Chernobyl: four people recall the disaster which traumatised Europe. How did they feel about being exposed to the radiation? And how did it change their lives? The answers are both sad and surprising.

Written by Zuzana Jungerová, Lorenz Hilfiker, Juliane Schmeltzer Dybkjaer, Ivan Kendzor

In April 1986, a disaster occurred which changed the lives of thousands of Europeans – an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine caused radioactive fall-out across the continent, especially in Belarus. For many Belarusians, it was the beginning of a nightmare – forced to leave their homes to escape the radiation, they suffered from multiple health problems. 24 years later, a group of young Europeans travelled to Belarus with our partner Eustory to find out how the people who experienced the disaster remember it now. These interviews can give us some insight into the harrowing experiences faced by many

The deserted city of Prypiat, which was founded in 1970 for the workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and abandoned after the disaster | Photo: copyright free
“Before the accident I was 100% Healthy”: Elena

Elena Kirsnouskaja, aged 51, works as a nurse in one of the hospitals in Minsk, Belarus. If you met her there, you definitely would not say that she was once a liquidator in the Chernobyl area. Just as people do not have written on their faces whether they are murderers or special agents of the CIA, their faces also do not show how much grief or sorrow they carry inside themselves. I guess the same goes for Elena.

The first feeling I had when Elena walked into the room was curiosity as to what story this well-looking, smiling lady hides. From the very beginning, she amazed us all with her strong and confident personality. I do not mean that she was “larger than life”, certainly not, she was rather modest and kind, but something in her manners, behaviour or the way she talked gave a suggestion of inner strength and energy.

At the time of accident, Elena had just finished her first year at medical college. However, according to statutory regulations, all medical staff were called to a duty in case of emergency and so was Elena. That is how she became a liquidator. She was sent to a hospital in the contaminated area where she had to take care of the people, especially the old and the ill, who were not able to move away. No one, neither her parents nor her friends, knew where she was or whether she was ever coming back. “The streets very empty. There wasn’t anyone whom we could ask about what was going on. Even a few people who stayed there were told not to leave their houses.” Quite frightening, isn’t it?

One of the first things we were interested in was whether she was warned of the radiation in the area and what measures were taken to protect her health. The answer was very short: “None.” Liquiadators were sent to the contaminated area, not aware of the implications of the accident and – most terrible of all – not aware of the high level of radiation. They even did not wear any protective clothes! As she said: “The only advice we were given was to wipe our boots with a wet sponge before we entered a house.”

Elena worked in the contaminated area for only one month, as she began to bleed from her bladder and was sent back to Minsk. As she declared: “Before the accident I was 100% healthy.” After the accident, she had miscarriages and thyroid gland cancer, her joints became diseased and she had to have two operations. When talking about the miscarriage or her second and only son (born 1989), who also suffers from various health problems, she answered very shortly. Although more than 20 years have passed, we saw that she still carries the grief for her children.

I had the impression that Elena was a charismatic and wise woman. Maybe because she has experienced real fear and pain and her life was and still is not easy. It is said that suffering makes us stronger. I always think about why all these people decide to talk about their grief or bad experiences aloud. It must be terribly difficult for Elena to recall her pain or the loss of her baby. Nevertheless, she decided to speak about it. I guess Elena as well as other people who survived similar tragedies have one common goal, however different and unique every story is. They try to warn us. To protect us and to prevent catastrophes from happening again.

Written by Zuzana Jungerová, 20. Zuzana is in her second year of European Studies at the Comenius University in Bratislava.

“They should be burned!”: Nikolaj

“We were on the fields drilling out potatoes when we saw a red cloud approaching from the south”, remembers Nikolaj when we ask him about the accident. The old man speaks slowly and addresses the translator instead of us. He may be 70, but he looks older – he has the leathery skin of a worker. His hands lie folded on the top of a walking stick. “We went home since we expected rain to come. Some hours later we were working in the fields again.” Nikolaj lived as a forester in a village some 200 km from Chernobyl. His village was among the most contaminated areas. After the accident he was advised to plant new trees in order to prevent the radioactive substances from moving further.

I am astonished at how calm Nikolaj is, given the fact that he was exposed to mortal radiation for three years. “We saw the yellow milk and the strange deformations which occurred among the animals. And we were informed about the dangers of contamination.” Nevertheless Nikolaj stayed, and no one stopped him. “I got medical problems”, he says. But it was not until he suddenly “stopped breathing” and spent three months in hospital in 1989 that he finally moved away with his family to Minsk. He was provided with a flat by the government, but he had to pay the rent on his own. “During the first year after the resettlement I walked around in the same trousers every day.” To my surprise, Nikolaj shows a faint smile when remembering that time. He taps on his head to tell us that he lost his hair after his therapy. We don’t ask him what disease he suffered from.

We know that Nikolaj lost a son as a consequence of the accident. But he doesn’t seem eager to speak much about that. Anyway, he seems to have accepted his fate long ago and waking up his emotions proves beyond our power. There is just one moment when he loses his poise. “Do you feel the need to blame someone?”, I ask him. After a short moment he says that no one should be blamed – save the responsible operators at the power plant: “They should be burned!” it suddenly bursts out of him, and he gestures furiously with his hand.

There are many things we have not asked Nikolaj. When he talks about his everyday life today, it is all about medical care. He lives close to a hospital, where he is known as a regular guest. Bones, heart, leaver, kidney: there is a lot which does not work properly anymore since the accident changed Nikolaj’s life. Apparently, even walking aches. I wonder whether Nikolaj is lonely. What does he do when he is not in hospital? “Planting potatoes in my little garden. If my bones allow me to.”

Written by Lorenz Hilfiker, 21. Lorenz comes from Switzerland and studies Physics and Mathematics.

“It was my duty to go”: Tamara

Tamara Kalesnik cried most of the time we were there. We sat on one side of the table, five students, and she on the other side with our translator. She clutched her handkerchief in her small hands, which were clearly damaged by the disease in her joints, and looked up and away to keep the tears from rolling down her face. When she felt ready to talk, she did so with great emotion and so fast that our translator had trouble keeping up with her.

Tamara was a liquidator. She was sent to an area 5 km from Chernobyl and worked there for two months almost immediately after the nuclear disaster in 1986. Her job was to catch and examine animals – and she was one of 600 000 people who were sent to the contaminated areas to extinguish fires, clean up, evacuate, and measure the radiation. Because of that, she is now forced to live with several different diseases including a tumour in her thyroid gland, for which she has refused to be treated. She was granted a special pension by the government, which is barely enough to keep her alive. Because of the job she was chosen to do following the Chernobyl disaster, her life is very different – in an entirely negative sense – than it would have been, had that reactor not exploded. Tamara has a lot of things against her, yet she was extremely happy to see us, a group of students with prepared questions that, when we sat in front of her and she started crying, seemed petty and unimportant. I felt the questions we had written beforehand were annoying and irrelevant.

Tamara, however, really wanted to tell us about her experiences, and she answered our questions with a strong sense of obligation. She felt it was her duty to tell people about what had happened, just as she felt that what she had to do back then was her obligation, even though her life and health are now damaged by the job she had to carry out. She looked at us with determination: “It was my duty go. I find comfort in the fact that I, and not someone else, now suffer from the consequences of the time I spent near Chernobyl.” Looking at her, biting my lower lip to keep myself from crying, I thought to myself that if I were her, I would be extremely bitter about having been chosen. Apparently, she was not.

Tamara told us about the atmosphere among the locals near Chernobyl back in 1986 and how she had had no other choice but to lie to them about the possibility of coming back. “I had to tell them that they could return home in a year or so,” she stated, “even though I knew that they could never go back. If we had told them that they had to leave their homes and never return, they would not have left. We needed them to leave, so we told them whatever we had to tell them to make them do just that.” The locals did not grasp the risks of staying in contaminated areas, and many of them felt that the government was overreacting. Living in contaminated areas is dangerous, but it is an invisible danger; one you cannot feel or smell. The consequences of having been exposed to radiation, however, became very real to people like Tamara. Shortly after her return to Minsk, she was diagnosed with multiple diseases due to her exposure to radiation. She is still struggling with the diseases to this day.

At the end of the interview, Tamara told us that although she respected the older generation, she respected the younger one even more. “You have the possibility to form the future,” she said. “It is your job to make sure that something like Chernobyl can never happen again.” I sat there, looking at her hands and her face, now puffy from crying, and wished that, with my capability of forming the future, came a possibility of changing her past as well.

Written by Juliane Schmeltzer Dybkjaer. Juliane is 21, comes from Denmark and studies Rhetoric at the University of Copenhagen.

“Everyone was prepared”: Ivan

I had heard a lot about the liquidators and also about their “future destiny” after the Chernobyl, but I couldn’t imagine how it looks to work in the lethally contaminating zone. What were their thoughts about it? And most importantly, I didn’t understand how it felt to work there without being aware of the future consequences of it, which might seriously affect their health.

Our interviewee was a 70-year-old man from Belarus. His name was Ivan. Despite his mature age Ivan looked quite cheerful. I suppose he doesn’t have serious health problems. During the interview he felt comfortable and our questions didn’t exhaust him. The atmosphere of the interview was good: everyone felt free to ask questions, and Ivan was ready to answer all of us. His strong character influenced me a lot.

When the Chernobyl accident happened he was already a major in the army. I know enough about the relationship between soldiers and officers in Soviet Union, and the first thing that came to mind was the fact that the person holding such high office could not directly take part in eliminating the effects of the accident: he had a far greater chance of not being infected compared to other simple soldiers.

The role of Ivan’s army department was to build a fence around the 30 km contaminated zone and resettle the rest of the people from that zone. He told us that all the soldiers were obliged to comply with sanitary norms, and take special pills. Also Ivan added that one of the methods of protecting yourself from radiation was to drink red wine.

Sometimes it seemed that some of Ivan’s answers, or the stories that he told, were already prepared – they weren’t honest thoughts, they were prepared answers. Especially when we asked questions which sounded provocatively critical of the Soviet Union or the correctness of the then government action. As he claims, he was almost satisfied with the standard of living in the Soviet Union, so he didn’t want to admit that the actions of the authorities in those times were wrong or incorrect. For me, the biggest mistake of the Soviet Union during the Chernobyl disaster was not informing people about the real dangers of radiation. But when we asked whether he, or his superiors, or the soldiers who were subordinate to him, were aware of how dangerous it was, he used ready-made phrases like “everyone was prepared, everything was okay and nobody got serious injuries.”

I think this was simply because being a former soldier he is still patriotic towards the Soviet Union. He still respects its ideology and he didn’t want to admit that the Soviet Union wasn’t right 24 years ago.

I was surprised at how good Ivan’s memory was. He managed to remember a lot of details from the time. He told us how the animals behaved: dogs lay on their bellies in the mud because they were burned inside.

Nowadays he has one daughter and his life has had its complications – his first wife died, and he married again. He is an active member of the organisation which cares for the people affected by the accident. He added that he had a good pension from the government – it’s enough for all his needs.

Written by Ivan Kendzor. Ivan comes from Ukraine and studies Management in Lviv.

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    Thoughts and experiences of young Europeans from across the continent.

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