KIEV, Ukraine -- On April 26 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl power station blew apart. Facing nuclear disaster on an unprecedented scale, Soviet authorities tried to contain the situation by sending thousands of ill-equipped men into a radioactive maelstrom. In an extract from a new book by Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, eyewitnesses recall the terrible human cost of a catastrophe still unfolding today.
When a routine test went catastrophically wrong, a chain reaction went out of control in No 4 reactor of Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, creating a fireball that blew off the reactor's 1,000-tonne steel-and-concrete lid. Burning graphite and hot reactor-core material ejected by the explosions started numerous other fires, including some on the combustible tar roof of the adjacent reactor unit. There were 31 fatalities as an immediate result of the explosion and acute radiation exposure in fighting the fires, and more than 200 cases of severe radiation sickness in the days that followed.
Evacuation of residents under the plume was delayed by the Soviet authorities' unwillingness to admit the gravity of the incident. Eventually, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the surrounding area in Ukraine and Belarus.
In the week after the accident the Soviets poured thousands of untrained, inadequately protected men into the breach. Bags of sand were dropped on to the reactor fire from the open doors of helicopters (analysts now think this did more harm than good). When the fire finally stopped, men climbed on to the roof to clear the radioactive debris. The machines brought in broke down because of the radiation. The men barely lasted more than a few weeks, suffering lingering, painful deaths.
But had this effort not been made, the disaster might have been much worse. The sarcophagus, designed by engineers from Leningrad, was manufactured in absentia - the plates assembled with the aid of robots and helicopters - and as a result there are fissures. Now known as the Cover, reactor No 4 still holds approximately 20 tonnes of nuclear fuel in its lead-and-metal core. No one knows what is happening with it.
For neighbouring Belarus, with a population of just 10 million, the nuclear explosion was a national disaster: 70% of the radionucleides released in the accident fell on Belarus. During the second world war, the Nazis destroyed 619 Belarussian villages, along with their inhabitants. As a result of fallout from Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and settlements. Of these, 70 have been buried underground by clean-up teams known as "liquidators".
Today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. That is 2.1 million people, of whom 700,000 are children. Because of the virtually permanent presence of small doses of radiation around the "Zone", the number of people with cancer, neurological disorders and genetic mutations increases with each year.
Lyudmilla Ignatenko, Wife of fireman Vasily Ignatenko
We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, "I love you." But I didn't know then how much. I had no idea. We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked. There were three other young couples; we all shared a kitchen. On the ground floor they kept the trucks, the red fire trucks. That was his job. One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. "Close the window and go back to sleep. There's a fire at the reactor. I'll be back soon."
I didn't see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he's still not back. The smoke was from the burning bitumen, which had covered the roof. He said later it was like walking on tar.
They tried to beat down the flames. They kicked at the burning graphite with their feet ... They weren't wearing their canvas gear. They went off just as they were, in their shirt sleeves. No one told them.
At seven in the morning I was told he was in the hospital. I ran there but the police had already encircled it, and they weren't letting anyone through, only ambulances. The policemen shouted: "The ambulances are radioactive stay away!"
I saw him. He was all swollen and puffed up. You could barely see his eyes.
"He needs milk. Lots of milk," my friend said. "They should drink at least three litres each."
"But he doesn't like milk."
"He'll drink it now."
Many of the doctors and nurses in that hospital and especially the orderlies, would get sick themselves and die. But we didn't know that then. I couldn't get into the hospital that evening. The doctor came out and said, yes, they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothes. The clothes they'd worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with their bags, but the plane was already gone. They tricked us.
It was a special hospital, for radiology, and you couldn't get in without a pass. I gave some money to the woman at the door, and she said, "Go ahead."
Then I had to ask someone else, beg. Finally I'm sitting in the office of the head radiologist. Right away she asked: "Do you have kids?" What should I tell her? I can see already that I need to hide that I'm pregnant. They won't let me see him! It's good I'm thin, you can't really tell anything.
"Yes," I say.
"How many?" I'm thinking, I need to tell her two. If it's just one, she won't let me in. "A boy and a girl."
"So you don't need to have any more. All right, listen: his central nervous system is completely compromised, his skull is completely compromised." OK, I'm thinking, so he'll be a little fidgety.
"And listen: if you start crying, I'll kick you out right away. No hugging or kissing. Don't even get near him. You have half an hour." He looks so funny, he's got pyjamas on for a size 48, and he's a size 52. The sleeves are too short, the trousers are too short. But his face isn't swollen any more. They were given some sort of fluid. I say, "Where'd you run off to?" He wants to hug me. The doctor won't let him. "Sit, sit," she says. "No hugging in here."
On the very first day in the dormitory they measured me with a dosimeter. My clothes, bag, purse, shoes - they were all "hot". And they took that all away from me right there. Even my underwear. The only thing they left was my money.
He started to change; every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks - at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers - as white film ... the colour of his face ... his body ... blue, red, grey-brown. And it's all so very mine!
The only thing that saved me was it happened so fast; there wasn't any time to think, there wasn't any time to cry. It was a hospital for people with serious radiation poisoning. Fourteen days. In 14 days a person dies. He was producing stools 25 to 30 times a day, with blood and mucous. His skin started cracking on his arms and legs. He became covered with boils. When he turned his head, there'd be a clump of hair left on the pillow. I tried joking: "It's convenient, you don't need a comb." Soon they cut all their hair.
I tell the nurse: "He's dying." And she says to me: "What did you expect? He got 1,600 roentgen. Four hundred is a lethal dose. You're sitting next to a nuclear reactor."
When they all died, they refurbished the hospital. They scraped down the walls and dug up the parquet. When he died, they dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn't get shoes on him because his feet had swollen up. They buried him barefoot. My love.
Sergei Vasilyevich Sobolev, Deputy head of the executive committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association
There was a moment when there was 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 dived, many times, and they opened that bolt, and the unit was given 7,000 roubles. They forgot about the cars and apartments they promised - that's not why they dived. These are people who came from a certain culture, the culture of the great achievement. They were a sacrifice.
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 - 100 roubles. 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 20-30 seconds to fill a wheelbarrow, and then another 30 seconds to throw the "garbage" off the roof. These special wheelbarrows weighed 40 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 mould 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" [from the colour of their uniforms]. Some 3,600 soldiers worked on the roof of the ruined reactor. They slept on the ground in tents. They were young guys.
These people don't exist any more, just the documents in our museum, with their names.
Eduard Borisovich Korotkov, Helicopter pilot
I was scared before I went there. But then when I got there the fear went away. It was all orders, work, tasks. I wanted to see the reactor from above, from a helicopter - to see what had really happened in there. But that was forbidden. On my medical card they wrote that I got 21 roentgen, but I'm not sure that's right. Some days there'd be 80 roentgen, some days 120. Sometimes at night I'd circle over the reactor for two hours.
I talked to some scientists. One told me: "I could lick your helicopter with my tongue and nothing would happen to me." Another said: "You're flying without protection? You don't want to live too long? Big mistake! Cover yourselves!" We lined the helicopter seats with lead, made ourselves some lead vests, but it turns out those protect you from one set of rays, but not from another. We flew from morning to night. There was nothing spectacular in it. Just work, hard work. At night we watched television - the World Cup was on, so we talked a lot about football.
I guess it must have been three years later. One of the guys got sick, then another. Someone died. Another went insane and killed himself. That's when we started thinking.
I didn't tell my parents I'd been sent to Chernobyl. My brother happened to be reading Izvestia one day and saw my picture. He brought it to our mum. "Look," he said, "he's a hero!" My mother started crying.
Aleksandr Kudryagin, Liquidator
We had good jokes. Here's one: an American robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then it breaks down. The Japanese robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then breaks down.
The Russian robot is up there two hours! Then a command comes in over the loudspeaker: "Private Ivanov! In two hours, you're welcome to come down and have a cigarette break."
Nikolai Fomich Kalugin, Father
We didn't just loose a town, we lost our whole lives. We left on the third day. The reactor was on fire. I remember one of my friends saying, "It smells of reactor." It was an indescribable smell.
They announced over the radio that you couldn't take your belongings! All right, I won't take all my belongings, I'll take just one belonging. I need to take my door off the apartment and take it with me. I can't leave the door. It's our talisman, it's a family relic. My father lay on this door. I don't know whose tradition this is, but my mother told me that the deceased must be placed to lie on the door of his home.
I took it with me, that door - at night, on a motorcycle, through the woods. It was two years later, when our apartment had already been looted and emptied. The police were chasing me. "We'll shoot! We'll shoot!" They thought I was a thief. That's how I stole the door from my own home. I took my daughter and my wife to the hospital. They had black spots all over their bodies. These spots would appear, then disappear. They were about the size of a five-kopek coin. But nothing hurt. They did some tests on them. My daughter was six-years-old. I'm putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear: "Daddy, I want to live, I'm still little." And I had thought she didn't understand anything.
Can you picture seven little girls shaved bald in one room? There were seven of them in the hospital room ... My wife couldn't take it. "It'd be better for her to die than to suffer like this. Or for me to die, so that I don't have to watch any more."
We put her on the door ... on the door that my father lay on. Until they brought a little coffin. It was small, like the box for a large doll. I want to bear witness: my daughter died from Chernobyl. And they want us to forget about it.
Arkady Filin, Liquidator
You immediately found yourself in this fantastic world, where the apocalypse met the stone age. We lived in the forest, in tents, 200km from the reactor, like partisans.
We were between 25 and 40; some of us had university degrees or diplomas.
I'm a history teacher, for example. Instead of machine guns they gave us shovels. We buried trash heaps and gardens. The women in the villages watched us and crossed themselves. We had gloves, respirators and surgical robes. The sun beat down on us. We showed up in their yards like demons.
They didn't understand why we had to bury their gardens, rip up their garlic and cabbage when it looked like ordinary garlic and ordinary cabbage. The old women would cross themselves and say, "Boys, what is this - is it the end of the world?"
In the house the stove's on, the lard is frying. You put a dosimeter to it, and you find it's not a stove, it's a little nuclear reactor. I saw a man who watched his house get buried. We buried houses, wells, trees. We buried the earth. We'd cut things down, roll them up into big plastic sheets. We buried the forest. We sawed the trees into 1.5m pieces and packed them in Cellophane and threw them into graves.
I couldn't sleep at night. I'd close my eyes and see something black moving, turning over - as if it were alive - live tracts of land, with insects, spiders, worms. I didn't know any of them, their names, just insects, spiders, ants. And they were small and big, yellow and black, all different colours.
One of the poets says somewhere that animals are a different people. I killed them by the ten, by the hundred, thousand, not even knowing what they were called. I destroyed their houses, their secrets. And buried them. Buried them.
Vanya Kovarov 12
I'm 12 years old and I'm an invalid. The mailman brings two pension cheques to our house - for me and my grandad.
When the girls in my class found out that I had cancer of the blood, they were afraid to sit next to me. They didn't want to touch me.
The doctors said that I got sick because my father worked at Chernobyl. And after that I was born. I love my father.
Ivan Nikolaevich Zhykhov, Chemical engineer
We dug up the diseased top layer of soil, loaded it into cars and took it to waste burial sites. I thought that a waste burial site was a complex, engineered construction, but it turned out to be an ordinary pit. We picked up the earth and rolled it, like big rugs. We'd pick up the whole green mass of it, with grass, flowers, roots. It was work for madmen.
If we weren't drinking like crazy every night, I doubt we'd have been able to take it. Our psyches would have broken down. We created hundreds of kilometres of torn-up, fallow earth.
There was an emphasis on our being heroes. Once a week someone who was digging really well would receive a certificate of merit before all the other men. The Soviet Union's best grave digger. It was crazy.
Source: Action Ukraine Report