asian background.  If we look to our elected representatives, it took until 2007 when Penny Wong was made Finance Minister for there to be a cabinet minister of Asian descent.

Australia has given us refuge, free education and health care but it has not been without its challenges.

Our stories have taken divergent paths. One of us has climbed the corporate ladder in the finance and insurance industries while the other went into journalism and politics.

Despite the incredibly rewarding careers, we’ve also witnessed firsthand the lack of cultural diversity in our respective industries and in particular, in our own kind – Asian Australians.

Australia is a country of considerable ethnic diversity. The 2011 census revealed that almost a quarter of Australia’s population was born overseas and 43 per cent of people have at least one parent born overseas.  But our boardrooms, parliaments and TV screens stubbornly fail to reflect the diversity in our society.

One in 10 Australians are from an Asian background. Yet if we look to the corporate sector, only one in every 50 executive managers is from an Asian background.  If we look to our elected representatives, it took until 2007 when Penny Wong was made Finance Minister for there to be a cabinet minister of Asian descent. Currently, there are only four members of federal parliament who have Asian cultural heritage, representing just 1.7 percent of Federal Parliament.

Why does this matter? 

This matters because as Australians we should all be able to seize the opportunities presented to us, to take a lead and play a role in shaping the community in which we live, and the country that we call home. It matters because the colour of your skin, your hair, or your religious background, should not dictate the opportunities afforded to you.

There is a wealth of human talent that remains untapped and undervalued in Australia. And it is to our country’s benefit to unlock and support the emerging talent who are integral to facilitating the nation’s future and prosperity.

It’s with this idea and a desire to be truly embraced by and contribute to this great country that we have partnered to develop the Asian Australian Leadership Conversation series, a way to engage Asian Australians to step up and take on leadership roles while encouraging our public and private sectors to seek cultural diversity in their leadership.

Australia has given us a second chance at life and it is up to us to make the most of every opportunity and contribute back to the country. Forty years on and there are now almost 200,000 Australians who identify as being born in Vietnam. It was a miracle for many of us to make it to Australia alive. But now we are here and citizens of this country, it’s time for us to thrive and to reach for leadership positions.

Dai Le is the founder of DAWN, an advocacy organisation pushing for more cultural diversity in Australia’s leadership. Yung Ngo is a senior executive within Westpac and Chair of Westpac’s Asian Leadership Employee Action Group.

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One year on, Nepal remembers earthquake victims

Three days of national mourning are underway in Nepal, to mark the first anniversary of deadly earthquakes that killed nearly 9,000 people.

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More than 20,000 people were injured when the two quakes struck the south-eastern Asian nation.

Solemn services have been held across the country to mark the event.

But some survivors are expressing anger at what they say is a lack of government support in the wake of the disaster.

At four minutes to noon on April 24, 2015, the first and most powerful of two earthquakes struck – destroying homes, monuments and lives.

Eight million people in total were affected by the devastation.

One year on at ceremonies across Nepal, people paused to remember.

President Bidya Devi Bhandari travelled to the remote northern village of Barpak – the epicentre of the quake.

There she prayed with residents, and helped lay the foundation for a memorial park.

In the capital Kathmandu, which was among the areas hardest hit by the earthquakes, nine thousand candles were lit – one for each of the people killed.

But alongside the sadness, there’s also frustration.

Protesters clashed with police on the streets of Kathmandu, angered by what some regard as government inaction in the 12 months since the disaster.

Protester Bishnu Dahalsays says the government has failed its people.

(Translated)”For the sake of our rights and to pressurise the government to take action we are protesting.”

Nepal’s government is yet to begin an official reconstruction program, and it’s estimated that three million people are still without permanent shelter.

Purba Namjel Tamang, from the village of Langtang which was almost completely flattened in the second quake, is one of them.

He, his wife and their young son live in a shack beside the remnants of their home.

(Translated)”Nobody’s helping us in the process of building or reconstructing our homes. The government told us they will give us money to help but we’ve been waiting so long, what’s going on?”

Aid agencies say that most of the five billion dollars in international aid donated for reconstruction remains unspent because of political squabbling.

NGO worker Surya Bahadur Pariyar says the delays are inexcusable.

“I don’t believe in the government also, because since one year if we compare in every earthquake victim area most of the people get most of the contribution, any contribution – like food, like tents, like zinc for making the roof also – they will get it from some Nepali organisations, some religious societies as well and some international organisations also. But I think when we met with some victims they told us very little has come if we compare to some national and international organisations.”