Memories painful on Chornobyl’s 30th anniversary

As Ukraine and Belarus on Tuesday marked the 30th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear accident with solemn words and an angry protest, some of the men who were sent to the site in the first chaotic and frightening days were gripped by painful memories.

KIEV, Ukraine — As Ukraine and Belarus on Tuesday marked the 30th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear accident with solemn words and an angry protest, some of the men who were sent to the site in the first chaotic and frightening days were gripped by painful memories.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko led a ceremony in Chornobyl, where work is underway to complete a 2 billion euro ($2.25 billion) long-term shelter over the building containing Chornobyl’s exploded reactor. Once the structure is in place, work will begin to remove the reactor and its lava-like radioactive waste.

The disaster shone a spotlight on lax safety standards and government secrecy in the former Soviet Union. The explosion on April 26, 1986, was not reported by Soviet authorities for two days, and then only after winds had carried the fallout across Europe and Swedish experts had gone public with their concerns.

“We honour those who lost their health and require a special attention from the government and society,” Poroshenko said. “It’s with an everlasting pain in our hearts that we remember those who lost their lives to fight nuclear death.”

About 600,000 people, often referred to as Chornobyl’s “liquidators,” were sent in to fight the fire at the nuclear plant and clean up the worst of its contamination. Thirty workers died either from the explosion or from acute radiation sickness within several months. The accident exposed millions in the region to dangerous levels of radiation and forced a wide-scale, permanent evacuation of hundreds of towns and villages in Ukraine and Belarus.

At a ceremony in their honour in Kyiv, some of the former liquidators told The Associated Press of their ordeal and surprise that they lived through it.

Oleg Medvedev, now 65, was sent to the zone on the first day of the crisis, to help evacuate the workers’ city of Pripyat, less than four kilometres (2.5 miles) from the destroyed reactor. Four days later “I already had to go away from the zone because I’d received the maximum allowable radiation dose. Thirty years passed and I’m still alive, despite doctors giving me five. I’m happy about that.”

“My soul hurts when I think of those days,” said Dmitry Mikhailov, 56. He was on a crew sent to evacuate a village where residents knew nothing of the accident.

“They smiled at us. They didn’t understand what was happening,” he said. “I wish I knew where and how they are now. I just can’t forget them.”

In Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where the government is bringing farming to long fallow lands affected by Chornobyl fallout, more than 1,000 people held a protest march through the city centre.

Belarus routinely cracks down on dissent, but authorities allowed the march.

“Chornobyl is continuing today. Our relatives and friends are dying of cancer,” said 21-year-old protester Andrei Ostrovtsov.

The final death toll from Chornobyl is subject to speculation, due to the long-term effects of radiation, but ranges from an estimate of 9,000 by the World Health Organization to one of a possible 90,000 by the environmental group Greenpeace.

The Ukrainian government, however, has since scaled back benefits for Chornobyl survivors, making many feel betrayed by their own country.

“I went in there when everyone was fleeing. We were going right into the heat,” said Mykola Bludchiy, who arrived in the Chornobyl exclusion zone on May 5, just days after the explosion. “And today everything is forgotten. It’s a disgrace.”

He spoke Tuesday after a ceremony in Kyiv, where top officials were laying wreaths to a Chornobyl memorial.

At midnight on Monday, a Chornobyl vigil was held in the Ukrainian town of Slavutych, where many former Chornobyl workers were relocated.

Thirty years later, many could not hold back the tears as they brought flowers and candles to a memorial for the workers killed in the explosion. Some of the former liquidators dressed in white robes and caps for the memorial, just like the ones they had worn so many years ago.

Andriy Veprev, who had worked at the Chornobyl nuclear plant for 14 years before the explosion and helped to clean up the contamination, said memories of the mayhem in 1986 were still vivid in his mind.

“I’m proud of those guys who were with me and who are not with us now,” he said.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin, in a message to the liquidators, called the Chornobyl disaster “a grave lesson for all of mankind.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Don and Gloria Moore, of Red Deer, are set to celebrate their 70th anniversary later this month. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer couple to celebrate 70th anniversary

Red Deer couple Don and Gloria Moore are set to celebrate their… Continue reading

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre's expansion project is still a high priority, says Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer hospital ICU admissions stable, but rising, says surgeon

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s intensive care unit is in better… Continue reading

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, is setting off a social media reaction with his calls to stop non essential shopping, such as "buying sandals at Costco", with this photo of his worn sandals, which he published to social media on Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Dr. Robert Strang, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Nova Scotia’s top doctor sparks meme with caution on non-essential shopping

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s top doctor has launched a social media meme… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Canada's chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Tam warns that full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Canada’s chief public health officer reminded Canadians on Saturday that even those… Continue reading

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour conducts drills during NHL hockey training camp in Morrisville, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
NHL relaxing virus protocols for vaccinated playoff teams

The NHL is relaxing virus protocols for teams that reach a threshold… Continue reading

Canada skip Kerri Einarson directs her teammates against Sweden in a qualification game at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canada’s Einarson eliminated at curling worlds after 8-3 loss to Sweden’s Hasselborg

CALGARY — Canada’s Kerri Einarson was eliminated at the world women’s curling… Continue reading

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman didn’t expect to get hit with a double whammy at… Continue reading

A courtroom at the Edmonton Law Courts building, in Edmonton on Friday, June 28, 2019. The effect of the coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on the Canadian justice system warn a number of legal experts. The Alberta Court of Queen's Bench announced Sunday it would adjourn all scheduled trials across the province for at least 10-weeks limiting hearings to only emergency or urgent matters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton mother found guilty of manslaughter in death of five-year-old girl

EDMONTON — An Edmonton woman was found guilty Friday of manslaughter in… Continue reading

A Statistics Canada 2016 Census mailer sits on the key board of a laptop after arriving in the mail at a residence in Ottawa, May 2, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Statistics Canada sees more demand to fill out census online during pandemic

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada says the response to the census is higher… Continue reading

Travellers, who are not affected by new quarantine rules, arrive at Terminal 3 at Pearson Airport in Toronto, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Ottawa will create a new digital platform to help in processing immigration applications more quickly and efficiently after COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for a faster shift to a digital immigration system, the immigration department said. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Ottawa to create new system to tackle delays in processing immigration applications

Ottawa says it will create a new digital platform to help process… Continue reading

Most Read