Chernobyl on the margin

Svetlana Alexievich is a journalist who, in ‘Chernobyl Prayer’, recounts the words of people who were involved with or affected by the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I found it a deeply moving book that made me appreciate the enormity of the event and its impact on people’s lives.

Chernobyl is in the Ukraine, but close to the border with Belarus, described in the opening sentence of the book as ‘terra incognita’: an obscure and uncharted region. I remember – vaguely – reports of the explosion in 1986: The radioactive cloud that gradually dispersed around the world; the attempts to move people out of the area; visits of children from Chernobyl to other parts of the world; the plan to build a sarcophagus around the original reactor.

What I hadn’t appreciated was the extent to which it was seen by local people as a war –a war against a largely invisible enemy whose damage was invariably not evident until years after the event: the death rate in Belarus increased almost seventy four times from 82 to 6,000 in 100,000. People who were already largely on the margins of world consciousness became ostracised by others. The clean up workers were state heroes, but few women wanted to have children by them.

Picture from abandoned house

In this extract, Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya, one of the people who was resettled from the area, talks about the impact on her son:

From the very beginning, we had a sense that we people from Chernobyl were now outcasts. Other people were afraid of us. The bus we were travelling in stopped for the night at a village. Evacuees were sleeping on the floor in a school or at a club and there wasn’t an inch of spare space. One woman invited us to stay with her. ‘Come, I’ll make up a bed for you. I feel sorry for that son of yours.’ Another woman nearby pulled her away from us. ‘You’re crazy!’ she said. “They’re infectious.’ After we had resettled in Mogilyov, my son went to school. He burst into the house after his first day, crying. He had been sat next to a girl, and she complained she didn’t want to sit there because he was ‘radiated’ and if she sat next to him she might die. My son was in fourth grade and, unluckily, he was the only person from Chernobyl in the class. They were all afraid of him. They called him the ‘Glow-worm’, or the ‘Chernobyl Hedgehog’. It frightened me that his childhood came to an end so abruptly.

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