Thirty-fifth anniversary of Chornobyl NPP tragedy: "Data on radiation doses was grossly manipulated. Among those who used to work here, only a few are still alive"
On the eve of the 35th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster, UNIAN correspondents visited Chornobyl, talked with those who were there, at the fourth power unit, in the first hours after the explosion, as well as with displaced locals. Chornobyl victims recall what the spring of 1986 was like, tell how the radiation level has been decreasing over the years, adding they are upset about the growing indifference.
For many people, the Chernobyl zone is a wild deserted area with scarcely scattered homes of rogue settlers. Most heard about such "tourist magnets" as Prypiat or the "Duga" site, but for many, it is a revelation that the former regional center Chornobyl is an actual living town, where about 70 indigenous Chornobyl residents and several thousand staffers working in the Exclusion Zone permanently reside. There's a busy bus route connecting Kyiv with the town where shops operate, as well as a gym, while gigs at a local club depend on whether the Kyiv region gets out of the "red" COVID-19 quarantine zone – as anywhere else across the region.
The city is gradually turning into a museum; its streets were never renamed, while a local statue to Lenin was never demolished – a popular location for tourist selfies.
Usually the streets of Chornobyl are deserted. They only come to life at the beginning and end of the working day, at lunchtime. Random old cars occasionally pass through, but once every five years a number of VIP vehicles are seen parked here as all kinds of officials use the anniversary as a PR opportunity.
UNIAN correspondents witnessed how several buses from Zhytomyr region arrived in the Chornobyl zone this weekend. It's emergency response veterans, widows of their late colleagues, and displaced persons from local areas who gathered here.
The emergency response veterans, "liquidators", as they're called in Ukraine, look around and immerse themselves in memories.
"Now everything is wilderness here, but back then there used to be such a hustle here, like in an anthill. Do you remember the canteen over there? ”One of the men points towards what once used to be a busy street, now overgrown with trees and bushes.
"Yes. Buffet. They give you a coupon and you eat whatever you want. There was sour cream there!" his friend replies, ending the phrase as if he was once again living in the times of empty shelves in grocery stores, when people would queue up for milk, while tangerines and oranges in Chornobyl canteens seemed to be something miraculously sweet.
People are willingly telling of what happened here 35 years ago. They only choose to avoid the topic of own health condition. Now Zhytomyr residents, they now reminisce on their youth days, asking to refer to them by their first names, informally.
"I was washing cars that were used to put out the fire on April 26. I drove closer to the reactor to pick them up and saw the miners working there, digging a tunnel to pour concrete into it. They were also throwing graphite fragments off the roof after the Japanese robots malfunctioned, so they had to use shovels," Dmytro Kovalchuk tells UNIAN.
"Was it scary?" we cannot refrain from asking.
"At 23? What are you talking about?" laughs our interlocutor.
Emergency response veterans also tell of their extremely inconvenient protective "spacesuits" and how widely lightweight overalls and respirators were used instead.
"My radiation dose was 44 roentgens and 400 microroentgens. In fact, it was 40% more. But a year later I received a paper where it said '22 roentgens'. Officially, it was impossible to get employed if your dose reached 25," says Dmytro Kovalchuk. "Five years later, I got sick. I knew that my health was affected. But I don’t want to talk about it. ”
"Data on radiation doses was grossly manipulated. Among my friends, liquidator veterans, among those who were there with me, only a few are still alive," another liquidator, Olerksandr told UNIAN.
In 1986, he was part of the Internal Troops stationed in Kyiv. After the accident, soldiers were deployed in alert mode: "We arrived in the morning. Glow over the NPP. Clouds of smoke… Some said they had itchy throat, but we didn't feel anything, only our dosimeters squeaked. I remember helicopters circling over the reactor, pouring sand and lead. Maybe because of this, there air sort of tasted like metal. Now they say this only made things worse as this raised radioactive dust up in the air. But who was thinking about such hazards back then? Or about people's safety… That May 1 demonstration was enough to have an idea... I was there for a month. When I returned, doctors said I shouldn't have kids. They didn't prohibit anything, but they'd say: 'If the child is disabled, don't hold the grudge on anyone." But I do have a son. I didn't dare to conceive another kid though."
"We had three or four women forced to get abortions. It was impossible to refuse. They came to my friend with the police and just took her to the hospital," says Svitalana Kalistratova, deputy chief of the Zhytomyr branch of the "Help for the Children of Chornobyl" ICF, a former resident of the Varovychi village, whose residents were resettled due to the accident.
Many liquidators limp. We notice how some instinctively look around, checking for a free bench or seat.
"We would wander around anywhere, there were no markings on the ground to show us where we could step and where we mustn't. So, my legs got affected. And not just my legs... A few days ago, my friend, a former police colonel from Ivankov, died. He was around 60," retired police Colonel Oleksiy Moskalenko told UNIAN.
On the night of April 26, 1986, he was on duty. After an emergency release of steam at the 1st power unit, he was deployed to the Chornobyl NPP. He recalls how he heard two dull pops before ash smelling of burnt plastic started falling, but no one thought of an explosion in the reactor – it was considered the world's most reliable one.
That night, the police caught two drunken poachers at the cooling pond, took them to the station located on the territory of what's now called "Red Forest", and then headed home after their shift.
"Because of the stench of those ashes, my wife told me to take a shower immediately and threw my clothes out on the balcony. That probably saved me," Moskalenko recalls.
In early May 1986, he and his colleagues underwent treatment at the Internal Affairs Ministry's clinic, but after a while they were redeployed to the Chornobyl zone. “Apparently, someone decided to save resources: since we'd already received our dose of radiation, they suggested, we could go on getting those roentgens," says Moskalenko.
UNIAN's interlocutor headed the Prypiat security department, catching thieves who emerged in town immediately after the evacuation completed. Local residents could go back to get their belongings, but their TVs and tape recorders, as well as fur coats, accumulated radiation ... So their owners could not take that, and soon these things were being sold in street markets.
"At first they would go hunting for jewelry and radio equipment. Then they switched to copper – we would catch thieves who had notebooks with a list of apartments, so they knew in advance where some wiring was still left. In the end, they started taking out ferrous metals. We would catch thieves who were coming to the exclusion zone on railway trolleys – to be able to take out as much as possible. Even the stuff that was allegedly officially taken out for scrap was clearly put up for sale. We saw how the water pipes were carefully cut along the joints not to be spoiled," says Oleksiy Moskalenko.
The liquidators told UNIAN of how another kind of metal, contaminated in the first weeks of the fallout, was also being stolen: "After the shift, we once washed the vehicle and the radiation level was over the max limit, then we washed it again – still over the limit, and then the third time – the same thing. So, we had to bring it to a "graveyard". Then we come there the next morning, and all we see left from the truck (or bus) is an empty frame. Everything else has been snatched to be sold."
"Dark, very dark smoke stood in a column."
"We left Pripyat in face masks, and now we're returning the same way," a former local resident, Valentyna, tells UNIAN.
She left as a seven-year-old girl – the family moved to their relatives in Zhytomyr region. Valentyna's family were sure they would soon be able to return, so they turned down housing offers in other cities, not being willing to go too far from the area...
With a trip to her hometown, Valentyna did not add up for 35 years. She first came to the Zone, but she talks about the day of the tragedy as if it were yesterday.
"We came to school, where we were told there would be no classes that day. We used to have lots of civil defense classes back then, and sometimes we had those 'evacuation' drills when we would be told to run to the forest. This time they told us: 'Go home, and only home. Close your windows and don't go out.' We ran out shouting 'Hurray!' Valentyna recalls. "On the way home we stopped by a deli where I bought some cake and tomato juice. Then we ran to see the rides that were supposed to be launched May 1. There was no way to get tickets, but my dad got them for us somehow. So we ran to see if someone would launch them without us?"
The woman recalls how she later ran following her sister and brother to the roof of her nine-story apartment block to watch what was happening at the NPP.
"Dark, very dark smoke was rising. But no one knew what was happening," says Valentyna.
Like everyone else, their family were sure they were leaving just for a few days.
"After a while, it became clear there was no turning back. My father worked shifts at the NPP, where he learned all the news. At first he said: 'The city is being patrolled. Maybe we'll come back.' Then they began to give us food rations, brought clothes, although there were large sizes only. We came in with a small bag only, with pretty much only documents. Finally, my father was allowed to return to our apartment to get our stufff. But what could he take from the building's ninth floor, except clothes and shoes? So he came and said it was impossible to return," says the Prypiat resident. "It was tough. My father's hair turned gray in six months. I didn't understand why we moved and why everything became so complicated. Whatever one may claim, we were aliens there. Later, though, life went on as usual, but I constantly see Prypiat in my dreams. I understand there's no longer our apartment there but I still want to return home."
The liquidators head toward the memorial plates on which the names of their friends are carved – the passed ones. A bus carrying tourists arrives at the memorial complex. The guide tells people about the scale of the tragedy: "Initially they used the concepts of a 'ten-kilometer zone' and 'thirty-kilometer zone', but when they started exploring the territory, it turned out that radiation levels were uneven. The zone has no clear contours." Many listen to the guide carelessly as most are waiting for the moment they are able to take a selfie in Prypiat.
For some in that square, the Chornobyl Zone has become an adventure, while for others it remains a never-ending ache.
“We were given just a day to pack. We had a large village, and along the entire length of our central street stood open-back trucks, where we had loaded pillows and blankets. So we had nothing to sleep on. And in the morning it started to rain. Nature was saying goodbye to us, whatever people may say. All our stuff got soaked. People were crying. Both those who were leaving and those whom we met on the way – they were sobbing," Svitlana Kalistratova tells UNIAN. "And now I hear: 'What are you talking about? What hardships? Where is that Chornobyl? When did that happen anyway?'... Those guys threw themselves into the fire, and we pay our dues to them only once every five years? Forgetting them is cruel, it's not fair."
Those gathered here tell UNIAN with indignation, how hard it is to get a paid leave that Chornobyl disaster liquidators are supposed to get as a benefit, and how during re-registration with state authorities liquidators "turned" into IDPs. They also spoke of how difficult it is for former Prypiat residents to visit their hometown, and how the government "suspends" social aid payments with the increasing frequency.
Over the years, the number of immediate emergency response personnel is fading, just as the IDPs' hope that one day life will return to the Exclusion Zone. Development projects look great at press conferences. It seems logical that solar energy would be able to revive the Zone. But, as a result, yet another site emerges near Chornobyl, which is purely interesting for tourists. At the Castle Hill in Chornobyl, a solar generation facility was built back in the fall of 2019, but it is still to be commissioned. Nobody in Chornobyl is looking into why the launch keeps dragging. The only thing UNIAN hear in this regard was: "There was no truth in 1986, and neither there's any now."