I went into the Zone from the very beginning. I remember stopping in a village and being struck by the silence. No birds, nothing. You walk down a street…silence. Well, of course, I knew all the cottages were lifeless, that there were no people because they had all left, but everything around had fallen silent. Not a single bird. It was the first time I had ever seen a land without birds. (Irina Kisilyova, journalist. From Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, 1997)
I know that silence. I first went to the Zone in 1990 four years after Reactor No.4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went down after a series of blasts. Fifty million Curies of radioactivity were released into the atmosphere. 70% of that figure fell in Belarus and 70% of that came down in Homiel Region. Homiel was the City Aberdeen City Council assumed was in Russia and agreed to “twin” with. I am glad they did as it started an enduring relationship for me with Belarus and its people. It is a passionate but volatile relationship. We have laughed, cried, fought, made up, and misunderstood, but we have also loved, both despite it all, and because of it all.
My first incursion into the Zone, the area marked presumably on a map in red pen by a bureaucrat, was unencumbered by anyone else from Aberdeen. I was with one Belarusian woman who ran a charity trying to increase awareness of what had happened there. The memories are jumbled as I made so many visits. I will be writing more blogs about Chernobyl and Belarus in general, so I will begin with my personal reflections. I was to make many further visits with delegations including our infamous local politicians and wonderful medics, scientists and community groups from Aberdeen. The reason Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and our university decided to involve themselves in fact was due to what I reported after my solo visits. As an aside, when I reported back, I was “strongly advised” to play down my experiences by a scientist who was a consultant to British Nuclear Fuels. These are NOT scientific findings. This is what I experienced, how it felt and the permanent trace the people whom I met left on my Soul.
There was little in the City itself to indicate that we were in the middle of the zone marked in red on the soon-to-be-familiar radiation map. The map was published in the daily newspaper so people would know where to pick mushrooms and where not to. I looked out of my hotel window and saw someone in a uniform with what looked like a Geiger counter. Other than that, people were out and about living their lives.
They had been out and about in the afternoon of the day the reactor exploded at 01.23. It was April 26th, 1986 and as dutiful Soviet citizens, they were out on the streets marching in practice for the forthcoming May Day parade. They marched with sticks, saving the flags for the day itself. It seemed even the Soviet flags had deserted them.
They were not told. The Apparatchiks, the high ups, the party officials had been noticed leaving hurriedly by bus and rumours abounded about “an incident” but they were not told. An old man told me the sheep were evacuated before the ordinary people. People should have been told to stay inside and given iodine to protect their thyroid against the blast. However, it was still the USSR and clearly Gorbachev’s much vaunted policy of Glasnost’ (openness) was yet to exist beyond words. And an important Soviet holiday was coming up.
Mayday. M’aidez. Save our Souls.
To get into the deadly Zone you had to get past a cordon of guards. I was already adept at bribery so it was not a problem. I noticed that on one side of the fence marking the start of the Zone, cattle were grazing. The other side of the fence had been deemed deadly. Over the fence, the livestock meant contaminated milk and meat was being sent off out into the food chain. Talking of contaminated meat, I still think about the guards standing at the entrance to the Zone all day. They were young. They were National Service conscripts whose parents presumably lacked the means to bribe their way to giving their sons a safe posting. I wonder where they are now. I suspect I know.
And the silence. The silence. If I keep repeating it over and over in my mind it might accurately reflect what that was like.
We advanced further into the Zone. We got out at a deserted village consisting of traditional wooden cottages. It looked rather idyllic until you looked more closely. Each door had a skull and crossbones crudely daubed on it usually along with a sign saying “Attention, there is radiation here”.
My guide Natasha knew where she wanted to take me. Unbelievably, in another village, we found a group of people mainly older women with traditional Belarusian headscarves sitting on benches next to trucks clearly loaded up with their possessions. They had a quiet resignation about them which reminded me of the departure of the Jewish families in Fiddler on the Roof.
Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years. One season following another, laden with happiness and tears.
But who were these people? Natasha explained that they were “officially” evacuated. Some Chinovnik (bureaucrat) had clearly stamped a bit of paper to say they had been evacuated, so in that case they had been. As they had been officially declared gone, they had closed all the services, the shops etc. And the people sat there waiting. Still they waited. They waited some more, but no-one came. I talked to one old lady and she said this:
I am digging potatoes out of the ground so I can live. I did the same during the war, but then I knew what we were fighting. I could see the enemy.
The streets in the Zone were overgrown with a black weed that thrives on radioactive soil. In English we know it as Wormwood. I never usually quote the Bible but here I will make an exception.
The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. (Revelation 8:11)
In another twist of fate, Wormwood translated into Russian is “Chernobyl” so the passage in the Russian version of the bible would read as follows
The name of the star is Chernobyl.