Updated at 17:18,18-06-2021

'It was anarchy': a family reflects on the Chernobyl disaster, 30 years on

by Olga Tsvetkova, The Guardian

Three generations explain how their lives were transformed by the nuclear explosion in 1986

It was just a regular day for Anastasia Fedosenko. It was spring, a busy time for local farmers. Nobody told her about the explosion at first.

“It was only on the third day that they said something had happened at the Chernobyl plant, but nobody knew what exactly. They evacuated pregnant women and mothers with children under five, but the rest of us just continued our normal routine, feeding and milking cows,” the 73-year-old recalls.

What she didn’t yet know was that at 1:23am a reactor at the nearby nuclear plant had exploded, dispersing immense quantities of radioactive fuel into the air, contaminating everything around it.

In the 30 years since, Fedosenko’s entire family has become closely involved in helping local communities overcome one of the world’s most devastating industrial accidents, helping to save livestock, assisting in resettlement operations and burying highly contaminated villages underground.

'It was anarchy': a family reflects on the Chernobyl disaster, 30 years onAlthough mostly associated with Ukraine, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had devastating consequences for Belarus too.

According to the United Nations, approximately 70% of the nuclear radiation landed outside Ukraine, and after gaining its independence from the USSR in 1991 Belarus found itself struggling to cope with the economic consequences of the catastrophe.

It is estimated that the clean up has cost the country between 6-25% of its annual budget since 1986, amounting to approximately $235bn over 30 years.

In addition, an estimated 2,640km of agricultural land became poisonous. More than 20% of all Belarusian forests were contaminated, nine factories were forced to shut down and more than 2 million of its people were affected by radiation, including 500,000 children.

'It was anarchy': a family reflects on the Chernobyl disaster, 30 years on

Anastasia Fedosenko showing archival photos. Photograph: Olga Tsvetkova/UNDP

The farm where Fedosenko had worked for more than 25 years before the explosion was also poisoned, but it was only 13 days after that a friend told her they were going to be evacuated.

At first, they were told they would be away from home for three days. But the days stretched into more than five months, until they were finally moved into new houses some 150km away.

‘Quite bearable’

“It is such a great day for a trip,” says Fedosenko, during a journey to the Belarusian-Ukrainian border to explore how the region has coped since the disaster.

After taking early retirement, Fedosenko retrained as a radiation officer. Now, she volunteers for a local health organisation in Krasnoe, where she lives, measuring radiation levels in local children, as well as food and drink coming from local woods and farms.

At a so-called “referral spot”, situated on a small bridge across the Braginka river, Fedosenko measures radiation using a personal dosimeter every time she passes by. This reading allows radiologists to follow the timeline of the nuclear decay. Contrary to popular belief in 1980s, the contamination did not follow the circular pattern of the nuclear bomb blast.

Rather, it nested in uneven landscapes, sticking to moist or grainy surfaces. Move a couple of steps to the left or the right on the bridge and the radiation meter would show a different number. Today, Fedosenko’s device stops at 57 microroentgen/hour [μR/h] – the safe range is just 20 [μR/h].

“Quite bearable,” she says. “The first year after the explosion it was 1,500 [μR/h].”

'It was anarchy': a family reflects on the Chernobyl disaster, 30 years on

The bridge over the Braginka river, one of the ‘referral spots’ used to measure yearly radiation levels. Photograph: Alexei Tchistodarski/UNDP

In the first decade after the explosion, the Belarusian state struggled to manage its disaster response and humanitarian rescue missions, which were later transformed by help from the UN.

Starting in 2004, the UN Development Programme provided the region with radiation measuring equipment, such as mobile body counters to perform regular radiation checks on local children and “lead barrels”, equipment that is still used to check food.

Family impact

But it’s not just Fedosenko who has become closely involved in the environmental clean up operation.

Oleg, one of her three sons, was one of many men employed to bring soil to bury contaminated villages in the first months after the explosion. “That was the golden age, the time of anarchy,” he recalls.

'It was anarchy': a family reflects on the Chernobyl disaster, 30 years on

Oleg Fedosenko shares his stories of Chernobyl. Photograph: Alexei Tchistodarski/UNDP

Some of projects were effective, Oleg says, but others proved futile as the government improvised quick solutions. The village of Chernev, for instance, was uprooted and the soil beneath it removed, as it was considered to be highly contaminated by plutonium. The military and a handful of civilian drivers, including Oleg, took the upper layer of ground and moved it 10km away. This was supposed to “clean the site”, he explains, but as it was a dry spring the highly radioactive dust flew away with a single breath of wind, settling elsewhere.

Oleg also remembers that all remaining residents were prescribed half a glass of vodka accompanied with 10 drops of iodine, but it tasted so disgusting soon nobody bothered with the drops and just drank the vodka instead.

After that first summer of 1986, Oleg spent the next 15 years in the northern Russian town of Surgut. But he came back. “I have always believed that the place where you were born is the best, I have always preferred the village to any big city.”

Konstantin, Fedosenko’s grandson, was eight months old when the plant exploded, but his proximity to the blast has stayed with him. “At the age of nine I found volumes of Science and Life magazine at my granny’s house. In one of them there was an article on Chernobyl and the whole timeline of the event. I guess it was then that I got truly interested in physics and chemistry. [I think that’s the] reason why I never thought of Chernobyl as of something ominous or sinister, it was all pretty understandable to me.”

Even attractive, perhaps. Konstantin, now 30 years old, would often take his girlfriends to the exclusion zone on dates, Fedosenko says.

'It was anarchy': a family reflects on the Chernobyl disaster, 30 years on

Fedosenko at a former school in the abandoned village of Kruki, Belarus. Photograph: Viktar Drachou/UN

Like so many other residents, Konstantin has also taken it upon himself to bust the often-repeated myths about the area. No, he says, there are no two-headed animals around and the radiation levels depend largely on the landscape, with most of the locally grown vegetables and fruit now safe to eat.

Like many other families, the Fedosenkos have refused to leave their land, reshaping their lives to deal with the fallout of the explosion thirty years ago.

“My mum and I were evacuated on the third day,” Konstantin says, but now that he’s older he often visits the exclusion zone as a way to relax. “Why am I going back? I like nature, and Polesie State Radio-ecological reserve is a place where no human activity was performed for the past 30 years. I also like silence, and that is exactly the place to get the most of it.”