Ancient history

Chernobyl:“…they saw their men melt alive before they died…”

Last updated:2022-11-07

Mykola Bodarenko was at work that night, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in a room 150 meters from the 4th block. Describing, some years later, the moment of the explosion, to Reuters, he had said characteristically:"We heard a sound and then followed a wave like an earthquake. That was the first explosion. The second came several seconds later. We saw white smoke rising towards the sky, but we continued to work".

The amount of radioactivity released into the atmosphere was, according to Greenpeace, almost 200 times greater than the radioactivity released by the two atomic bombs of Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined. Radioactive rain reached as far as Ireland, while Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were the worst affected countries, having absorbed 63% of the pollution from the accident. Sweden was the first country to sound the alarm and inform the world about the disaster, since the then Soviet government had decided to keep the terrible accident a secret at first and admitted it just two 24 hours later...

The nearest town of Pripyat of 50,000 inhabitants, once a "vision of the future", through its modern architecture, was evacuated several hours later, with its inhabitants having, in the meantime, been exposed to high levels of radiation.

In the once thriving city, all that remains to this day are the abandoned houses, where the only evidence that people once lived there are the tables laid with food and the toys in the children's rooms... People left Pripyat because of the high levels of radioactivity, but what has returned to the area is wildlife. Wolves, wild horses, beavers, wild boars and other animals inhabit the city, while empty backyards and parks, including the amusement park that was supposed to open on May 1, 1986 but never operated, once again began to grow. they turn green.

Alexievich in "A chronicle of the future"

Those who experienced the calamity first hand - men, women, children, scientists, the dead, mothers who gave birth to deformed children, students who no longer meet at school but in leukemia units, parents who buried their children, women who saw their husbands to melt alive before they die, girls who hide their origin because, if they reveal it, they will not find a partner for life - they spoke to the Belarusian journalist and Nobel Prize-winning author, Svetlana Alexievich, about the disaster and she shocked humanity with her book "Chernobyl:A Chronicle of the Future".

Leafing through the book, we stand at some of them:"Should I talk to you about love or about death? I don't know... Is it the same after all? We were newlyweds at the time. We walked down the street hand in hand, even when we went shopping. I used to say to him:"I love you", not yet knowing how much... We lived on the first floor of the fire department hostel. There were three other couples living in the same hostel with whom we shared the kitchen. The fire engines were parked below our rooms. Red fire trucks.

"Vasia was a fireman. I always knew where he was and what he was doing. That night, in my sleep, I heard a noise. I got up to look out the window. He saw me and said to me:"Close the windows and go to bed. The reactor caught fire. I'll be back soon." I didn't get to see the explosion. Only the flames. Everything seemed to tremble in the warm air. Flames were rising to the sky and smoke everywhere...unbearable heat. And he was out there […] Four o'clock… Five… Six… […] At seven I was informed that he was in the hospital […] He was swollen and breathing heavily. You could barely make out his eyes," recounts Lyudmila Ignatenko, wife of firefighter Vassily Ignatenko, who ultimately lost what turned out to be an unequal battle for life, leaving his wife a widow with a child in her womb.

"My daughter is not like other children... When she grows up, she will ask me:'Why am I not like everyone else?'" When he was born, he was not a normal newborn, but a living sac, closed on all sides, without a single crack. Only her eyes were open. In her medical file they wrote:"Complex pathology from birth:aplasia of the seat, aplasia of the vagina, aplasia of the left kidney". That's how it's called in scientific terms - but in simple words, it's called:"he doesn't have a butt, he doesn't pee and he only has one kidney".

On the second day of her life I took her to the operating room. She opened her eyes and I thought she smiled at me. At first I thought he was going to cry, but - by God - he smiled! Newborns with such pathology do not survive - they die immediately. But she didn't die, because I love her. In four years he underwent four operations. He is the only child in Belarus who survived with such a complex pathology. I love her… (Pauses). I can't have children again. I don't dare," says Larisa Z., a mother who gave birth to a child whose body is marked in the most obvious way by the consequences of the tragic nuclear accident.

"By recording them, I had the feeling that I was recording the future," the author wrote then in her unique testimony, and her statement was to prove almost prophetic several years later, in the Fukushima nuclear accident, in 2011. She was also shocked by the nuclear test in Japan, Svetlana Alexievich recorded her thoughts and recalled memories from the past, in an article with a strong emotional charge, which her representative had then made available to APE-MPE for publication. In this article, the Belarusian journalist and writer emphasized, among other things, the need to "exit the nuclear age and look for different paths", taking seriously the "lessons" of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Recalling, in fact, memories of her first trip to Chernobyl after the accident, she wrote:"I remember my first trip to the Chernobyl zone:dozens of helicopters were circling in the sky, while the sound of passing military vehicles and even tanks sounded on the streets. Soldiers traveled with automatic weapons. Who should they shoot? Physics? Near the "boiling" nuclear reactor, scientists walked in simple uniforms, without masks.

In Chernobyl, then, people did not think, as the situation required. They behaved as they would in a war. Changes were taking place before my eyes, there was a new world around me, but also a new enemy. Death showed many new, unknown faces. It wasn't visible, you couldn't touch it, and it didn't smell. There were still no words to describe how people began to fear water, soil, flowers, trees. This had never happened before... Everything seemed familiar - the same color, shape, smell. And all of these could kill.

"Known-unknown world. They excavated, along kilometers, the top layer of the contaminated earth and buried the soils in special concrete containers. They buried the soil in the soil. They buried houses, cars... They washed roads, trees... While at the accident response headquarters, in the morning meetings, they discussed every day:"this will cost ten human lives...", "while this will cost 20 lives...". And these people were found. Volunteers. Who, then, will say after this that atomic energy is the cheapest? […] Today, people expect only convenience and comfort from high technology. And the market only invests in what pays off immediately. Consumption is constantly increasing and this is what they call progress. Deadly weapons are being improved - and that too is called progress.

"Ask the residents of Chernobyl, who are dying from the effects of radiation, ask the miraculous survivors of today's disaster in Japan, the relatives of the victims, what their needs are and how they see progress. What will they choose:a new cell phone and car or life? It seems that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after Chernobyl, civilization should choose a different path of development, free of nuclear.

"We have to get out of the nuclear age and look for different paths. But we still live in fear from Chernobyl:the land and houses without man and in the houses of people live wild beasts. Hundreds of meters of electrical cables, hundreds of kilometers of road network, leading to nowhere. I was writing about the past, but it turned out that this was the future...

The "black tourism" in the region and the TV series that took off

Tourists began to show special interest in Chernobyl, resulting in the rise of "black (or dark) tourism" in the region (a neologism coined in 1996 by Glasgow Caledonian University and defined as any visiting areas traditionally associated with death and tragedy).

Many publications at the time attributed the intense interest recorded at the time to a video game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., claiming that its users wanted to see up close an eerie setting like that of the ghost town of Pripyat. What took off tourist interest in the area, however, was HBO's Chernobyl television series, which broke all records by coming in at number one on IMDb's all-time TV rankings, garnering rave reviews from the press. Interest in a visit to Pripyat, where time has stopped on the day of the nuclear accident, has increased by 30-40%.

It is typical that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, during his visit to Chernobyl last June, just one month after his inauguration, had spoken about the need to give "new life" to the region and in July of the same year he signed a decree on a Chernobyl Development Strategy.

However, the recent fire around the perimeter of the inactive Chernobyl nuclear power plant has destroyed some of the "points of interest" of the tourist tour in the wider area, as the director of the largest company in the sector "Chernobyl Tour" said, although, as he clarified, the the nuclear plant itself and the city of Pripyat were not affected.