'Voices of Chernobyl': Survivors' Stories

An aerial view of the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear plant i i

An aerial view of the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after its explosion is seen in this 1986 file photo. Scroll down for excerpts from Voices of Chernobyl. Vladimir Repik/Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Vladimir Repik/Reuters
An aerial view of the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear plant

An aerial view of the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after its explosion is seen in this 1986 file photo. Scroll down for excerpts from Voices of Chernobyl.

Vladimir Repik/Reuters
A month after the explosion, Chernobyl employees head off by bus to begin another day's work i i

A month after the explosion, Chernobyl employees head off by bus to work in a highly contaminated environment. Kostin Igor/Corbis Sygma hide caption

itoggle caption Kostin Igor/Corbis Sygma
A month after the explosion, Chernobyl employees head off by bus to begin another day's work

A month after the explosion, Chernobyl employees head off by bus to work in a highly contaminated environment.

Kostin Igor/Corbis Sygma

Twenty years ago this month, a routine maintenance test at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine veered wildly out of control.

At 1:23 in the morning on April 26, 1986, there was a disastrous chain reaction in the core of reactor No.4. A power surge ruptured the uranium fuel rods, while a steam explosion created a huge fireball that blew the roof off the reactor. The resulting radioactive plume blanketed the nearby city of Pripyat.

The cloud moved on to the north and west, contaminating land in neighboring Belarus, then moved across Eastern Europe and over Scandinavia.

From the Soviets: utter silence. There was no word from the Kremlin that the worst nuclear accident in history was under way.

Then monitoring stations in Scandinavia began reporting abnormally high levels of radioactivity. Finally, nearly three days after the explosion, the Soviet news agency TASS issued a brief statement acknowledging that an accident had occurred.

The memories of survivors were collected for the 10th anniversary of the disaster in the book Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of the Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich. We hear some of their stories: those living with illness and fear, and those sent in to clean up the mess and monitor the damage.

Excerpts: 'Voices from Chernobyl'

Voices of Chernobyl cover

Prologue: A Solitary Human Voice

Lyudmilla Ignatenko, wife of deceased fireman Vasily Ignatenko

I'm sitting on my little chair next to him at night. At eight I say: "Vasenka, I'm going for a little walk." He opens his eyes and closes them, lets me go. I just walk to the dorm, go up to my room, lie down on the floor, I couldn't lie on the bed, everything hurt too much, when already the cleaning lady is knocking. "Go! Run to him! He's calling for you like mad!" That morning Tanya Kibenok pleaded with me: "Come to the cemetery, I can't go there alone." They were burying Vitya Kibenok and Volodya Pravik. They were friends of my Vasya. Our families were friends. There's a photo of us all in the building the day before the explosion. Our husbands are so handsome! And happy! It was the last day of that life. We were all so happy!

I came back from the cemetery and called the nurse's post right away. "How is he?" "He died fifteen minutes ago." What? I was there all night. I was gone for three hours! I came up to the window and started shouting: "Why? Why?" I looked up at the sky and yelled. The whole building could hear me. They were afraid to come up to me. Then I came to: I'll see him one more time! Once more! I run down the stairs. He was still in his bio-chamber, they hadn't taken him away yet. His last words were "Lyusya! Lyusenka!" "She's just stepped away for a bit, she'll be right back," the nurse told him. He sighed and went quiet. I didn't leave him anymore after that. I escorted him all the way to the grave site. Although the thing I remember isn't the grave, it's the plastic bag. That bag.

At the morgue they said, "Want to see what we'll dress him in?" I do! They dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn't get shoes on him because his feet had swelled up. They had to cut up the formal wear, too, because they couldn't get it on him, there wasn't a whole body to put it on. It was all — wounds. The last two days in the hospital — I'd lift his arm, and meanwhile the bone is shaking, just sort of dangling, the body has gone away from it. Pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I'd wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff. It's impossible to talk about. It's impossible to write about. And even to live through. It was all mine.

My love. They couldn't get a single pair of shoes to fit him. They buried him barefoot.

Right before my eyes — in his formal wear — they put him in that cellophane bag of theirs and tied it up. And then they put this bag in the wooden coffin. And they tied the coffin with another bag. The plastic is transparent, but thick, like a tablecloth. And then they put all that into a zinc coffin. They squeezed it in. Only the cap didn't fit.

Everyone came — his parents, my parents. They bought black handkerchiefs in Moscow. The Extraordinary Commission met with us. They told everyone the same thing: it's impossible for us to give you the bodies of your husbands, your sons, they are very radioactive and will be buried in a Moscow cemetery in a special way. In sealed zinc caskets, under cement tiles. And you need to sign this document here.

If anyone got indignant and wanted to take the coffin back home, they were told that the dead were now heroes, you see, and that they no longer belonged to their families. They were heroes of the State. They belonged to the State.

We sat in the hearse. The relatives and some military people. A colonel and his regiment. They tell the regiment: "Await your orders!" We drive around Moscow for two or three hours, around the beltway. We're going back to Moscow again. They tell the regiment: "We're not allowing anyone into the cemetery. The cemetery's being attacked by foreign correspondents. Wait some more." The parents don't say anything. Mom has a black handkerchief. I sense I'm about to black out. "Why are they hiding my husband? He's — what? A murderer? A criminal? Who are we burying?" My mom: "Quiet. Quiet, daughter." She's petting me on the head. The colonel calls in: "Let's enter the cemetery. The wife is getting hysterical." At the cemetery we were surrounded by soldiers. We had a convoy. And they were carrying the coffin. No one was allowed in. It was just us. They covered him with earth in a minute. "Faster! Faster!" the officer was yelling. They didn't even let me hug the coffin. And — onto the bus. Everything on the sly.

Right away they bought us plane tickets back home. For the next day. The whole time there was someone with us. He wouldn't even let us out of the dorm to buy some food for the trip. God forbid we might talk with someone — especially me. As if I could talk by then. I couldn't even cry. When we were leaving, the woman on duty counted all the towels and all the sheets. She folded them right away and placed them in a polyethylene bag. They probably burnt them. We paid for the dormitory ourselves. For fourteen nights. It was a hospital for radiation poisoning. Fourteen nights. That's how long it takes a person to die.

Monologue About Lies and Truths

Sergei Sobolev, deputy head of the Executive Committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association

They've written dozens of books. Fat volumes, with commentaries. But the event is still beyond any philosophical description. Someone said to me, or maybe I read it, that the problem of Chernobyl presents itself first of all as a problem of self-understanding.

That seemed right. I keep waiting for someone intelligent to explain it to me. The way they enlighten me about Stalin, Lenin, Bolshevism. Or the way they keep hammering away at their "Market! Market! Free market!" But we — we who were raised in a world without Chernobyl, now live with Chernobyl.

I'm actually a professional rocketeer, I specialize in rocket fuel. I served at Baikonur [a space launch center]. The programs, Kosmos, Interkosmos, those took up a large part of my life. It was a miraculous time! You give people the sky, the Arctic, the whole thing! You give them space! Every person in the Soviet Union went into space with Yuri Gagarin, they tore away from the earth with him. We all did! I'm still in love with him — he was a wonderful Russian man, with that wonderful smile. Even his death seemed well-rehearsed.

It was a miraculous time! For family reasons I moved to Belarus, finished my career here. When I came, I immersed myself into this Chernobylized space, it was a corrective to my sense of things. It was impossible to imagine anything like it, even though I'd always dealt with the most advanced technologies, with outer space technologies. It's hard even to explain — it doesn't fit into the imagination — it's — [He thinks.] You know, a second ago I thought I'd caught it, a second ago — it makes you want to philosophize. No matter who you talk to about Chernobyl, they all want to philosophize. But I'd rather tell you about my own work. What don't we do! We're building a church — a Chernobyl church, in honor of the Icon of the Mother of God, we're dedicating it to "Punishment." We collect donations, visit the sick and dying. We write chronicles. We're creating a museum. I used to think that I, with my heart in the condition it's in, wouldn't be able to work at such a job. My first instructions were: "Here is money, divide it between thirty-five families, that is, between thirty-five widows." All the men had been liquidators. So you need to be fair. But how? One widow has a little girl who's sick, another widow has two children, and a third is sick herself, and she's renting her apartment, and yet another has four children. At night I'd wake up thinking, "How do I not cheat anyone?" I thought and calculated, calculated and thought. And I couldn't do it. We ended up just giving out the money equally, according to the list.

But my real child is the museum: the Chernobyl Museum. [He is silent.] Sometimes I think that we'll have a funeral parlor here, not a museum. I serve on the funeral committee. This morning I haven't even taken off my coat when a woman comes in, she's crying, not even crying but yelling: "Take his medals and his certificates! Take all the benefits! Give me my husband!" She yelled a long time. And left his medals, his certificates. Well, they'll be in the museum, on display. People can look at them. But her cry, no one heard her cry but me, and when I put these certificates on display I'll remember it.

Colonel Yaroshuk is dying now. He's a chemist-dosimetrist. He was healthy as a bull, now he's lying paralyzed. His wife turns him over like a pillow. She feeds him from a spoon. He has stones in his kidneys, they need to be shattered, but we don't have the money to pay for that kind of operation. We're paupers, we survive on what people give us. And the government behaves like a money lender, it's forgotten these people. When he dies, they'll name a street after him, or a school, or a military unit, but that's only after he dies. Colonel Yaroshuk. He walked through the Zone and marked the points of maximum radiation — they exploited him in the fullest sense of the term, like he was a robot. And he understood this, but he went, he walked from the reactor itself and then out through all the sectors around the radius of radioactivity. On foot. With a dosimeter in his hand. He'd feel a "spot" and then walk around its borders, so he could put it on his map accurately.

And what about the soldiers who worked on the roof of the reactor? Two hundred and ten military units were thrown at the liquidation of the fallout of the catastrophe, which equals about 340,000 military personnel. The ones cleaning the roof got it the worst. They had lead vests, but the radiation was coming from below, and they weren't protected there. They were wearing ordinary cheap imitation-leather boots. They spent about a minute and a half, two minutes on the roof each day, and then they were discharged, given a certificate and an award — one hundred rubles. And then they disappeared to the vast peripheries of our motherland. On the roof they gathered fuel and graphite from the reactor, shards of concrete and metal. It took about twenty to thirty seconds to fill a wheelbarrow, and then another thirty seconds to throw the "garbage" off the roof. These special wheelbarrows weighed forty kilos just by themselves. So you can picture it: a lead vest, masks, the wheelbarrows, and insane speed.

In the museum in Kiev they have a mold of graphite the size of a soldier's cap, they say that if it were real, it would weigh 16 kilos, that's how dense and heavy graphite is. The radio-controlled machines they used often failed to carry out commands or did the opposite of what they were supposed to do, because their electronics were disrupted by the high radiation. The most reliable "robots" were the soldiers. They were christened the "green robots" (by the color of their uniforms). Three thousand six hundred soldiers worked on the roof of the ruined reactor. They slept on the ground, they all tell of how in the beginning they were throwing straw on the ground in the tents — and the straw was coming from stacks near the reactor.

They were young guys. They're dying now too, but they understand that if it wasn't for them… These are people who came from a certain culture, the culture of the great achievement. They were a sacrifice. There was a moment when there existed the danger of a nuclear explosion, and they had to get the water out from under the reactor, so that a mixture of uranium and graphite wouldn't get into it — with the water they would have formed a critical mass. The explosion would have been between three and five megatons. This would have meant that not only Kiev and Minsk, but a large part of Europe would have been uninhabitable. Can you imagine it? A European catastrophe. So here was the task: who would dive in there and open the bolt on the safety valve? They promised them a car, an apartment, a dacha, aid for their families until the end of time. They searched for volunteers. And they found them! The boys dove, many times, and they opened that bolt, and the unit was given 7000 rubles. They forgot about the cars and apartments they promised — but that's not why they dove! Not for the material, least of all for the material promises. [Becomes upset.] Those people don't exist anymore, just the documents in our museum, with their names. But what if they hadn't done it? In terms of our readiness for self-sacrifice, we have no equals.

Now do you understand how I see our museum? In that urn there is some land from Chernobyl. A handful. And there's a miner's helmet. Also from there. Some farmer's equipment from the Zone. We can't let the dosimeters in here — we're glowing! But everything here needs to be real. No plaster casts. People need to believe us. And they'll only believe the real thing, because there are too many lies around Chernobyl. There were and there are still. They've even grown funds and commercial structures…

Since you're writing this book, you need to have a look at some unique video footage. We're gathering it little by little. It's not a chronicle of Chernobyl, no, they wouldn't let anyone film that, it was forbidden. If anyone did manage to record any of it, the authorities immediately took the film and returned it ruined. We don't have a chronicle of how they evacuated people, how they moved out the livestock. They didn't allow anyone to fi lm the tragedy, only the heroics. There are some Chernobyl photo albums now, but how many video and photo cameras were broken! People were dragged through the bureaucracy. It required a lot of courage to tell the truth about Chernobyl. It still does. Believe me! But you need to see this footage: the blackened faces of the firemen, like graphite. And their eyes? These are the eyes of people who already know that they're leaving us. There's one fragment showing the legs of a woman who the morning after the catastrophe went to work on her plot of land next to the atomic station. She's walking on grass covered with dew. Her legs remind you of a grate, everything's with holes up to the knees. You need to see this if you're writing this book.

Monologue About What We Didn't Know: Death Can Be So Beautiful 152-154

Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya, evacuee from the town of Pripyat

At first, the question was, Who's to blame? But then, when we learned more, we started thinking, What should we do?

How do we save ourselves? After coming to terms with the fact that this would not be for one year or for two, but for many generations, we began to look back, turning the pages.

It happened late Friday night. That morning no one suspected anything. I sent my son to school, my husband went to the barber's. I'm preparing lunch when my husband comes back. "There's some sort of fire at the nuclear plant," he says. "They're saying we are not to turn off the radio." I forgot to say that we lived in Pripyat, near the reactor. I can still see the bright-crimson glow, it was like the reactor was glowing. This wasn't any ordinary fire, it was some sort of shining. It was pretty. I'd never seen anything like it in the movies. That evening everyone spilled out onto their balconies, and those who didn't have them went to friends' houses. We were on the ninth floor, we had a great view. People brought their kids out, picked them up, said, "Look! Remember!" And these were people who worked at the reactor — engineers, workers, physics instructors. They stood in the black dust, talking, breathing, wondering at it. People came from all around on their cars and their bikes to have a look. We didn't know that death could be so beautiful. Though I wouldn't say that it had no smell — it wasn't a spring or an autumn smell, but something else, and it wasn't the smell of earth. My throat tickled, and tears came to my eyes.

I didn't sleep all night, and I heard the neighbors walking around upstairs, also not sleeping. They were carrying stuff around, banging things, maybe they were packing their belongings. I fought off my headache with Citramon tablets. In the morning I woke up and looked around and I remember feeling — this isn't something I made up later, I thought it right then — something isn't right, something has changed forever. At eight that morning there were already military people on the streets in gas masks. When we saw them on the streets, with all the military vehicles, we didn't grow frightened — on the contrary, it calmed us down. Since the army has come to our aid, everything will be fine. We didn't understand then that the peaceful atom could kill, that man is helpless before the laws of physics.

All day on the radio they were telling people to prepare for an evacuation: they'd take us away for three days, wash everything, check it over. The kids were told to take their school books. Still, my husband put our documents and our wedding photos into his briefcase. The only thing I took was a gauze kerchief in case the weather turned bad.

From the very first I felt that we were Chernobylites, that we were already a separate people. Our bus stopped overnight in a village; people slept on the floor in a school, others in a club. There was nowhere to go. One woman invited us to sleep at her house. "Come," she said, "I'll put down some linen for you. I feel bad for your boy." Her friend started dragging her away from us. "Are you crazy? They're contaminated!" When we settled in Mogilev and our son started school, he came back the very first day in tears. They put him next to a girl who said she didn't want to sit with him, he was radioactive. Our son was in the fourth grade, and he was the only one from Chernobyl in the class. The other kids were afraid of him, they called him "Shiny." His childhood had ended so early.

As we were leaving Pripyat there was an army column heading back in the other direction. There were so many military vehicles, that's when I grew frightened. But I couldn't shake the feeling that this was all happening to someone else. I was crying, looking for food, sleeping, hugging my son, calming him down, but inside, this constant sense that I was just an observer. In Kiev they gave us some money, but we couldn't buy anything: hundreds of thousands of people had been uprooted and they'd bought everything up and eaten everything. Many had heart attacks and strokes, right there at the train stations, on the buses. I was saved by my mother. She'd lived a long time and had lost everything more than once. The first time was in the 1930s, they took her cow, her horse, her house. The second time, there'd been a fi re, the only thing she'd saved was me. Now she said, "We have to get through it. After all, we're alive."

I remember one thing: we're on the bus, everyone's crying. A man up front is yelling at his wife. "I can't believe you'd be so stupid! Everyone else brought their things, and all we've got are these three-liter bottles!" The wife had decided that since they were taking the bus, she might as well bring some empty pickling bottles for her mother, who was on the way. They had these big bulging sacks next to their seats, we kept tripping over them the whole way to Kiev, and that's what they came to Kiev with.

Now I sing in the church choir. I read the Bible. I go to church — it's the only place they talk about eternal life. They comfort a person. You won't hear those words anywhere else, and you so want to hear them.

I often dream that I'm riding through sunny Pripyat with my son. It's a ghost town now. But we're riding through and looking at the roses, there were many roses in Pripyat, large bushes with roses. I was young. My son was little. I loved him. And in the dream I've forgotten all the fears, as if I were just a spectator the whole time.

Monologue About Taking Measurements

Marat Filippovich Kokhanov, former chief engineer of the Institute for Nuclear Energy of the Belarussian Academy of Sciences

Already by the end of May, about a month after the accident, we began receiving, for testing, products from the thirty-kilometer zone. The institute worked round the clock, like it was a military institute. At the time we were the only ones in Belarus with the specialists and the equipment for the job.

They brought us the insides of domestic and undomesticated animals. We checked the milk. After the first tests it became clear that what we were receiving couldn't properly be called meat — it was radioactive byproducts. Within the zone the herds were taken care of in shifts — the shepherds would come and go, the milkmaids were brought in for milking only. The milk factories carried out the government plan. We checked the milk. It wasn't milk, it was a radioactive byproduct.

For a long time after that we used dry milk powder and cans of condensed and concentrated milk from the Rogachev milk factory in our lectures as examples of a standard radiation source. And in the meantime, they were being sold in the stores. When people saw that the milk was from Rogachev and stopped buying it, there suddenly appeared cans of milk without labels. I don't think it was because they ran out of paper.

On my first trip to the Zone I measured a background radiation level of five to six times higher in the forest than on the roads or the fields. But high doses were everywhere. The tractors were running, the farmers were digging on their plots. In a few villages we measured the thyroid activity for adults and children. It was one hundred, sometimes two and three hundred times the allowable dosage. There was a woman in our group, a radiologist. She became hysterical when she saw that children were sitting in a sandbox and playing. We checked breast milk — it was radioactive. We went into the stores — as in a lot of village stores, they had the clothes and the food right next to each other: suits and dresses, and nearby salami and margarine. They're lying there in the open, they're not even covered with cellophane. We take the salami, we take an egg — we make a roentgen image — this isn't food, it's a radioactive byproduct.

We see a woman on a bench near her house, breastfeeding her child — her milk has cesium in it — she's the Chernobyl Madonna.

We asked our supervisors, What do we do? How should we be? They said: "Take your measurements. Watch television."

On television Gorbachev was calming people: "We've taken immediate measures." I believed it. I'd worked as an engineer for twenty years, I was well-acquainted with the laws of physics. I knew that everything living should leave that place, if only for a while. But we conscientiously took our measurements and watched the television. We were used to believing. I'm from the postwar generation, I grew up with this belief, this faith. Where did it come from? We'd won that terrible war. The whole world was grateful to us then.

So here's the answer to your question: why did we keep silent knowing what we knew? Why didn't we go out onto the square and yell the truth? We compiled our reports, we put together explanatory notes. But we kept quiet and carried out our orders without a murmur because of Party discipline. I was a Communist. I don't remember that any of our colleagues refused to go work in the Zone. Not because they were afraid of losing their Party membership, but because they had faith. They had faith that we lived well and fairly, that for us man was the highest thing, the measure of all things. The collapse of this faith in a lot of people eventually led to heart attacks and suicides. A bullet to the heart, as in the case of Professor [Valery] Legasov [head of the commissioned Chernobyl investigation who actually hanged himself in 1988, on the two-year anniversary of the explosion], because when you lose that faith, you are no longer a participant, you're an also-ran, you have no reason to exist. That's how I understood his suicide, as a sort of sign.

Monologue About a Damaged Child

Nadezhda Afanasyevna Burakova, resident of the village of Khoyniki

The other day my daughter said to me: "Mom, if I give birth to a damaged child, I'm still going to love him." Can you imagine that? She's in the tenth grade, and she already has such thoughts. Her friends, too, they all think about it. Some acquaintances of ours recently gave birth to a son, their first. They're a young, handsome pair. And their boy has a mouth that stretches to his ears and no ears. I don't visit them like I used to, but my daughter doesn't mind, she looks in on them all the time. She wants to go there, maybe just to see, or maybe to try it on.

We could have left, but my husband and I thought about it and decided not to. We're afraid to. Here, we're all Chernobylites. We're not afraid of one another, and if someone gives you an apple or a cucumber from their garden, you take it and eat it, you don't hide it shamefully in your pocket, your purse, and then throw it out. We all share the same memories. We have the same fate. Anywhere else, we're foreign, we're lepers. Everyone is used to the words, "Chernobylites," "Chernobyl children," "Chernobyl refugees." But you don't know anything about us. You're afraid of us. You probably wouldn't let us out of here if you had your way, you'd put up a police cordon, that would calm you down. [Stops.] Don't try to tell me it's not like that. I lived through it. In those first days… I took my daughter and ran off to Minsk, to my sister. My own sister didn't let us into her home, she had a little baby she was breast-feeding. Can you imagine that? We slept at the train station.

I had crazy thoughts. Where should we go? Maybe we should kill ourselves so as not to suffer? That was just in the first days. Everyone started imagining horrible diseases, unimaginable diseases. And I'm a doctor. I can only guess at what other people were thinking. Now I look at my kids: wherever they go, they'll feel like strangers. My daughter spent a summer at pioneer camp, the other kids were afraid to touch her. "She's a Chernobyl rabbit. She glows in the dark." They made her go into the yard at night so they could see if she was glowing.

People talk about the war, the war generation, they compare us to them. But those people were happy! They won the war! It gave them a very strong life-energy, as we say now, it gave them a really strong motivation to survive and keep going. They weren't afraid of anything, they wanted to live, learn, have kids. Whereas us? We're afraid of everything. We're afraid for our children, and for our grandchildren, who don't exist yet. They don't exist, and we're already afraid. People smile less, they sing less at holidays. The landscape changes, because instead of fields the forest rises up again, but the national character changes too. Everyone's depressed. It's a feeling of doom. Chernobyl is a metaphor, a symbol. And it's changed our everyday life, and our thinking.

Sometimes I think it'd be better if you didn't write about us. Then people wouldn't be so afraid. No one talks about cancer in the home of a person who's sick with it. And if someone is in jail with a life sentence, no one mentions that, either.

Excerpted from Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. Copyright (c) 1997, 2006 by Svetlana Alexievich. Preface and translation copyright (c) 2005 by Keith Gessen. Published in 2006 by Picador, LLC. All rights reserved. Visitors to this website are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce this material in any manner or medium must be secured from Picador, LLC.

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