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Personal stories from the world’s worst nuclear disaster via Beyond Nuclear International

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Join an online event with Maxine Peake, Kate Brown, Darragh McKeon and Linda Walker on Sunday, April 25 to learn more, engage with the panelists and ask questions. Register here.

What was it like to live through the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine?  And now, 35 years later, what are the health, environmental and social repercussions of that disaster?

And if you had lived through the event — or chose to research it later — how would you tell the story? 

On Sunday April 25, from 12 noon to 1:15pm Eastern US time, learn how those involved with the disaster, or who suffered from it later, responded.

For some, it was a grueling experience. Journalist, Svetlana Alexievich decided it was important to record those testimonials. Her resulting book — called Voices from Chernobyl or Chernobyl Prayer, depending on where it was published — lets those who were there tell you what it was like, in often harrowing and heart-rending detail. Man Booker Prize-winning novelist, Arundhati Roy, said of the experience of reading Alexievich’s book: “it’s been years since I had to look away from a page because it was just too heart-breaking to go on”. 

[…]

On April 25, renowned British actor, Maxine Peake, will read from Chernobyl Prayer as part of a global public reading of the book by women around the world.

Darragh McKeon was working as a theatre director when he decided it was time to write his first novel. After beginning the work in Dublin, borrowing quiet space or retreating to the Trinity College library, he realized he needed to find a place where he could shut the door and just get on with it. 

He went to London, and two years later, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air was published. The lyrical and evocative novel follows a series of principal characters — among them a doctor, a boy from the countryside close to the reactor, a piano prodigy, a former journalist and ex-wife of the doctor — and how they respond to the disaster and process the resulting changes in their lives.  As we turn the pages we are there with them, experiencing the sorrow, loss, confusion and sometimes oppression the disaster sets in motion, made all the more extraordinary since McKeon had not been to the Soviet Union when he wrote the book.

[…]

Her non-fictional account,Manual for Survival, A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, researched over the course of a decade, is a deep and detailed look at just what happened, and what the true health effects were for those not only close to the accident, but even others working in trades and industries far away and seemingly unconnected.

What she uncovers, in a page-turning account, is a shocking whitewash of the true health effects, leading to the misleading narrative still in play that the impacts of Chernobyl were relatively minor. Her book exposes this great lie.

What was obvious was that the Chernobyl accident affected children, not only those in-vitro or already born when the accident occurred, but even generations to come. And these children needed help. 

At first, aid groups — most famously Adi Roche’s Ireland-based Chernobyl Children International— sought to bring children out of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine for respites, known as “radiation vacations.”

But it soon became obvious that much needed to be done in-country, in particular in Belarus, the hardest hit of all by the radioactive fallout. British activist, Linda Walker, realized that not only did we need to bring the children out, we needed to bring humanitarian aid in.

Walker set up Chernobyl Children’s Project (UK) in 1995 and, even before the first group of children arrived for a holiday in the UK, a reconditioned ambulance loaded with humanitarian aid supplies had been shipped to Belarus. Since then, the organization has supported children’s hospices, trained orphanage staff, and continued to deliver ambulances and humanitarian aid to Belarus. 

CCP (UK) also runs a foster care training program which has helped to get children out of the orphanages and into local families. Walker won the Nuclear Free Future Award for “Solutions” in 2018.

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