APRIL 26

Antonina Andriyivna, an 80-year-old babushka, sits at the entrance to our high-rise for a few hours every afternoon. She lives alone, and asks a favour of her neighbours to help her down to the entrance each time when she wants to get a “gulp of fresh air.” A decrepit armchair stands on the ground floor by the lift, and a neighbour who accompanies the babushka down usually takes time to carry the armchair out of the entrance hall to the steps outside and to seat the babushka into it. She knows everyone who lives in our building. When she feels like finishing her “breathing session”, she asks any first dweller returning home to help her up – back into her apartment. It was not once that I also carried the armchair onto its old place in the lift hall and accompanied Antonina Andriyivna to her door on the tenth floor and then went up to floor sixteen where I live.

When I was getting out of our apartment house yesterday, the babushka was already in her armchair. I greeted her cheerfully, also adding that it was a wonderful day. However, the babushka did not smile back. “For me… for all of us… it’s a day of mourning”, she said. It’s was only then that I noticed a black shawl on her shoulders and sadness in her eyes… April 26… The date struck through my mind. How could I forget it? “Sorry, Antonina Andriyivna”, I said. This time she smiled – wanly and understandingly.

All those who live in our housing block like Antonina Andriyivna. But probably not enough to know what is behind the loneliness of her life and sadness in her eyes.

On April 28, 1986 – two days after the explosion – Moscow TV announced that an accident had occurred at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant. “One person died, measures are being taken to eliminate consequences of the accident. Aid is being given to those affected. A government commission has been set up.” On April 30 the news agency TASS carried a government statement denying western reports on mass casualties. The first photos of the Chornobyl accident were censored by removing the smoke from the reactor before being printed in the newspapers.

Nowadays classified documents about the disaster are being made available. Of 600,000 ‘liquidators’ that were engaged in the Chornobyl clean-up, roughly 50,000 were required to work as ‘bio-robots’, in conditions of such extreme radiation that electronic robots ceased to operate. Most of them are prematurely aged and many have died, and leukaemia rates among them are substantially higher than in the wider population. Alik Kasyanenko, my classmate and my close friend, died in 1995. In May, 1986, he had stayed two weeks in the exclusion zone as part of a medical team – examining and treating the liquidators.

Twenty-nine years ago the official report soothingly said that only one person had died…

I think I know why Antonina Andriyivna’s eyes are so sorrowful.

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