Eyewitness account: the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster via BBC Histories Magazine

On 26 April 1986, an experiment on the cooling pump system at Chernobyl power station, in the then-Soviet city of Pripyat, Ukraine, went badly wrong. The nuclear reactor exploded, causing a fire that raged for nine days and emitting large quantities of radioactive debris. Fallout settled largely in nearby Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, but the radioactive cloud covered much of Europe. At least 30 people died during or shortly after the incident, with many thousands of cancer cases since linked to radiation exposure. Shortly after the catastrophe, journalist Svetlana Alexievich visited the region affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Here she describes her experiences…

At the time that the Chernobyl incident happened my sister was in hospital in Minsk, so I was spending almost all of my time with her there. It just so happened that on one of those days a Swedish friend of mine called me and told me about a serious accident at a nuclear power station. We hadn’t been told anything about it.


When I first visited the zone, everyone had bewildered, almost crazed faces. They looked on while they sheared the upper, infected layer of earth and buried it in special pits. They buried earth in earth. They buried eggs and milk, and infected animals they had shot. They just kept burying and burying. The information about Chernobyl in the papers was straight out of a military report: an explosion, an evacuation, heroes, soldiers… The system was reacting as usual when faced with extreme conditions, but a soldier with an assault rifle in this new world cut a tragic figure. All he could do was amass an enormous dose of radiation and then die when he returned home.


Among the stories that stand out for me are those of the firemen who, on the night after the explosion, found themselves on the roof of the reactor and were exposed to radiation 1,000 times exceeding a lethal dose. When they were taken to the hospital, even the doctors, auxiliary medical staff and their relatives had to wear protective clothing just to be around them. They were no longer human beings, but objects to be decontaminated. Scientists, doctors, family and loved ones – all were afraid of them, of going near them. The irradiated lay on the other side of a boundary, posing us new moral questions.


I saw a terrible sight that I’ll never forget when they evacuated people from the infected villages. All around the buses gathered the pet cats and dogs that had been left behind. People were afraid to look them in the eye, and turned away; only the children cried. Soldiers went into the villages and shot the animals… Man saved only himself. An old bee-keeper told me that his bees refused to leave their hives for a week. Fishermen recalled that they couldn’t dig up a single worm – they had gone deep into the earth. The bees, the worms and the beetles knew something that people didn’t.

The government did everything in its power to keep the people as ignorant as possible. That’s because, if the people had known more, they would have demanded checks on food products, dosimeters [radiation detectors], and medicines to cleanse the body – and the government had no intention of providing these things. That’s why they lied. At one point they promised to give everyone dosimeters; they did give them to some, but people began to panic so they quickly changed tack.


Svetlana Alexievich is a journalist and author who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her books include Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future (first published 1997; updated version Penguin Classics, 2016).

This article was first published in the December 2016/January 2017 issue of BBC World Histories magazine

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