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The Day After: How being 100 km away from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster changed my life via Open

Before the world’s worst nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April 1986, I was full of the certainties of youth. Then, overnight, or should I say over the course of a few beautiful spring days, everything changed and I stepped reluctantly into adulthood.

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The rest of the day passed in a daze. We were sent for blood tests and had Geiger counters run up and down our bodies. I was unable to decipher their clicks and creaks, and no one thought fit to tell us whether we were radioactive. We were put on board a Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to London via Moscow that had some free seats. Before we were allowed into the plane, Japan Airlines personnel stripped us of our clothes and gave us white jumpsuits. We looked like survivors in a holocaust disaster movie, much to the horror of our fellow passengers who stayed as far away from us as possible: for historical reasons, the Japanese are somewhat sensitive to the idea of radioactive contamination…

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As the years went by, I revisited Ukraine several times and worked on issues relating to Chernobyl in an intergovernmental capacity. I met school teachers and parents in Belarus, the area worst affected by the fallout. They all told me of the high incidence of thyroid cancer and birth defects among children born just before or after the disaster.

Today, the children of Chernobyl are becoming parents themselves and a legacy of illness is being passed on to a new generation. I also met mothers and wives of ‘liquidators’, the young boy soldiers who had been sent to extinguish the fire in Chernobyl after the accident with just white cotton suits and flimsy hats for protection. Many died horrible deaths in the weeks and months that followed.

As for me, I am healthy and have two healthy children. I was close to the accident, which the International Atomic Energy Agency has since described as ‘400 times more potent than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima’, but the wind was blowing away from Kiev. Most importantly, I was able to leave and avoid long-term exposure to contaminated food and groundwater. I was lucky because fate had determined that I be born in a part of the world where citizens have a voice and hold governments accountable for their well-being. I have never stopped wondering, however, whether our forced evacuation was more of a publicity stunt to show up Soviet inadequacies than an expression of genuine concern for our well-being. It was probably a bit of both.

This 26 April, I will light a candle wherever I am, just as I have done for the past 27 years, and ask for forgiveness: for having left, as well as forgiveness for not having appreciated at the time how lucky I was to have had the choice. I will also say a prayer for all those the world over whose health and lives have been sacrificed at the altar of truth in order to save the face of governments or corporations—a prayer for those who do not have a choice.

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