Memories of Chernobyl

NOTE: As a young doctor studying in Kiev in 1986, Mohamed Makhzangi found himself in the midst of a public health catastrophe when the Chernobyl nuclear plant melted down that spring. The longer work from which this excerpt is taken is an "anti-memoir," as he puts it, of his impressions as both an outsider and a victim. Through an array of brief vignettes, snippets of conversations, and fragmentary encounters, he convincingly conveys the mounting panic at the time, the loneliness of exile, and the ways that tragedy can unite perfect strangers. After several years practicing medicine, Makhzangi switched careers to journalism and writing fiction. He has published several short story collections, and now divides his time between Egypt and Syria.

Spring

When and how does spring come to Kiev?

Women laughingly claim that it arrives on the 8th of March (Soviet Woman's Day), but everyone agrees that it erupts suddenly, miraculously. The trees are bare when we go to sleep, and there are still traces of snow on the ground. Then we wake and the world is pulsing green as though it had all blossomed overnight. Yet there are harbingers. The gathering warmth melts the snow quickly, and the sound of its running waters on the sloping sidewalks and in the gutters is enough to keep us awake all night, every night, preceding the green explosion.

In the morning, yet more signs of spring appear. The return of migrating birds, a splash of green at the tips of tree branches-trees that, if lightly scraped, dispense their sap generously. We hear the sudden song of a plover or spot from amongst the myriad species of birds-sparrows, eagles, doves-a particularly colorful one clumsily striving toward a bit of food.

There are heralds of spring's eruption, as of this spring's curse. Chernobyl. Molded by the Russian tongue to give shape to a different meaning, thus: Churna, "black" and bul, "pain". The black pain.

The fire--as described by one of the men that woke from their sleep to the wail of the main siren (third level)-burned directly on top of Chernobyl's nuclear reactor number four. It erupted at exactly 1:23:48 a.m. on April 26, 1986 when the fourth reactor of the nuclear plant exploded. And, as proven in the subsequent investigation, there were no lack of warnings. But unlike those of spring, they were either ignored or deliberately concealed. A glossy surface covered an ugly reality. Through cronyism and bribery, political favorites and well-connected people were hired in place of professional experts. Graft and corruption engendered a despicable incompetence. In the control room of the ill-fated reactor, they were playing poker and dominoes and writing personal letters on the job. Even so, everything seemed fine. The warning signs were camouflaged. Out of 71 incidents that took place at the reactors only 27 were investigated. And that's just one example of the rampant negligence.

After some repairs on the number four reactor, someone-one of the gang, no doubt-attempted an extremely dangerous experiment on the late night of April 26, 1986. He raised the reactors' capacity without any security precautions. The temperature shot up to a hellish degree. Then he poured cooling water onto this inferno. Thus the fire and the explosion. The cooling graphite caught fire, and under the pressure of the excruciating temperature, the water reverted to its primary state-oxygen, and the hydrogen that ignited and exploded-in the process, blowing up the heavy metal containers around the nuclear fuel and blowing off part of the roof of the reactor hall. The nuclear fuel was now exposed and emitting its deadly radiation through the hole in the roof. A new kind of volcano had erupted and the first person it had destroyed was the one who had triggered it. He was completely vaporized. Not a trace was left of that reckless would-be scientist. The atomic genie had escaped his bottle, unsealed by human carelessness in the face of advanced technology. Sheer stupidity had managed to override more than a hundred security systems, one after the other--to the point that a reporter who covered the incident suggested the necessity of establishing a new system to be called: "anti-stupidity security."

On that dark night of secrecy and confusion, not even those closest to it knew the extent of the disaster. Brikhanov, the director of the plant, lied deliberately to downplay the danger involved, and the inhabitants of Pripyat-families of the plant workers-remained fast asleep with their windows wide open to the evening breezes of spring; an evening of nuclear horror carefully concealed by local bureaucrats, who were hoping to put out the fire without alerting the nearby city-Kiev, capital of the district that comprises Chernobyl to its north above "the sea of Kiev" and at a distance of 85 kilometers. And we in Kiev were also fast asleep though we had shut our windows against the rain. Perhaps I'd noticed that the evening's ceaseless spring rains were accompanied by strange lightning and thunder...

In the morning, as I strolled through the green city under a bright sun, nothing seemed unusual. We hadn't heard anything. Not a single word of warning about the danger of the drifting nuclear radiation had been issued. They say that the direction of the wind, heading northwest-exactly opposite Kiev which lies southeast of Chernobyl-had rescued us during those first terrifying days. But the news began to spread. After a brief TV news report that no one paid much attention to, and after the increasing concentration of radiation on the heels of the May Day celebrations, we began to recall that the city had been strangely empty of buses on the morning of April 27. We remembered the long lines of street sweepers lurking in the side-streets of Pobeda square, waiting for the end of the festivities in order to begin frantically washing the crowded square and side-streets. This confirmed the news of the nuclear fire and the huge exodus in which close to 100,000 people abandoned a region sixty kilometers in diameter in a 20 kilometer-long convoy of cars and buses. Nothing seemed unusual in Kiev during those first days in spite of the fact that the name of the city was constantly repeated in foreign news broadcasts. In western Europe and the United States, there was a media storm that had barely begun to reach us, while we swam in a sea of rumors and Soviet equivocation, trapped between belief and denial. "The worst atomic disaster in human history!"; "The lethal cloud of radiation is covering Scandinavia, Poland and West Germany!"; "Rumors about the poisoned drinking water in Kiev"; "A western expert estimates that no less than 10,000 people within an area of 500 km around Chernobyl will die of lung cancer."

Nine days later, on the evening of May 5th, Romanenko, the Ukrainian minister of health, appeared on television to talk about the situation and calm people down, but he also stressed sticking to the necessary preventative measures, and they were all alarming: always keep windows closed, cover all food-even canned food-refrain from buying milk, fish, meat, vegetables, and fruit unless inspected for radiation, leave shoes outside the house and change and shower immediately after coming in from the street. Then he hinted at the possibility of evacuating children from the first to the seventh grade (6 to 14 years old) from the city by the 15th of May-within 10 days. Warnings against fishing and swimming in the Dnieper and spending any time in parks and woods were also issued.

The drama of Chernobyl had begun to unfold in Kiev.

The entire city began to wash itself ceaselessly: walls, sidewalks, cars, roads, trees, grass. Everything was hosed down by fire and sanitation trucks (and anything else they could mobilize), and the residues of some dust-fixing agent coated the wet streets. Markets buzzed nervously, stations jammed, and a black market for airline tickets-around whose sales offices dense, nervous crowds swarmed-sprang up. People desperately tried to cling to a semblance of normality; the rigorous discipline of queuing, observing traffic and pedestrian rules and the official workday. Still, nothing was coming to the surface. But after a period of hiding (thanks to the enforcement of laws against heavy public drinking) the staggering drunks returned, once again, to the city's streets, insisting on the absolute necessity of taking a little vodka or red wine, which were rumored to counter radiation because they contained traces of cobalt. New signs began to appear at entrances, signs like "remember that the level of radiation in rooms with closed windows is 10 times less than on the street" and "relax indoors". And for the first time, the word "coffin" began to intimate a kind of hope!

The long-awaited "coffin" was a huge project; a structure of reinforced concrete to be poured under, above and around the damaged Chernobyl reactor number four. During the first days of the accident, they had dug a gigantic tunnel into which they injected liquid nitrogen--whose temperature was hundreds of degrees below zero-in order to cool the core of the burning reactor, which was on the point of exploding. And in this vast cell dug by miners clad in white, thousands of cubic meters of concrete were poured to form a slab that would prevent the nuclear fallout from reaching the ground water. Five thousand cubic meters of reinforced concrete were poured into the walls of the coffin per day in a desperate attempt to contain the peeping head of the genie before it managed to escape its bottle. Meanwhile, the wind unfurled itself, changing direction towards the south and brushing us in Kiev with unknown and invisible doses of radiation.

Some people made light of the radiation assailing Kiev. Some were terrified. As for me, I was possessed by a strange complex of feelings that transcended both indifference and fear. A remarkable state of defiance took hold of me. I ignored all the precautionary warnings and traveled relatively freely through the city streets, parks, houses, hospitals, stations, outlying woods, river banks, lake-shores, wherever I could go. I felt as though the hand of God had flung me headlong into the experience of an unprecedented historical moment of human terror-the first non-war related nuclear horror experienced by humanity-and that I had been entrusted with this moment, as a writer, within the bounds of my personal ability and material circumstances (I was a foreigner after all). And so I exposed myself to an amount of radiation known only to God and the highest Soviet authorities. I couldn't stay trapped in a shuttered room while that famous Kiev spring blossomed savagely, everywhere blazing with lush vegetation, birds, fruit, and flowers under the too-real shadow of nuclear terror. In my heart of hearts, I was unafraid, perhaps because of the radiation's intangibility, perhaps because I am profoundly aware of my own inevitable mortality-just one amongst a short-lived human multitude who inhabit the oppressed Third World, the exhausted South, where suffering and early death is the rule, and to live and prosper, the exception.

And so I began to collect, in a small notebook, anything I found worthy of observation during my wanderings in that silent city shadowed by nuclear disaster. And whenever I glanced at my notes, I found that I simply couldn't shed the storyteller's skin.

I was looking for stories without even realizing it; for an aesthetic vision within a collapsing reality, skimming across the surface of time in order to distill the essence of the Story, its structural harmony, and thus somehow escape the confines of the Memoir. These are thus, anti-memoirs: moments I collected while traveling through the fearful depths of an irradiated season. Moments of spring.

A Glass of Water

I accept an invitation to lunch at my elderly friend, Anatoly Euvgenievitch's house. His grandson, Maximushka, sits with us at the small white table in the sparkling kitchen. He laughs cheerfully like any other three year old. He calls his grandfather "Diyada Shikatola" and me, by the affectionate diminutive, "Mukha Midshik". He insists on using this nickname in spite of his grandfather's repeated scolding. Anatoly Euvgenievitch can't believe that I find it endearing and amusing. But I do, coming, as it does, from such a beautiful little child, as curious and original as Maximushka.

After a few bites, he asked for a drink and this simple request unwittingly placed me in a painful little predicament.

His grandfather immediately complied. But instead of filling his glass with cold water, he filled it from the hot water tap and put it on the table, telling the child to wait for it to cool down before drinking it. But Maximuskha kept pestering him for cold water. "It's the radiation," the grandfather informed me, puzzled as I was, "there's less of it in the hot water." Then he pressed me into service, saying to the child, "here's the doctor - ask him!" I didn't quite know what to say, but I didn't want the child to lose his confidence in his grandfather.

Maximushka gave up after I confirmed "Diyada Shikatola"'s assertion, and he immediately withdrew into himself, propping his chin on the edge of the table and contemplating the glass in front of him while it cooled. He seemed entirely absorbed and somewhat bewildered as his clear blue eyes innocently searched for this "radiation" that was perhaps alive and well in the water in spite of its temperature.

An Embarrassing Situation

A distressing situation, to find myself amid this weeping horde. I desperately try to control myself as I stand on the platform at the Kiev station in front of the train headed south to Odessa, grandparents, mothers, fathers, relatives and children on the platform. Children from nursing infants to school kids are being sent far away--as far away as possible from Kiev, where the increasing level of radiation threatens their especially sensitive tissues. This is the first load to leave the city, each one accompanied by a retired grandparent, or a parent who has taken the day off from work, or some unemployed relative.

They wait on the platform and the children crowd on the train, their faces pressing against the glass windows. Faces and hands of children. Distracted, laughing, crying. On the platform, those left behind try to pull themselves together and wait for the train to leave the station. The train begins to move and, one by one, the windows pass out of sight. A train full of children. Their fresh, young faces crowd each other out and their hands wave good-bye...pretty little hands, soft, unsure of themselves, fluttering like butterfly wings, but lovelier, finer... Simply children's hands. That's all. It's as though a thin, flexible chord binds those children in the vanishing windows to their families on the platform who move with the train, waving and fighting back tears.

I'm easily upset. As the train picks up speed, I too burst into tears. I turn towards one of the platform kiosks and give in to my grief. I don't quite know why I'm crying but it seems as though a whole lifetime's sorrow were distilled into this one, explosive moment. I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn around. A grandmother, who asks me with emotion and quiet solicitude, "Your child, son...?" The question rubs the bitterest wound of a slowly aging and childless man. A fresh wave of tears, and the old lady gathers from this that the answer is yes. She hugs me, murmuring, "He'll come back, son. They'll all come back. Just a few days and they'll come home to us." But I can't seem to stop. I explode into even more violent sobs that make my whole body shake. She pats my back soothingly and says in a trembling voice, "That's enough, son, enough. They'll be back. You're going to make me cry too, son." And, sure enough, she bursts out crying. And so we were thrown together on the Kiev station platform, a young Arab man and an old Ukrainian lady. No bystander would have been able to discern with certainty which one of us was holding and comforting the other, trying to stop the flow of tears.

"No" in Russian

I imagine a certain shape for the word "No" in a few different languages, and the Russian "no" is the most striking of all: "Nyet". It's not just the sound. It suggests a feminine essence--that Russian femininity that richly enfolds so many qualities simultaneously: a blonde European beauty and a supple Eastern grace; Slavic fire and an icy introversion that conceals myriad secrets. The initial "no" that those who are familiar with Russia advise you to distrust. For it could simply mean "no", but it can also mean "yes", or perhaps, "yes, but not now." As for the female "No"--God help us! You'd have to hear it for yourself to understand how smooth and inviting, how irresistible it is. Sure to dissolve away after having melted you completely.

No. I have a date with "no" today, at the Kiev train station. An extraordinary scene: anxious crowds and children everywhere, clutching their parents' hands, waiting on benches, sitting on suitcases against the wall, wearing hats and colorful Ukrainian kerchiefs, impossible to convince that they can't take their kittens or puppies or shovels or hats along. Many of them even insisted on wearing their prettiest clothes--a red sweater, despite the heat, or a sun-hat and winter gloves. The heat has reddened their cheeks, and instead of chuckling at their play and the assorted animals they've brought with them, you're stricken at the sight. The girls clutch their dolls, the boys, plastic pails and shovels. Children distracted in the crowd, children to be sent away far from their mothers' arms. Little hands tightly gripping big ones, teasing grandparents.

The electronic departure board, as big as a towering wall, lists the names of distant stations and times and places and no, no, no. The same word repeats itself. Dark, as high as a wall. No. There are no more places. The children sit on benches, on suitcases, on the floor. Suddenly, the beauty of the Russian "no" escapes me in the terrible crowd.

From Memories of a Meltdown: An Egyptian between Moscow and Chernobyl by Mohamed Makhzangi, translated by Samah Selim, published by the American University in Cairo Press. English language copyright 2006 by Mohamed Makhzangi, translation copyright 2006 by Samah Selim. This excerpt published by arrangement with the American University in Cairo Press.