Copyrighted material


by Gulnoza Saidazimova and Claire Bigg

My Chernobyl

When Talgat Suyunbai and 44 other Soviet Army officers arrived in the Belarusian village of Novosyolki, some 40 kilometers from Chernobyl, they had no idea an accident had even taken place.

That was in January 1987, nine months after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

"We heard some rumors but didn't know anything about it," said Suyunbai, a 52-year-old member of Kazakhstan's Union of Chernobyl Veterans. "When I first arrived in Chernobyl, what struck me and stuck in my memory was the landscape. It looked like a beautiful painting. When approaching, you could see a city far away, a forest and a path, a river, and the church's [dome] was shining. It was like a painting. It remains a memory of my life."

As the military motorcade approached the site of the disaster, the picture changed dramatically.

"But when we were approaching Chernobyl, [the view] was very different. We called it 'a rusty forest.' It was all burnt. It was staggering. We couldn't comprehend it. It was horrible. But then we had to get used to it slowly," Suyunbai said.

Cleanup workers headed to the Chernobyl Plant (Photo credited to Lu Taskey)
Insert: Memorial to the Liquidators in the village of Chernobyl which lies a few kilometres from the plant. (PHOTO: P.Pavlicek/IAEA)

For what turned out to be seven months of work, Suyunbai and his fellow officers had one night of training in Kazakhstan. They were not told that a nuclear explosion had taken place. Even as a former officer in a chemical unit, Suyunbai did not know how high the radiation levels were.

"[We had] no special clothing, just a regular military uniform, because [we were told that] there was already no high radiation," he said. "The radiation level was suitable to work for two hours a day. So we wore a regular uniform. Then we'd [take it off and] shake it, shower, and change only our underwear. The next day was the same."

Suyunbai is one of some 32,000 people from Kazakhstan who went to Chernobyl to clean up after the disaster. Russian liquidator groups estimate that in total around 600,000 people took part in the clean-up operation. They say the number could be even higher.

Kadyrbek Sasykulov, the president of the Union of Chernobyl, a Kyrgyz veterans' association, participated in the liquidation work in 1988.

By that time, he says, people knew about the scale of the disaster. But, despite their protests or even outright refusal, Sasykulov and many others were forced to go to Chernobyl.

"They said we were going to construct a power plant," Sasykulov said. "We didn't know what kind of plant it was. They said: 'You'll go to the Samara region' and we left the next day. Only in Samara did we learn that Chernobyl was our destination. Some 80 percent of us protested. But our commanders said we would be punished as deserters if we left. They threatened us."

Sasykulov worked in Chernobyl for four months.

"On the third day, many of us felt a sour taste in our mouths and our bodies felt weak. In 1989, after I returned, I had pain all over my body and my joints were weak. In 1991, I retired as a disabled veteran, as did my fellow officers who served at Chernobyl," Sasykulov said.

Sasykulov's story is sadly familiar. Many liquidators have since faced severe health problems. Of the 32,000 liquidators from Kazakhstan, there are now just 6,000 left. According to the Almaty-based Union of Chernobyl, some 4,000 former liquidators die every year in post-Soviet countries.

Sasykulov is one of 4,500 Kyrgyz citizens who cleaned up the disaster in 1986-89. There are some 1,750 left in Kyrgyzstan at present. He says the children of the liquidators are also suffering from the consequences of the disaster.

"Over 85 percent of [those remaining] are disabled," Sasykulov said. "There are 1,650 children born from the liquidators. Of them, 15 percent are badly sick and disabled. Our task is to address their social needs and also provide medical assistance. Lack of medicine is a big problem. Many Chernobyl liquidators die, many of them and their children are sick."

Along with their ailing health, the former liquidators have fought another battle -- receiving adequate financial compensation for their suffering.

Over the past few years, Chernobyl veterans have steadily been stripped of their benefits and privileges in all Central Asian countries. In Soviet times, liquidators were given free medicine, health care, and holidays in health resorts and sanatoriums.

The amount of financial compensation depends on the salaries liquidators received before being sent to Chernobyl. But these monthly sums are usually too small to cover even medical expenses.

In a country with an average monthly wage of around $60, Kyrgyzstan's Chernobyl liquidators get some $15-$20 a month. In wealthier Kazakhstan, where the average wage is around $150, Suyunbai gets $110 dollars a month. But he says it covers only utilities.

Iodized Salt Could Have Saved Chernobyl's Children

Russian liquidators are not much better off. Aleksandr Velikin, a 53-year-old liquidator from St. Petersburg, received as little as $36 a month until he sued the authorities last year. Thanks to his court victory, his monthly payment was raised to the ruble equivalent of $130.

Velikin has run the Leningrad Oblast's Chernobyl Union for the past 15 years. He has helped thousands of other liquidators in his region increase their monetary compensation from the state.

The union -- which comprises only himself, a fellow liquidator, and a secretary -- is currently assisting more than 1,700 liquidators in seeking damages in court.

Velikin says the government is violating Russian law by paying Chernobyl clean-up workers such paltry compensation.

"If my employer has caused me damage, he is obligated to pay me compensation in the form of lost salaries, pay for all my medical services, for sanatorium treatment, and medicine," Velikan says. "The government has totally distorted the law and now they are trying to present these payments and privileges as 'benefits.' And 'benefit' means: 'I respect you, I have money today, I will give some to you. [But] sorry, tomorrow I won't have money so I won't give you anything."

Velikin spent three months in the fall of 1986 cleaning up Chernobyl's nuclear reactors and helping erect the concrete sarcophagus that seals off the collapsed reactor. But he says that was the easy part.

Twenty years on, his eyes well with tears as he recalls his worst Chernobyl memory -- clearing the belongings from the houses of the nearby ghost town, Prypyat, evacuated after the accident.

"I enter a two-room flat," he said. "Just try to imagine that you are in a rush for work, you run out quickly. The bed is unmade, you ate something on the run -- there is a half-eaten sandwich and a cup of tea on the table. The flat had been left in such a state. All this was endurable, apart from one thing -- I walked into the second room, a child's bed stood there, the bedspread was thrown off, and there was the imprint of a child's head on the pillow. My daughter was 4 years old at the time."

Velikin says the tragedy of Chernobyl has not yet ended for him.

What he is lobbying for, he insists, is not compassion or fame, but simply official recognition of the damage wrought by Chernobyl to the health and the lives of the liquidators.

"I'm not a hero," he says. "But I did my job honestly."

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   April 25, 2006   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.