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'Voices From Chernobyl': Survivors' Stories

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'Voices From Chernobyl': Survivors' Stories


'Voices From Chernobyl': Survivors' Stories

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


I'm Melissa Block. And in this half hour, remembering Chernobyl. Twenty years ago this month, in Northern Ukraine, a test at a nuclear power plant geared wildly out of control. At 1:23 in the morning, April 26th, 1986, there was a disastrous chain reaction in the core of Chernobyl Reactor Number Four. A power surge ruptured the uranium fuel rods. A steam explosion created a huge fireball that blew the roof off the reactor.

A radioactive plume blanketed the nearby city of Pripyat. The cloud moved on, north and west, contaminating land in neighboring Belarus. Then moved across Eastern Europe and over to Scandinavia. From the Soviets, utter silence. No word that anything had happened. Then monitoring stations in Scandinavia began reporting abnormally high levels of radioactivity. And finally, the Soviet news agency TASS issued a brief statement.

Unidentified Man#1: An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl atomic power plant as one of the atomic reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Aid is being given to those affected, a government commission has been set up.

BLOCK: That statement came late in the evening on April 28th, nearly three days after the explosion. Here's now NPR listeners heard the story evolve throughout the next day.

Unidentified Woman#1: The Soviet (unintelligible) reports an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine.

Unidentified Man#2: The nuclear accident is wrapped in an official veil of secrecy. There was absolutely no mention of it in this morning's newspaper.

Unidentified Man#3: Nuclear experts in both capitals say it appears that a meltdown has taken place, and the fire is burning out of control.

Unidentified Man#4: ...radiation situation throughout the day. Readings of up to 100 times normal levels have been recorded...

Unidentified Man #5: Soviet officials are now calling the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident a disaster.

Unidentified Man#6: Putting it out is going to be a very difficult problem. I don't think anybody has ever dealt...

Unidentified Man#7: Western nuclear experts are saying it is the worst nuclear plant disaster in history. And that there are...

BLOCK: We're going to hear now the memories of some of those who survived Chernobyl. Those living with illness and fear. Those sent in to clean up the mess and monitor the damage. Their stories were collected for the 10th Chernobyl anniversary in the book Voices From Chernobyl, The Oral History of the Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich. We'll be hearing their stories in translation, read by actors. First, a woman who lived in Pripyat closest to the reactor. The city was built to house the plant's workers and their families. Fifty thousand people lived there. Here's what Nadjiesda Vigovskya(ph) remembered.

Unidentified Woman#2 (as Nadjiesda Vigovskya): 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 can still see the bright crimson glow. It was like the reactor was glowing.

This wasn't any ordinary fire, there was some sort of shining. It was pretty. 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 and 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 in their cars and their bikes to have a look. We didn't know that death could be so beautiful.

BLOCK: The people of Chernobyl lived under a veil of ignorance. They weren't warned about the effects of radiation, the Soviet government still hadn't even acknowledged that the accident had occurred. By the next day, local officials were moving to evacuate all of the people of Pripyat. Eleven hundred buses were brought into town in a caravan to take them away.

Later the evacuation zone was expanded. In all more than 100,000 people were uprooted in Ukraine and neighboring Belarus. Nadjiev DeBorakova(ph) lived in the village of Kweniki(ph) in Belarus, which had some of the highest levels of contamination. Here's a reading of her memories of that time.

Unidentified Woman#3 (as Nadjiev DeBorakova): I had crazy thoughts. Where should we go? Maybe we should kill ourselves so as not to suffer. This 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.

BLOCK: While the evacuation was going on, firefighters were furiously trying to put out the fires. They burned for 10 days. More than 30 people died from the direct effect of the fire and acute radiation poisoning. Terrible deaths. The widow of a fireman who was killed told her story. Her name is Ludmila Ignachenko(ph).

Unidentified Woman#4 (as Ludmila Ignachenko): At the morgue they said, want to see what we'll dress him in? I do. They dressed him up in formal wear with a 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, even to live through. It was mine, my love. They couldn't get a single pair of shoes to fit him. I buried him barefoot.

BLOCK: Fourteen nights, that's how long it takes a person to die, she said. After those first responders, hundreds of thousands of soldiers would be enlisted in the cleanup effort. They were called liquidators. Sergei Sobelyef(ph) who helps run The Chernobyl Museum talked about their efforts.

Unidentified Man#8 (as Sergei Sobelyef): And what about the soldiers who worked on the roof of the reactor? 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, 100 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 20 to 30 seconds to fill a wheelbarrow, and then another 30 seconds to throw the garbage off the roof. So you can picture it. A lead vest, masks, the wheelbarrows, and insane speed.

BLOCK: Ten years ago, giving their oral histories, survivors like Nadjiev DeBorakova talked about the lasting psychological effects of Chernobyl.

Unidentified Woman#3 (as Nadjiev DeBorakova): 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 is depressed. It's a feeling of doom. Chernobyl is a metaphor, a symbol. And it's changed our everyday life and our thinking.

BLOCK: Those readings taken from the book Voices From Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich.

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