Voices from Chernobyl: Vigil for a Dead Girl on a Door

 A much too common interpretation of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters is that health impacts were minimal, and that the victims received humane treatment and compensation for their losses: no harm, no foul. The nuclear industry gets an all-clear to carry on. This view is without empathy for the sociological impacts of such catastrophes. As Robert Jacobs puts it so succinctly, “Radiation makes people invisible.” His essay bearing this title is not about comic book characters given magic powers by radiation. It’s about the way that radiation victims (hibakusha) become invisible to the institutions that harmed them and are marginalized in societies they once belonged to. Radiation may cause real health effects or death, but in addition the victims also suffer loss of homes, community, identity and traditional knowledge. They suffer discrimination in various forms. They become medical subjects rather than patients. That is, it might be better to say they become medical objects. Medical tests are often conducted only to collect government data rather than to benefit the patient. Finally, they suffer immeasurable grief and anxiety and are told in the end that if they still have concerns, they must be suffering from “radiophobia,” even though no such term is recognized in the field of psychology to describe people who have experienced radiological disasters.
The official conclusions of these tragedies usually look only at cancer deaths, or the survivors of thyroidectomies who can look forward to “full and productive” lives on hormone therapy. Other health effects are ignored, and the social and psychological effects are brushed aside. One of the reasons for this neglect could be that the people responsible for it come from a rootless culture that extolls only an imagined future and material progress (either a capitalist or a socialist utopia), and prides itself on the “mobility of the workforce,” a term which really means a people set totally adrift. It is difficult for such people to understand those who have attachment to land, communities and traditions; to understand why, when a community is destroyed, some people are not satisfied with a minimal compensation package and being told to start over somewhere else.
The Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich collected Chernobyl survivor testimonies during the 1990s and published them in 1997. The English translation of Voices from Chernobyl appeared in 2006 (reviewed previously here). The following testimony excerpted from this book was given by a man who had no knowledge of a sociological theory that describes how “radiation makes you invisible,” but his story gives a perfect illustration of Robert Jacobs’ formula for the outcome of radiological disasters. The notes in parentheses refer to examples in the testimony:

1.    Loss of health or death (black spots on skin, death of daughter)
2.    Loss of homes and community (evacuation from Pripyat)
3.     Loss of identity (employed to unemployed, normal person to “one of them”)
4.     Loss of culture and traditions (the tradition of keeping the family door, placing the deceased upon it)
5.     Discrimination in housing, employment and marriage (being labelled “one of them”)
6.     Becoming medical subjects or rather objects of study (the test results are “not for you”)
7.     Grief and anxiety (death of daughter)
8.     Blaming the victim (“My daughter died from Chernobyl. And they want us to forget about it.”)

I hope the author and publisher will regard this long citation as fair use. I am assuming they are not terribly concerned with making money off these tales of suffering that belong to the people who experienced them. Like Mr. Kalugin, the man who tells his story here, I want to bear witness also--to just having heard his story.

from Voices from Chernobyl
by Svetlana Alexievich (2006), pages 31-33


I want to bear witness ...
It happened ten years ago, and it happens to me again every day.
We lived in the town of Pripyat. In that town.
I’m not a writer. I won’t be able to describe it. My mind is not enough to understand it. And neither is my university degree. There you are: a normal person. A little person. You’re just like everyone else-you go to work, you return from work. You get an average salary. Once a year you go on vacation. You’re a normal person! And then one day you’re turned into a Chernobyl person, an animal that everyone’s interested in, and that no one knows anything about. You want to be like everyone else, and now you can’t. People look at you differently. They ask you: Was it scary? How did the station burn? What did you see? And, you know, can you have children? Did your wife leave you? At first we were all turned into animals. The very word “Chernobyl,” is like a signal. Everyone turns their head to look. He’s from there!
That’s how it was in the beginning. We didn’t just lose a town, we lost our whole lives. We left on the third day. The reactor was on fire. I remember one of my friends saying, “It smells of reactor.” It was an indescribable smell. But the papers were already writing about that. They turned Chernobyl into a house of horrors, although actually they just turned it into a cartoon. I’m only going to tell about what’s really mine. My own truth.
It was like this: They announced over the radio that you couldn’t take your cats. So we put her in the suitcase. But she didn’t want to go, she climbed out. Scratched everyone. You can’t take your belongings! All right, I won’t take all my belongings, I’ll take just one belonging. Just one! I need to take my door off the apartment and take it with me. I can’t leave the door. I’ll cover the entrance with some boards. Our door--it’s our talisman, it’s a family relic. My father lay on this door. I don’t know whose tradition this is, it’s not like that everywhere, but my mother told me that the deceased must be placed on the door of his home. He lies there until they bring the coffin. I sat by my father all night, he lay on this door. The house was open. All night. And this door has little etch-marks on it. That’s me growing up. It’s marked there: first grade, second grade. Seventh. Before the army. And next to that: how my son grew. And my daughter. My whole life is written down on this door. How am I supposed to leave it?
I asked my neighbor, he had a car: “Help me.” He gestured toward his head, like, You’re not quite right, are you? But I took it with me, that door. At night. On a motorcycle. Through the woods. It was two years later, when our apartment had already been looted and emptied. The police were chasing me. “We’ll shoot! We’ll shoot!” They thought I was a thief. That’s how I stole the door from my own home.
I took my daughter and my wife to the hospital. They had black spots all over their bodies. These spots would appear, then disappear. About the size of a five-kopek coin. But nothing hurt. They did some tests on them. I asked for the results. “It’s not for you,” they said. I said, “Then who’s it for?”
Back then everyone was saying: “We’re going to die, we’re going to die. By the year 2000, there won’t be any Belarussians left.” My daughter was six years old. I’m putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear: “Daddy, I want to live, I’m still little.” And I had thought she didn’t understand anything.
Can you picture seven little girls shaved bald in one room? There were seven of them in the hospital room ... But enough! That’s it! When I talk about it, I have this feeling, my heart tells me, “you’re betraying them.” Because I need to describe it like I’m a stranger. My wife came home from the hospital. She couldn’t take it. “It’d be better for her to die than to suffer like this. Or for me to die, so that I don’t have to watch anymore.” No, enough! That’s it! I’m not in any condition. No.
We put her on the door ... on the door that my father lay on. Until they brought a little coffin. It was small, like the box for a large doll.
I want to bear witness: my daughter died from Chernobyl. And they want us to forget about it.
Nikolai Kalugin, father

from Voices from Chernobyl
by Svetlana Alexievich (2006), pages 31-33

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