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Memories of Chernobyl as acclaimed HBO series puts disaster back in focus

Memories of Chernobyl as acclaimed HBO series puts disaster back in focus

When a unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in then-Soviet Ukraine exploded in the early hours of April 26, 1986, it sparked a fire that burned for nine days, as well as controversy and consequences that are still felt today.

Caused by a botched safety test in the fourth reactor of the atomic plant, the explosion released 50 million curies of radiation – equivalent to 500 Hiroshima bombs. Clouds carrying radioactive particles drifted as far as Canada, releasing toxic rain in their wake.

April marked the 33rd anniversary of the disaster, and it has remained in the headlines ever since, thanks to a television series broadcast in May and June made by US network HBO, depicting the aftermath.

Tour operators at the abandoned site and neighbouring Prypyat, home to most of the plant's workforce and now a ghost town, have reported an up to 40% rise in bookings since the programme aired.

The disaster, and Moscow's handling of it, drove home the culture of secrecy in which the Soviet system was shrouded, and for many signalled the first weakening of a structure that would collapse five years later.

Two plant workers were killed within the facility – one in the explosion and the other in the immediate aftermath by a lethal dose of radiation. Over the following months, 28 firemen and plant employees died of acute radiation syndrome (ARS). Of the 134 people initially hospitalised with ARS, 14 died of radiation-induced cancers over the next ten years.

Estimates of the final death toll of those killed by radiation-related illnesses range from 9,000, by the World Health Organization, to 90,000, estimated by environmental campaign group Greenpeace.

The event remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

Here, Euronews journalists from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Poland, Turkey, Iran and Hungary share their memories of the time.

Natalia Liubchenkova, Kyiv, Ukraine (then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic)135km from Chernobyl

Natalia, who was born and brought up in Kyiv, was 18 months old at the time of the Chernobyl disaster. In the aftermath, her parents sent her to stay with family friends, accompanied by her grandmother, in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, 610km from the site of the nuclear plant.

"I don't have a lot of memories obviously from that period of time of the actual disaster, but I do have what's like a short video clip in my mind. I remember a sort of sense of panic when we were going to the railway station, and knowing I'm going to travel somewhere.

“The next few months I spent in Kharkiv. That's where my parents sent me when they found out this situation at Chernobyl could really affect us. That was probably a couple of weeks after it happened. My dad saw that the kindergartens were being evacuated, so he knew that it was serious.

"Also, at the time, there were rumours circulating that the high-ranking politicians were sending their kids away and the airports were crowded with those kids. If there is something to hide, it will spread anyway, even if there's a huge propaganda machine that's trying to hide it from people.

“In Kharkiv, I learned to say this phrase: 'Where is my mum? My mum is in Kyiv.' Then when I finally got back home to Kyiv, there was my mum, and she asked me, where is your mum? And I said my mum is in Kyiv, right to her face. That was a difficult moment for my mum because, obviously, it looked like I didn't recognise her.

“I think now that I grew up with this idea of Chernobyl just being there, being something natural, and it's only since I became an adult that I realise the scale of it. I think this is why we never talked it through properly, we never had it explained properly, how it happened or how it affected people.

"We have this tendency of making heroes of different figures in our history, but I don't remember anyone telling us the stories of those people tackling the disaster, the so-called liquidators, who actually put their lives at risk."

Olena Liubchenkova, Natalia's mother

In the spring of 1986 Olena was 22, working as an economist and living with her husband and daughter in Kyiv. Despite making the decision to send her daughter away from Kyiv, she says she did not realise the full extent of the danger and the damage of Chernobyl until around six months after the disaster.

"The first time I heard about the Chernobyl catastrophe is when my grandmother called and said that she heard at church that there had been an explosion at the nuclear station. My first reaction was that it was impossible. I told my grandma she had a new 'end of the world' every week. And we had learned in school that the nuclear industry is very well regulated.

"Within a day or two, my neighbour told me that the kids were being evacuated from Prypyat [the town nearest the plant and home to most of its workforce] and that they were sick. And then the adults were evacuated. But still, we thought, well, that’s in Prypyat, it’s 130 kilometres away, if we had any problems we would be told.

"On the 1st of May, there was an annual celebration. There was a festive atmosphere, and I remember it was very warm, it does not happen often that 1st of May is that warm – more than 25 degrees. The windows were open, everyone was outside. It was fun, no one was thinking about Chernobyl.

"On the 14th of May, the kindergarten that belongs to the manufacturing plant where my husband worked was evacuated. That was when he miraculously managed to get train tickets, which were impossible to buy [due to the number of people trying to leave], and he took Natalia to Kharkiv to meet her grandmother.

"I was still not panicking, I didn’t have an understanding of how [radiation] can affect our health. I was just very sad, that my little baby that was always by my side went somewhere without me. That she would learn to speak without me, hold her first little books without me."

Mykola Usaty, Natalia’s father

Mykola was 27 years old at the time of the disaster, working as the chief mechanical engineer at a plant that manufactured tools.

"The 26th of April was a very nice, sunny day. It was a Saturday, a working day for me, and the first I heard of the accident was when I was standing near the factory talking with my colleagues, and someone said: 'You know, a lot of ambulances went past in the direction of Chernobyl, probably something has happened at the nuclear power station.'

"I remember that our plant was ordered to make these huge metal containers. A lot of them. We didn’t understand what for, but we had the necessary equipment because this was an industrial plant. It turns out these were containers that were filled with sand that was thrown from helicopters on to the damaged reactor, to extinguish the fire or contain the radiation.

"We were also told that we had to wash our factory buildings with water, and we were washing them, the walls and floors, as much as we could.

"There was a lot of gossip and speculation, as we didn’t have information. It was probably around the middle of May when people started massively leaving the city, especially the families with small kids. Everyone was trying to leave, or at least to send the kids away, because factories kept working – Kyiv kept working as usual."

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
An amusement park in the abandoned town of Pripyat near ChernobylREUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Anton Khmelnov, Moscow, Russia (then Soviet Union) – 853km from Chernobyl

Anton was 13 years old at the time of the disaster, living in Moscow, then the capital of the Soviet Union. He remembers making schoolboy jokes about Chernobyl, and that his uncle went to work around the scene of the accident, but didn't say what exactly he was doing there.

“For us, it was news that didn't come straight away because of the way information circulated at the time. We didn't have the internet, the news came drop by drop, little by little. But then later on, with more openness in society I think, we learned a lot more.

“We did have some information because one of my uncles was sent under military obligation to do some work [related to the disaster]. We weren't really aware what sort of thing it was, it was [done in] relative secrecy. We knew through the family that he [suffered] some physical effects but he's still alive today and he's a pretty old man.”

“Us being kids, we mostly joked about what happened. And our parents and grandparents used to tell us, be careful when you're running around of the acid rain. But the tales of acid rain had existed since the Cold War. It was [just another] line we had in [our] acid rain humour at the time.

“Chernobyl was perceived as a common disaster because the Soviet Union was a united country. People were brought by the government [to work] at Chernobyl from all areas of the country. So they might be Ukrainian, or Russians, or from other republics. I think it's important to say that it was a common pain. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it kind of drew back behind the border that grew. It's another country now. It's not the same as having a disaster in your own country anymore.”

Sigrid Ulrich, Munich, Germany (then West Germany) – 1,800km from Chernobyl

Sigrid Ulrich was living in Munich in 1986, working as a journalist for German press agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and was 32 years old. She remembers confusion in the face of a delayed response, and fears over food contamination.

“My main memories are of chaos. Because there was no information for, I think, two days. The Soviet Union confirmed the event when there were tests made in Scandinavia that showed an incident somewhere, two or three days after the event. And during all this time there was a heavy wind coming from the east and it touched all the countries west of Chernobyl. And they only told us afterwards that we should not go out, and that, above all, we should not go out in the rain.

"We felt a little bit abandoned. There were reports of families who, as soon as the report came out, took their children on a plane and went off to Canada or somewhere to stay for a few weeks until the situation was clearer. My cousin told me some friends of hers did that.

“There were many vegetables thrown away. Still today there are wild pigs from this area that you are not supposed to eat. And one of the problems was with milk, and what to do with it. It ended up being stored in like 200 train wagons, because it was poisonous.

“There was an environmental minister in Bavaria who took a white liquid [in front of] the cameras and said it's not dangerous to [drink] the milk, and he put one finger in and licked it. And 20 years later they told us that he put one finger in but he licked another one.

“Chernobyl was kind of a [marker] in the 20th century, like the trip to the Moon or the murder of Kennedy. My daughter says in her opinion it ended the Woodstock era. She says to me, you were lucky, you had 20 years of the 'Woodstock illusion', that something could change on a worldwide scale. And it was over, because we realised that manmade catastrophes might not be controlled. So it was the beginning of the whole trouble about technology and climate change, for me it was the beginning.”

Sebastian Zimmermann, Iserlohn, Germany (then West Germany) – 1,800km from Chernobyl

Sebastian was four years old at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, living with his parents in Iserlohn, a city near Dortmund. He remembers warnings over playing outside, and not eating vegetables for a week.

"I was four years old so I don't have full [memories] of the time but my parents told me not to play in the sandbox in the garden, and it was very important because the rain was full of radioactivity. And we should not eat any mushrooms, and for the first week, I think, any vegetables.

“They didn't explain, they just said it was dangerous to play in the sand, that it would be unhealthy, that it's just for one week but you must not do it. Around the age of eight or nine I got more information about why. And I realised it was good that I hadn't played in the sandbox.

“My parents were very informed very quickly. And my father was an engineer so he was interested in technical things so it was very clear to him. In some other countries like in France or East Germany they kept it secret. We had good information. It was well known, it was not secret. We had information from the television and the radio and the newspapers.”

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
The New Safe Confinement structure at the Chernobyl plant in 2016REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Thomas Siemienski, Wrocław, Poland – 1,078km from Chernobyl

Thomas was 29 in the spring of 1986, living in Wrocław in western Poland and working as a researcher in linguistics at the city's university. While Poland was not part of the USSR, with its Communist government it was considered a Soviet “satellite state”.

“First of all, you should know that in Communist countries, disasters did not happen. At least not officially. But many people in Poland were aware of the disaster at Chernobyl because they were listening to foreign radio like Radio Free Europe or Voice of America. So we knew something was happening, not exactly what, but we were aware of the possible danger around the place. But when there is no official clear information, there is a lot of space for rumours or panic or strange behaviour.

“I was at the place I worked at at the time and I saw a lady with a small bottle of iodine. We used it to disinfect wounds. It was a very popular product for that. It wasn't very pleasant because it burns when you use it on a wound. I saw this lady with the bottle and I thought OK, she needs to disinfect something.

“And then I saw her drink it. And that was very surprising and a little bit scary, but someone explained that, according to the rumours, you had to drink iodine because it protects you against the effects of the radiation. I still, 33 years later, don't know if this was true.”

Zeki Saatci, Şile, Turkey – 1,445km from Chernobyl

Zeki was eight years old at the time of the disaster, living in the Turkish town of Şile near Istanbul, on the western edge of the Black Sea, across the water from Ukraine.

“The Black Sea region is known for its tea and hazelnut production. In those days local foods used to be offered to pupils in public schools, hazelnuts in particular. I used to love them, they're still one of my favourite snacks. Our teacher told us 'the reason kids of the Black Sea are smarter is because they eat hazelnuts'. I haven't checked whether this is true, but it was encouraging.

“However after the Chernobyl incident, there were questions over whether the nuts had been exposed to radiation. The rumours were that they couldn't be sold to European countries because they had been exposed, and that's why they were given out for free at home. After that, I remember seeing unfinished packets of hazelnuts on school desks."

REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Visitors pass through a radiological control checkpoint after visiting Chernobyl in June 2019REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Tuba Altunkaya, Düzce, Turkey – 1,460km from Chernobyl

Tuba, who is also from the Black Sea region of Turkey, was three at the time of the accident. She, too, remembers that in the aftermath, adults were concerned that the nuts handed out at school could cause cancer.

“Most people believed the hazelnuts and teas were exposed to high radiation due to their fields' close proximity to Ukraine. There are a lot of cancer cases and every time someone from the Black Sea region loses a loved one, I hear them say, it's all because of Chernobyl.

"Cancer cases are on the rise globally and numbers are higher compared to 20-30 years ago because of better diagnosis, so I don't know if there have been any investigations into the role of Chernobyl in cancer figures. Whether it's true or not, many relatives of mine blame the disaster for the deaths.”

Behnam Masoumi, Tehran, Iran – 3,100km from Chernobyl

Behnam, who is from Tehran, was three years old at the time of the Chernobyl incident. In 1986, Iran had been at war with Iraq for six years and food was rationed with a coupon system, while agricultural exports – including rice, fruits and vegetables produced in the country's verdant Caspian Sea region – plummeted. Chernobyl is still a topic of debate for Iranians today, given the country's strong alliance with Russia (which has denounced the HBO series) and its own disputed nuclear programme.

“Iran had been at war with Iraq since 1980. But two years after the Chernobyl disaster, in 1988, when Iran accepted the ceasefire and the economy resumed after eight years, there were a lot of rumours that Arab countries weren’t buying northern Iran’s agricultural products due to concerns about radioactivity.

“In the following years, when Iran fully resumed its nuclear programme at Bushehr nuclear power plant to produce electricity, the leaders of the Islamic Republic chose not to work on the project with its closest ally, Russia, which would suggest that they had concerns over the Chernobyl disaster. They invited Japanese and German firms to collaborate with them on it instead, although both left the project after one month. In 1995, nine years after the disaster, they resumed their work with Russia.

“Today, three decades after the catastrophe and when Iran’s nuclear programme is the most important concern of the state and the Iranian people, there is no concern over the Chernobyl case. Twitter is banned in Iran but extremely popular, with everyone using VPNs to access it, and after the HBO series was broadcast, popular Iranian Twitter users slammed the TV show as American propaganda.

"However, Hesameddin Ashena, a key adviser to President Rouhani and also a prolific tweeter, recently posted a tweet about the HBO series, asking the question: What is the cost of lies?"

Attila Kert, Pécs, Hungary – 1,375km from Chernobyl

Attila was 15 at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, living in Pécs in the south of Soviet-controlled Hungary, which was then a part of the Eastern Bloc of Communist countries.

“I remember, a couple of days after the blast, when we heard the first news of it, a group of the older students at school, those about to take the entrance exam for medical school, came in dressed in green doctors’ scrubs and built a huge skull in the courtyard of the school made of cabbages – which were being sold for a symbolic 1 forint (instead of the usual 20-30) at the market, because of the fear of nuclear contamination.

“The news on state radio kept saying that there had been no significant increase in radiation, that there was no danger. And yet in subsequent weeks they would talk happily about how the radiation levels were decreasing. I realised it was part of the Communist propaganda. Like when a child hurts themselves and you try to calm them down by saying, 'oh, it is nothing'. And an hour later you say, 'oh, it is much, much better'.”

Video editor • Naira Davlashyan

Additional sources • Nataliia Liubchenkova

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