Belarus remembers Chernobyl well because it is still with then to this day. And, so you should understand, every body ache, every spot on their skin, every shortness of breath, every day they feel under the weather reminds them of it. And they have been waiting for the effects to show up in them every day since. That’s what Chernobyl is about here in Pinsk.
Belarus also to this day still feels a bit squeamish about working and living in the south-east part of the country and it is difficult to find workers to go and live there. President Lukashenka has established a plan where students can pay off their college debts by working for the state for three years after graduation. However, many complain or simply refuse when offered posts, even at higher wages in the “radiation zones.”
I spoke to some friends and neighbors about their recollections about the Chernobyl accident. In general, people had hard but practiced memories of this day. Certainly all of the stories they told me had been so often repeated. One really must understand that Chernobyl was as great an event for Belarus as the end of the Soviet Union, and certainly one which everyone here has had to live with for every day of the last 20 years.
“At first for sure nobody knew anything.” Says Irene, now retired and living on her pension. “For perhaps a week we were not even told that anything had happened. We heard some talk, but nothing concrete. And certainly it was even two weeks before they gave us any real information. And when they did finally talk to us on the television, they told us only to be calm and that there was nothing really to worry about. But we know by then from word of mouth that something terrible had happened. We are all very frightened.
“I remember that the trees turned black on one side. On one side of the trees was all black and on the other was green. No one understood what was happening.
“Now we know about the thyroid cancer and about those poor children. And also we know that it was the children who were maybe less than five who were really affected because they were so close to the ground. The radiation was like gas and so it stayed close to the ground.”
Irene remembers that nothing was ever said about the food that they bought at the markets or even about the mushrooms. “We just went on as usual. What could we do? We had to eat and no one was doing anything special. But no one wanted to go to Gomel, this is for sure. It was maybe 5 more years before people would feel that they could go there.”
“That was the only time my father ever beat me with his hands was that day.” Tanya remembers. “I was out walking with my friends. It was raining that night. This was on the third day after the catastrophe. I suppose I knew that I shouldn’t be out really, but I so liked to go out with my fiends in the rain. Maybe I just didn’t think. When I got home my father beat me on my rear. He was really angry. ‘What do you think you are doing? Do you want to die?’
“And I remember that night that around the puddles of water from the rain, there was this yellow stuff, maybe like sand or sugar crystals around the rims of the puddles. It was everywhere. It was beautiful actually, but also a bit scary.
“Some of my friends wanted to run away.” Said Tatyana, “My friend Margarita wanted to go to Crimea. She said we had to run away or we would all die. But then she was thinking about going to America then anyway, so I suppose this became part of her plan.
“And after this, they always took money from us for the babies, to help pay for them. This was at the school, they would come and say that we must help to pay for the children who were sick.”
Valodi, now looking for work, remembers that time well: “I remember that the word going around was that we should drink red wine and that this would help stop the radiation. This was not from the television, but from each other. So we all went out to buy red wine, but of course after a day or so there was none to be found.
“So then we began to think about it and tried to find something at the apothecaries that might help. But there was nothing there either; there were no medicines or special soaps to clean our bodies with. We all thought that the big shots from the government all knew the truth. They only told us to be calm and that all would be ok but then we knew that they knew the real truth and had gone and bought all of the special things from the druggists first. This was why there was nothing left for the rest of us to use.”
“Nobody told us anything.” Remembers Vassa, a city worker here in Pinsk. “I remember that it was really warm that season. Beautiful weather. People went to the river to sit on the beach. We went fishing. I remember that that day and the next, people we were talking about how great the fishing was. We all went to the parade and the celebration of the First of May and this was when we heard something for the first time. Only then did they say that something went wrong over there.”
“Something happened to the tomatoes.” Remembers Nina, an office worker. “Until that season we could grow great tomatoes, but that year and after we couldn’t for a long time. Several years.
“I remember that it was very warm then. And the parade I remember as well. We had been hearing things but not from the government. Only at the parade did they say anything. And when they did say something, it was not called a catastrophe, but rather an accident. It was an accident, there was nothing to worry about, but really, it would be better if we were not so much on the street for a while. That’s all what they told us, that it would be better if we stayed inside a bit more for the next several days.
“But we had some business out near Gomel so we went over there. I wasn’t so afraid really and no one said that we shouldn’t go. I remember that the forests out there were black, all black. Not like the trees were dead, but just covered in black. And of course by then there were signs everywhere saying to be careful of the radiation.”
“Nobody knew anything.” says Daria Karnayevna, now retired. “Nobody knew anything and nobody was talking. I remember that my granddaughter came with her mother for a visit on the 13th of April, and so of course we were walking all around the town with the girl in her carriage in the nice weather. She was only three then. Within a few days the baby became sick from the radiation. We tried to go with her to the hospitals but there was no one who could see us because so many people were there as well. The hospitals were all full after this with people who were sick or perhaps only thought they were sick.
“I remember that there was a beautiful yellow dust on all of the grass. Everywhere here in the garden was like yellow salt. It sat there on the grass until the rain came and washed it all off. I suppose it went into the land from there. Of course we were all very, very frightened. But what could we do? My daughter invited me to come and live with her after, but I told here I would stay here. This is my home.
“But several of my husband’s friends were not so lucky. He was just retired from the Army and his command was stationed out in the Gomel district. They were on a holiday that night and had gone camping on a lake right near there. They told us that the sky that night was so beautiful, like they were shooting off rockets. But they all became very sick and seven of the 12 of them died within six weeks and all the rest within the year. They are all dead now.”
So these are some memories from my neighbors about April 26th, 1986. Nobody got too excited when I asked them about things, but obviously talking about it brought back a lot of fear, bitterness and bad memories. I suppose all simply attribute what had happened to bad luck. But in any case, they have all simply understood that what happened that day was simply something very difficult that they would have to live with.