Thirty-one deaths were directly attributed to the accident that took place at reactor number four in Chernobyl on April 26, 1986. It is estimated, though, according to a peer-reviewed publication that appeared in the International Journal of Cancer in 2006, that “The risk projections suggest that by now Chernobyl may have caused about 1,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 4,000 cases of other cancers in Europe … Models predict that by 2065 about 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers may be expected due to radiation from the accident …”
Radioactive damage continues to haunt people long after the incident itself, and the human cost continues to escalate to phenomenal multiples of the initial numbers. Why? Radioactive half-life. This refers to the time it takes for half of the radioactive matter to decay. Different elements have different rates of decay. Some require minutes; others require significantly longer, such as Uranium 238, which needs 4.5 billion years. This means that if you have 10 grams of Uranium 238, it will take 4.5 billion years for half of it to disintegrate; the other half in turn will require another 4.5 billion years to shed off half its surviving mass, and so on until all of the initial mass is totally converted. Imagine how long such an element will continue to cause damage, and it becomes clear that radioactive accidents can have disastrous effects.
I wonder what the half-life of the different Arab Springs we are witnessing today will be. How many years will it take for half of the catastrophic events unfolding in, say, a place like Syria, to disintegrate? How many more years for the remaining residual issues? What will the total human loss be, once the equivalent of Chernobyl is over and we agree that the meltdown has been contained? How many people will have to be displaced from near and far, and relocated, similar to with radioactive accidents? What will the loss of human life ultimately be, because of the residual effects after the hostilities are over and peace has been restored? For how long after such events will the place remain uninhabitable? What will the ultimate economic cost be, and for how long after the events will it continue to be paid?
Like nuclear accidents, the different Arab Springs will have long-lasting lingering effects that can, at the surface, be measured in loss of life, but that cause damage which ultimately goes way beyond the obvious and immediately-attributed deaths and injuries. The amount of dispossession that takes place, the massive population exodus, and the brain drain that is unleashed have incredibly far-reaching ramifications, more so than what we are witnessing today.
In Palestine, 65 years later people are still being persecuted, killed, dispossessed, evicted and continue to suffer some sort of violent or degrading form of fallout from the initial ‘Nakba’ days. In contrast, Hiroshima today, and 68 years after ‘Little Boy’ shattered the peaceful Monday morning on August 6, 1945, the city continues to bear the scars despite having long since recovered. Clearly, the Palestinian problem has not reached its half-life, and I wonder where a place like Syria will be on the half-life continuum.
There is no doubt that the amount of destruction and wanton killing that is taking place will create a massive exodus and loss that may reach points of no return, especially if the situation continues unchecked. In Syria, what started as a demonstration of thousands has turned out into an exodus of millions. The UNHCR estimates that there are 1.8 million refugees, 50% of whom are children. Beyond the above, and excluding the 100,000 so far killed, it is estimated that around 5 million people have left their homes, 50% of which are children. Further estimates suggest that 70% of those children will drop out of school.
Save The Children reports that since the start of the conflict in Syria, 3,900 schools have been destroyed. Apart from the abrupt halt in a generation’s education, a high number of these children are being recruited into combat. Others face malnutrition, disease, and a host of other traumas related to the conflict and its ramifications.
As property is destroyed, infrastructure is razed, human life is wasted, and survivors are driven off, and as the nation we know as Syria disintegrates, collectively these will create a wasteland devoid of people, a reason to belong and hope. As I write these lines, at least one generation’s hope of a future is being assassinated.
When we survey the various sites of nuclear accidents, starting with Hiroshima and through to Chernobyl, and as we include places wasted through strife like Palestine, and some of the more recent ones that have succumbed to Arab Spring, they all share one thing in common: the hope of building a better tomorrow. That is why the people of various disaster areas stick with their homes and homelands; they are armed with hope. Let us pray that the half-life of the spring nations will not succeed in killing it.