Chernobyl
The wound is still open
Tales of the Atomic Age PART 2
Text and pictures Pierpaolo Mittica
Video Alessandro Tesei, Pierpaolo Mittica

Chernobyl, the Wound is Still Open

On 26 April 1986, the so-called “liquidators” were sent from all over the Soviet Union to the Chernobyl nuclear station in Ukraine, to contain the disaster and liquidate the consequences of the accident. Between 1986 and 1988 600,000 people were sent over alongside the 60,000 men provided by Kazakhstan. Of these, only 3,000 are alive today. A small Chernobyl museum in Semey pays homage to these forgotten heroes.

The book that collects photographs of the liquidators who left Kazakhstan and died because of Chernobyl. Museum of Liquidators of Chernobyl, Semey, Kazakhstan

It was set up by Kazakhstan’s association of Chernobyl liquidators in order not to forget the tragedy. Further, Chernobyl liquidators in Kazakhstan are twice the victims of radiations suffering not only those of Chernobyl but also of the Semipalatinsk bombing site.

We meet the first liquidator at Semey, in one of the museum’s small rooms which brings together memories and remnants of those who lived the disaster first hand and are no longer with us. We are greeted by Kaisanov Soviet, vice-director of the association of volunteers supporting the city of Semey’s Chernobyl invalids. He is a liquidator himself

Soviet Kaisanov, liquidator of Chernobyl, inside the museum dedicated to the Chernobyl liquidators who departed from Kazakhstan. Semey, Kazakhstan

“At the time nobody knew anything because what had happened was immediately clamped with secrecy. I only came to know of it after 9 May. At the time I was serving in the army and all of us militaries were sent down there. Or rather, not just the military, but also specialized civilian units. I took part in the operation in 1988 when I was sent to Chernobyl for three months. I was in Chernobyl for 83 consecutive days. We lived 3 – 15 kilometers from the nuclear power plant.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant with the sarcophagus covering the exploded reactor number 4. Chernobyl exclusion zone, Ukraine

We worked ceaselessly day and night, nobody was allowed to leave, all access points were regulated by a strict permit system. Everything was closed off, access was completely denied. I spent 83 days of my life in this way in Chernobyl. Some time later, in 1990, I started to feel the first symptoms of the illness. Initially I had headaches, then I had a heart attack. At the time however I wasn’t young so I didn’t give it much importance and continued to work without even consulting a doctor. Then towards the end of 1990 all those who had taken part in the units sent to Chernobyl were summoned to the district hospital, underwent examination and were informed of the situation. However, I strongly wanted to believe I was fit, so I even refused the disability status I was offered. Until in 1997 I was forced to accept the status of disability.”
We meet the second liquidator in Kurchatov, the military town which served as a testing ground for the Semipalatinsk nuclear weapons.

Juri Berezuev, liquidator of Chernobyl, in the shadow of the monument to Igor Kurchatov, the Soviet physicist who created the first Soviet atomic bomb. Kurchatov, Kazakhstan

Juri Berezuev lives here: “In 1986 we were the first to be sent to liquidate the damage caused by the Chernobyl accident. As soon as we got to Pripyat we were aghast because everybody was wearing white suits and masks. It was terrifying. But human beings get used to everything in the end. We looked around and we got the sense of what our work should be. At first it was a shock, then everything seemed normal and we got down to work. We wanted to be of assistance, because an enormous catastrophe had taken place, it was terrible, nobody knew what to do and how to do it. I chose to do it. The first ones to set off were volunteers, like us.”

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In the village of Znamenka, one of the most badly hit by the Semipalatinsk bomb site fall out we are welcomed by the village mayor, Abusana Karsakbaev, who was also a Chernobyl liquidator himself.

Abusana Karsakbaev, liquidator of Chernobyl, in his office as mayor of the village of Znamenka, Kazakhstan

“At the time, 26 April 1986, I was nearly thirty years old. When we arrived there martial law was already in force. We had been called on as we were military personnel, we wore a uniform and only then did they explain to us what had happened. From that moment everything became clear to us. They explained what our duties were, exactly as they do in the army. We left in the morning and came back in the evening, following a well-defined program. We were all equipped with special military uniforms soaked in some unknown substance and until winter we worked on shutting down the inhabited areas, from one village to the next. All the residents had already been evacuated, there was nobody left. The villages were completely deserted, they truly were dead cities.

Abandoned vehicle used to liquidate the Chernobyl incident. Chernobyl exclusion zone, Ukraine

Some of the guys were forced to enter the fourth block, they were put to work in there. I served there for two and a half months. Then in November 1986 they sent us home. Many of those who served with me are no longer alive. Some have remained disabled, others became seriously ill. Today I live and work here. I have the opportunity of telling you this story, an unusual story for the younger generations. Because we didn’t realize what was happening, there was no smell, no trace, nothing except dust. I can tell you it was terrible. It was terrible.