Monday, July 21, 2014

She watched Chornobyl Burn - Olena Mokhnyk's Story

Note: This was a piece which I wrote for the Kyiv Weekly on the twentieth anniversary of the Chornobyl Nuclear Catastrophe in 2006. The Kyiv Weekly stopped publishing its English language edition some time earlier in 2014. So here is just the copy as I have it from my personal archives which I came across today while going through some files for a book I'm working on. There were photographs in the published article which Olena had supplied, maybe she will be kind enough to scan a few for me to include here.

When she dreams, she doesn’t dream about things that are contemporary but rather from her childhood – and the events that happened before the catastrophe at the Chornobyl NPS on April 26, 1986, twenty years ago.

When the ChNPS started to burn early in the morning that April, Olena Mokhnyk, now twenty-eight years old, was asleep in her bed in the city of Prypyat. The city was built by the Soviet government to house the employees of the ChNPS. By 1986, the city had grown to a population of about 50,000. In the morning, like all the other children her age, Olena got up and went to school.

“When we got to school that Saturday morning our teachers were already aware that there was something wrong. We were given some type of tablets to take but we never swallowed them. Instead, we went to the bathroom and spit them out,” Olena told Kyiv Weekly.

In retrospect, it is probably fair to suggest that these were iodine supplements, since the authorities must have known something about the effects of radiation and how iodine deficient organisms would absorb radioactive iodine and how this might affect early childhood development.

“When we were sent home from school that morning, we all wanted to go and watch it burn, but along the way some parents directed us to go home,” said Olena.

Though that night, Olena together with her older brother and sister watched Chornobyl burn from their balcony.

“Not only could we see the fire, we could see lights being shone from above. It was as if something was shining down from the heavens!” Olena said with a look on her face as if she was living through the experience all over again.

Olena’s family learned first hand that something terrible had happened from Olena’s uncle who worked at the plant. He had been on an early shift sitting in the exact place of his colleague whose grave became Chornobyl and the concrete sarcophagus that covered the plant once the fire had been extinguished. Later her uncle returned to work at Chornobyl, feeling the guilt that his colleague had lost his life.

On April 27, everyone in Olena’s family listened to the fixed wire radio, which was present in practically all Soviet homes at the time.

“We heard the familiar voice of a local poetess who told us that there was going to be an evacuation,” said Olena. We gathered all we could take with us and made our way down to the square in front of our building. We waited for what seemed like an eternity, but it was about 3 hours before buses began to arrive. As we drove away from the place that I would not return to for nineteen years and traveled towards Kyiv, the people in charge of the buses wanted to leave us in some village in the middle of nowhere! But our parents and others demanded that we had to be taken to Kyiv,” Olena explained all the while as if in a dream.

Alone without parents

When they arrived in Kyiv, Olena’s parents decided to send their children to their maternal grandmother’s in Kharkiv, as distant a place they could think of in order to provide the appropriate care for their children.

“When we arrived at my grandmother’s some news had already spread regarding to what had had happened. Our grandmother was a pharmacist and when we got there she didn’t waste much time in taking us to the local radiology laboratory. My brother, sister and I stood there and we were checked with a dosimeter. The doctors quickly scurried out of the examination room. We waited. Then the door opened, and in walked the doctors dressed up in what looked like space suits,” Olena expressed as if she were still a child.

The doctors decided that all the children should be scrubbed down. “After we went through that procedure, they tested us with the dosimeter again. All the areas of our skin that were washed showed a normal reading. Then they ran the dosimeter near our heads. The readings went well over normal, and that is when they shaved our heads,” said Olena.

Olena and her siblings were then sent to a pioneer camp on the outskirts of Odesa. It was there and outside the camp that they faced the harshest words from children of their own age who were not from the evacuation zone.

“They called us hedgehogs,” said Olena running her fingers through her now neck-length hair. Their hair, which had started to grow back, was bristly and truly looked like the bristling hairs of a hedgehog.

“It was difficult at times, because all we had was our older brother who would look out for us but he wasn’t much older than we were,” said Olena.
During the months that followed, the children were visited by their parents a few times, and it wasn’t until six months later at the end of November that they were all reunited in Kyiv.

Shattered dreams, closure

While still in Prypyat, Olena had been told by her teachers that on account of her good grades, she would be skipping a grade, partially due to the fact that she had been attending school with her older sister. When she arrived in Kyiv, this was one of her greatest concerns.

“I was always asking my mother if what I had been promised and whether I would be going into the fourth grade would come true. But her reply would be, ‘We’ll see!’”, said Olena.

Olena together with her family were often ostracized as if they were to blame for their predicament.

When they first moved into the apartment they were provided with, it was empty and her parents had a hard time finding work. Her mother and she were always at odds with the teachers at the school as they tried to ensure that what she had been promised back in Prypyat would come to be.

Needless to say, the promise never came true, like many of the other promises made by people and the government. “For years now I haven’t even bothered trying to get the subsidies that I’m entitled to, as it is more a headache than worth the while. But my mother still goes through the whole process of getting all the different pieces of paper in order that she still collects her benefits,” Olena explained.

What seems to be more important to Olena is what she experienced last year when she returned to Prypyat for the nineteenth anniversary of the accident. She then returned not only to the family’s old apartment, but also to her old classroom. However, each of those more recent experiences she has had are stories in and of themselves. The game goes for the recollections of her sister and brother of a catastrophe that happened twenty years ago, but that first journey home for her can be considered closure and maybe someday soon she will start to have other types of dreams.

Vasyl Pawlowsky Independent Consultant

The commentary of this was first published on the site.

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