2. Survivors of Chernobyl

Chapter 2: Soviet Union
Part 2: Chernobyl Three Years After

Many of those who were mobilized to deal with the accident were lucky to survive the high doses of radiation. However, even after three years they are still living in a state of uncertainty about their future.

At the All-Union Scientific Center of Radiation Medicine in Kiev, those exposed to radiation at the time of the Chernobyl accident are subjected regularly to exhaustive tests. Pedaling furiously on a machine designed to test the strength in one's limbs, Sergeant Vasilii Davibienko of the Kiev Fire Brigade kept an anxious eye on the wires attached to his arms and legs. When the attendant gave the word, he stopped pedaling. "How does it look?" he asked, glancing anxiously at the digital display.

"Well, it's hard to say really," came the noncommittal reply.

At this point the doctor who was acting as our guide interrupted them to reassure Davibienko that there was absolutely nothing to be worried about.

At the time of the Chernobyl explosion, Davibienko, a fireman in the Pripyat Fire Brigade, was off duty and relaxing at his home in Pripyat just over two miles away. When the emergency call came, he dressed quietly so as not to wake his two children, and hurried to the unit's headquarters. It was a little after 2 a.m. when he arrived at Chernobyl, some forty minutes after the explosion, to find that the plant looked like something out of a nightmare. Chaos reigned supreme. Technicians limp and unconscious in the arms of firemen were being carried out of the buildings. One of his colleagues came running out from beside the No. 4 reactor screaming like a madman. The tall chimneys of the reactor, lit up by the flames rising up from a corner of the shattered roof, loomed in an eerie glow. Davibienko stayed at the scene for approximately three hours.

For two days afterward he wore protective clothing and traveled to and from the site, until he came down with a mild case of diarrhea and was taken to a hospital in Moscow. According to Davibienko himself, his problems were not serious. "The diarrhea stopped pretty soon. We were taught about radiation sickness in training, but I didn't have any other symptoms. Lots of my workmates lost hair, but I didn't even have that problem."

His words did not quite ring true to us, though, and he sounded as if he was trying to reassure himself, more than anybody else.

The half-yearly checkups began six months after the accident, in the autumn of 1986. While in hospital for his third checkup, Davibienko discovered for the first time that he had been exposed to a radiation level of 100 rems. According to the Soviet system of using four levels to describe the gravity of radiation sickness, this dosage is classed in the lowest ranking, i.e. Level 1, which indicates a dosage of from 80 to 210 rems of radiation.

No doubt the immediate effects on Davibienko's body were not serious. In three years he has experienced no problems with his health. He goes to a clinic every three or four weeks, but the doctors assure him that there is nothing to worry about. He still cannot get the scenes of the accident and the hospital in Moscow out of his head, however.

"On May 10, while I was in hospital, my best friend, Nikolai Tichenok, died. Although he was a year younger than me--he was just twenty-three—we could talk about anything." Davibienko was just starting to recover from the shock of his friend's death when, one after the other, his other colleagues began to fall victim to radiation. In one week alone, six died, all of them men in their twenties like himself.

Some time has passed since then, enough for him to begin to breathe a little easier. However, each time he goes back for a checkup, the specter of that hellish night comes back to haunt him.

He fired anxious questions at us.

"What's it like in Hiroshima? Is the soil radioactive? Is there a lot of cancer? Has it affected the children?"

It was clear that Davibienko was frustrated with the platitudes of the doctors. When he goes home, his wife asks him the same questions that he asks the doctors. Then it is his turn to be reassuring, he told us, while deep down he is still afraid of what that 100 rems might be doing to his body.