Day of the Liquidators

Today, the 14th of December, it's the official day of the liquidators.
In 1986, over 650 000 people, most of them men, helped in trying to alleviate the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, working to avoid that the effects grew into larger, uncontrollable proportions and to clean up the big mess afterwards. Many of them died a slow, painful death. 

So let's all spend our thoughts on, and give our thanks to all those men without whom we would live in a very different world.

To all the brave firefighters, soldiers, pilots, drivers, sanitary workers, people who worked on the roof of the fourth reactor, those who built the sarcophagus, and to everyone else participating (no one shall be forgotten); there are really not enough words to express the importance of your work, but the whole world owes you a big



Letter from Europe

Scanned image of the letter,
from the website of the 
Ukrainian Association of Chernobyl
You can only discuss the matter of Chernobyl to a certain point before the political aspect becomes inevitable. 

Ukraine's Chernobyl victims are already more than familiar with the fact that their own government will not come to their aid, and have thus began to turn elsewhere in hope of gaining support. 

On the 22nd of October this year, when the outlook on a, much discussed and debated, future cooperation between Ukraine and the European Union were still relatively bright, Volodimyr Proskurin and Natalya Tselovalnichenko from the Ukrainian Association of Chernobyl Veterans wrote an eight pages long letter to the EU Delegation of Ukraine in which they explained the worsened situation of the victims of Chernobyl, [i.e the liquidators, soldiers and others who are incident to the low pension issued by the government] which was followed by an almost direct plea to the European Court of Human Rights to take on their case against the Ukrainian government, as they reckon the situation to only become worse.  

"We ask for actions to be taken against the Ukrainian Government in order to restore the legal order of Ukraine, in respect of the people who are suffering from the Chernobyl disaster, according to the Law of Ukraine." wrote Proskurin and Tselovalnichenko, pointing to the decreasing support from the government, who are not fulfilling their part or even acting according to Ukrainian law. 

Volodimyr Proskurin and Natalya Tselovalnichenko received a reply to their proposal today, written by delegator  Jan Tombinski. The response to a letter written in the official language of Ukraine (which is Ukrainian, naturally) came in English and read such as follows:

"Dear Mr. Proskurin 
Dear Ms. Tselovalnichenko 

Thank you for your letter to the EU Delegation to Ukraine in which you raised the issue of the problems with respect of social rights of person who suffered from the Chernobyl disaster. We have taken note of your information and regret about the difficult situation of those people.
Please be informed that the European Union has repeatedly and regularly asked the Ukrainian side to fulfill ECHR judgements. 

The EU has always and will continue to keep the respect of human rights and the rule of law in the focus of its relations with Ukraine. The implementation of the judicial reform aimed to bring the legal framework and functioning of the judicial system of Ukraine to European standards has been among EU's key conditions for deepening its relations with Ukraine, namely for the signing of the Association Agreement. Therefore Ukraine's further integration with the EU would certainly improve the situation in many spheres including protection of the rights of Ukrainians within the national justice system. 

Yours faithfully, 
Jan Tombinski"

What a splendid example of bureaucracy. And with another dash of "healthy sarcasm" I would like to point out the obvious, which is how Jan Tombinski more or less underlines that if only Ukraine's relationship with the European union deepens, there may eventually be support to expect in the future. However, he doesn't seem to have done his homework properly. Ukraine is a member state of the European Council since 1995 and thus entitled to approach the European Court of Human Rights with proposals. 

As I do not know anything about Mr. Tombinski's motives supporting his letter, I will refrain from trying to explain them, but indeed his writings can be interpreted in many different ways - none of them to the favor to the EU Delegation of Ukraine.


Unsweetened Truth

Here in “the west”, we have more or less always been spoiled with information and nowadays everything is revealed, even information that we neither want nor need, but the citizens of the USSR did for sure not enjoy the same luxury and even after the fall of the great union, it shall not be taken for granted that the old secrets are revealed. “What I am about to tell you, will never be published by any Ukrainian paper” says 46 years old Sergey Nikolaevich Bondarenko, a former liquidator who was one of the soldiers who participated during the evacuation of Pripyat. “Nor will they talk about it on television. The official truth is a sweetened up version presented with the courage  and pain of our people, but the real truth is too inconvenient for our government, and therefore it’s important not to shut up.”

S. Bondarenko with comrades.
Please do not copy. 
When the alarm sounded, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Powerplant in April 26th, 1986, Sergey Bondarenko was 19 years old and situated with his army unit, the special motorized military units MVD USSR in the Kiev Red Order Decorated Military District. At dawn, the unit №5403 SMCHS was alerted. The soldiers were put in fully armoured vehicles, each and every one of them carrying their private service weapons, gas masks, shields, helmets, vests and grenade This was all by the means of preventing riots and this was all that they knew for the first period of time. No one knew what was going on or where they were going, until the senior officers received their orders to without any delay set course to Chernobyl, a small town in the outskirts of the Kiev region. 

On their way to Chernobyl, the path of the 5403rd unit was crossed by other parts of the Kiev Garrison, which had also been alerted, and five hours after the first explosion at the 4th reactor complex, Bondarenko’s unit arrived in Pripyat. 

“The first day after the accident was a mess” says Sergey Bondarenko. “No one knew what to do and the residents of Pripyat were not informed about anything and thus suspected nothing. Only military chemists carrying dosimeters were silently scanning the neighbourhood to measure the radiation levels.”

The soldiers were given indicators to be carried, but these had expired and could not properly measure the airborne radiation. Sergey Bondarenko tells further from his memory:

“ On the night of 26 April 1986 the orders from the chief of intelligence were for our entire division to be taken 20 kilometers from the present location and to the forest of the river Pripyat, to rest. There on the river bank, we met with employees from the Chernobyl NPP, who as if nothing had happened, were fishing. To our questions about what happened in Chernobyl, they gave evasive answers, explaining that it is only just simply a standard situation and that the consequences were under special control.”

Shortly after that, Bondarenko and his comrades were forced to relocate again, as they were informed of that the levels of radiation on this site were too high. That evening the soldiers were given a not very solid dinner consisting of one can of minced sausages, two slices of bread and four sugar cubes. It became necessary to sleep but there were no place to sleep nearby the forest and there were no tents, so it was decided to sleep in the open air, fully exposed to the radioactive fallout. 

“Our camping place was in a radioactive forest, and 19 years old soldiers were washing themselves in a river contaminated by heavily radioactive metals”

Then the evacuation of Pripyat began. The instructions were to evict the population in six hours (the procedure demanded eight hours) and Pripyat was divided in different sectors, each to be taken care of by groups of soldiers wearing their usual uniforms. I ask Sergey Bondarenko why they weren’t wearing protection suits and his answer is very concise - if the military men would have been wearing protective suits or masks, the residents would have understood that something was wrong, and it was important to avoid outbreaks of panic.  Each entrance of each aparment block had its own bus waiting for the residents and the main task of the soldiers was to inform people to bring their documents and food enough to last for a few days. The evacuation would only be for three days, the residents were told. But when they left, their houses were immediately sealed.  Sergey Bondarenko recalls the horrible sight of watching the people leave their homes. Many were carrying for them important things, and even such things as TV-sets and carpets, but everything had to be left by their homes. Children were crying and people were upset - the evacuation of Pripyat was only relatively calm. 

“All through the night of April 27th, we guarded a deserted city” tells Sergey Bondarenko “My comrades and I were on patrol until the morning. The town was dead. Only single apartments were lit up and on some of the balconies, dogs were howling at the moon. We had to check up on these apartments. There were people who had permission to remain in the town - plant workers, policemen, doctors and military [officers]. We went to check on the rooftops and saw the ominous glow from the power station. It continued to burn even on this third day” 

The soldiers were almost completely cut off from the world outside what would become the 30 kilometers wide exclusion zone, but their pocket radio receivers still managed to receive transmissions from the radio program of Seva Novgorodtsev, “Seva Oborot”, which allowed them to take part of BBC transmissions in Russian in matters of new as well as music. And it was through the BBC that the soldiers first found out about what had happened at the ChNPP; days before it was officially announced on Soviet TV.  

On the 30th of April came the orders to leave the Chernobyl zone and return to Kiev.  Before the departure, the soldiers were shown formal gratitude for the evacuation of the village and protection of its inhabitants. After that, arrived a truck loaded with water tanks, so that 150 soldiers could wash up after their duty in the zone. Everything was polluted, and their uniforms were buried by the roadside. Documents and personal belongings were taken away and not to be returned until the arrival in Kiev. 

In Kiev the members of the units were set in quarantine. Visitors were prohibited. If parents or relatives still came to visit, they could do so from a two floors difference. The soldiers were not allowed to tell anything about where they had been or what they had done, and to make sure that no one made a slip of the tongue, there were intelligence officers surveiling it all Also letters were searched. Every day these liquidators had to go to leave blood samples at the hospital, whilst the doctors would not respond to any questions.  After three months, the quarantine was lifted. 

“Practically everyone who were in the zone developed dermatitis” says Sergey Bondarenko “There were cases of soldiers fainting, but that wasn’t paid attention to. On the identification cards (of the Soviet Armed Forces) they wrote the radiation doses received to 10 Roentgen for soldiers and 25 for the officers. In 1996 they wrote me up for 43,6 Roentgen. Whence this figure come, I do not know.”

In 1996, Sergey Nikolaevich Bondareko was taken in for the first of the operations on his thyroid glands. There was a tumor detected, as a long term result of the exposure of radiation. Bondarenko was given a so called Group-2 pension for disabled, and granted 2000 Ukrainian gryvnas per month (approx. €180), which is barely enough for a month’s supply of food if you have a family.  These are horrible conditions to live on, especially if facing a permanent health condition. Many liquidators were initially offered a large pay, good pensions, cars and other bonuses if they took on the life demanding tasks of cleaning up after the disasters, but they received nothing; their own country turned its back on them and they’re still struggling to be allowed to live a decent life.

Sergey Nikolaevich Bondarenko, speaking for
the liquidators. Please do not copy.
Much more remains, of what Sergey Bondarenko told me, and much remains to be said and done about the situation of the surviving liquidators and about those who are gone. But let us focus on those who are alive.  Sergey Bondarenko is still fighting for the rights of the liquidators. To be treated as the human beings they are.