Twelve years ago, on April 26, 2006, on the 20th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster of 1986, surviving “liquidators” were asked by RFE/RL about their recollections of the event.
Many of these clean-up workers during the immediate aftermath of the nuclear catastrophe were military personnel, workers and scientists from around the Soviet Union. They went without proper safety equipment, many of them not knowing where they were going. Thousands have since died and many of those still alive continue to battle against poor health and little state support.
Nine months after the disaster, on January 1987, Talgat Suyunbai and 44 other Soviet Army officers arrived in the Belarusian village of Navasyolki, 40 kilometers from Chornobyl, “We heard rumors but didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “When I first arrived in Chornobyl, what struck me and stuck in my memory was the landscape. It looked like a beautiful painting, you could see a city far away, a forest and a path, a river and the church’s dome was shining. It was like a painting. It remains a memory of my life.”
However, upon arriving at the site of the disaster, the picture changed dramatically. As Mr. Suyunbai said: “We called it a ‘rusty forest.’ It was all burnt. It was staggering. We couldn’t comprehend it. It was horrible. But then we had to get used to it slowly.”
His time at the site lasted seven months, and he did not know how high the radiation levels were. “We had no special clothing, just a regular military uniform, because we were told that there was already no high radiation. The radiation level was suitable to work for two hours a day. So we wore a regular uniform. Then we’d take it off and shake it, shower and change only our underwear. The next day was the same.”
Mr. Suyunbai was among 32,000 liquidators from Kazakhstan and Russian liquidator groups estimated that a total of 600,000 people took part in the clean-up operation. They said the number could be even higher. Of the 32,000 from Kazakhstan, 6,000 remained in 2006.
Kasybrek Sasykulov, one of among 4,500 Kyrgyz liquidators, said that his work in 1988 was a bit different, as by that time people already knew the extent of the disaster. Still, the Soviets told them they were going to “construct a power plant.” Some 80 percent of them protested when they were made aware of their destination, but they threatened that we would be punished as deserters. Mr. Sasykulov spent four months at Chornobyl.
“On the third day many of us felt a sour taste in our mouths and our bodies felt weak. In 1989, after I returned, I had pain all over my body and my joints were weak. In 1991, I retired as a disabled veteran, as did my fellow officers who served at Chornobyl,” said Mr. Sasykulov. There remained approximately 1,750 Kyrgyz liquidators in 2006.
Mr. Sasykulov stated: “Over 85 percent of those remaining are disabled. There are 1,650 children born from the liquidators. Of them, 15 percent are badly sick and disabled. Our task is to address their social needs and also provide medical assistance. Lack of medicine is a big problem. Many Chornobyl liquidators die, many of them and their children are sick.”
Aleksandr Velikin, 53 from St. Petersburg, spent months here in 1986 during the initial clean-up efforts, and helped to erect the cement sarcophagous that has been replaced with the New Safe Containment (NSC) structure that was completed in 2016. Mr. Velikin has helped thousands of liquidators in his region to receive compensation from the state. For him, his worst memories were from clearing out belongings from houses in Prypiat and seeing the haste in which residents were evacuated. He continues to seek state recognition for the damage and the health effects on the liquidators as a result of Chornobyl. “I’m not a hero. But I did my job honestly,” Mr. Velikin said.
Source: “Liquidators recall disaster, speak about post-Chornobyl life,” by Gulnoza Saidazimova and Claire Bigg, RFE/RL, The Ukrainian Weekly, May 7, 2006.