30 years later I still cringe at the name of Chernobyl

They say it was a beautiful spring day. What did I do on April 26, 1986? Since it was a Saturday, I must have gone to school in the morning (we used to have school on Saturdays) and then had a weekend to enjoy. I was 12 years old and did not worry about too many things.

But the following weeks and months became the one of the most sad and scary memories of my childhood. Latvia does not border Ukraine but we are not far. People had no idea that 1000 km away we just had the worst nuclear accident in history. A product of severely flawed Soviet-era reactor design combined with human error.Nobody was telling us, the citizens of USSR, anything. Only few days later the first official news started coming through.

Everyone was shocked and worried. I started hearing words like “terrible accident, Ukraine, nuclear plant, Chernobyl, radiation, radioactive cloud, radioactive rain, polluted environment, tragedy, emergency, victims…” There was lots of fear and frustration because the official news in the media was so censored and even false that people did not believe it. Everyone realized it must be much worse than the official version. People were also angry but felt powerless.

One of my friends who grew up in Ukraine, still gets very emotional when she speaks about those events. The annual parade in Kiev on May 1, the Worker’s Day, did not get cancelled. Even though the authorities knew what had happened and how the radiation had spread. Chernobyl is only 135 km (88 miles) from Kiev and thousands of children and youth and adults were parading through the city streets, singing, holding signs of Soviet leaders while everything was covered in invisible radioactive dust.

In childhood I had heard so much about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I had horrible pictures of Chernobyl in my mind. Only much later we saw some images of the actual blown-up reactor.  I had never thought about radioactive clouds but the wind blows where it wants and it blew the poisonous particles across large part of Eastern and Northern Europe. I remember being told not to pick wild mushrooms and berries in the woods.

But the greatest fear was very personal. There was a massive forced mobilization of men into military service to go and contain the contamination and clean up the area. Especially young men with construction skills (the average age of those later called “liquidators” was between 30-40) and my dad worked in construction. Mom was indignant at the thought and I was scared and dad must have been worried. I don’t know how aware were my younger brothers. Eventually he was not mobilized. I have never asked but most likely he was exempt because of family and three young children.

I know other men, though, who were forced to go. My stepdad was one of those ‘unlucky’ ones. He had tried to avoid it but the Soviet army truck drove up to their home and soldiers loaded the “unwilling ones” in. They had to take off their civilian clothes and put on uniforms and travel to Ukraine. He spent 6 months in the worst affected region not so far from the epicenter. Since this clean-up crew was now ‘officially’ in the army, they were guarded by other soldiers to make sure people did not desert. And their ‘protective gear’ was rubber gloves and simple face mask.

My stepdad has already passed away from cancer. Not doubt his health and peace of heart were destroyed by the Chernobyl. Nobody knows the actual number of immediate victims and those who died later. The numbers are big and they vary but it is not about the numbers. What we remember is an overwhelming tragedy, people’s sacrifice and bravery and also terrible injustice.

Therefore I can never place April 26, 1986 in the spring. In my subconscious mind it is a very dark dark time.

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Liquidator pushes a baby in a carriage who was found during the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, 1986

Saka, ka esot bijusi jauka pavasara diena. Ko todien darīju? Neatceros. Tā kā 1986. gada 26. aprīlis bija sestdiena, drošvien gāju uz skolu, un pēc tam priecājos par nedēļas nogales brīvdienām. 12 gadu vecumā nav daudz rūpju.

Taču nākamās nedēļas un pat mēnešus atceros kā vienu lielu, melnu mākoni. Atceros, kā pieaugušie sāka runāt par “briesmīgu avāriju, Černobiļu, atomreaktoru, radiāciju, ārkārtas stāvokli, radioaktīvu lietu” un tā tālāk. Atceros tās bailes un uztraukumu, jo bija skaidrs, ka oficiālās valsts ziņas nesaka visu vai pat melo. Tātad patiesība bija daudz briesmīgāka, ja jau slēpj. Cilvēki bija dusmīgi, un reizē jutās bezspēcīgi.

Kāda man pazīstama sieviete no Ukrainas joprojām nevar runāt par to dienu notikumiem bez dusmām un sāpēm. Kaut vai par 1. maija, Darbaļaužu dienas, gājienu Kijevā, kas netika atcelts, lai gan valdība zināja, kas noticis 135 km attālumā. Tūkstošiem cilvēku – bērni, jaunieši, pieaugušie – priecīgā gājienā ar dziesmām un plakātiem, kas pārklāti ar neredzamo radioaktīvo putekļu kārtu.

Vēl atceros, kā tika apspriests radioaktīvais mākonis un indīgais lietus. Toreiz domāju, kāpēc vējam japūš to tieši uz ziemeļiem pāri Latvijai uz Skandināvijas pusi. Kāpēc nevar to aizpūst kaut kur citur. Un kā lai tagad zin, vai var lasīt tās sēnes un ogas mežā. Un kas man tagad līs uz galvas? Visas tās sarunas likās kā murgs vai šausmene. Bērnībā biju redzējusi japāņu multeni par Hirošimu un Nagasaki, kas man neļāva naktīs gulēt.

Bet vislielākās bailes bija par tēti. Ka tikai nepaņem viņu tajā piespiedu mobilizācijas vilnī, jo viņš strādāja kolhoza celtnieku brigādē. Tieši vajadzīgais vecums un vajadzīgā profesija. (Lasīju, ka lielākā daļa avārijas seku likvidētāju bija vecumā no 30 līdz 40 gadiem. Vidēji 34 gadi.) Mamma bija kareivīgi noskaņota… nekad to nepieļaušot. Mēs taču esam trīsbērnu ģimene. Man bija bail. Neatceros, bet drošvien arī tētis bija satraucies. Beigās vinu nepaņēma. Varbūt tiešām to trīs bērnu dēļ.

Bet citiem ‘nepaveicās’. Pēc gadiem dzirdēju patēva stāstus par šo piespiedu mobilizāciju. Armijas auto vienkārši atbrauca uz viņu mājām Līgo vakarā, jo zināja, kur ‘slapstošos’ latviešus tajā vakarā atrast. Iesauktie vīri pat mēģinājuši mukt, bet kur aizskriesi. Atdod civilās drēbes un velc armijas formu. Viņš nostrādāja avārikas seku likvidēšanas zonā 6 mēnešus. Tā kā oficiāli šie strādnieki skaitījās karavīri, tad tika citu karavīru uzmanīti, lai nebēgtu. Esot bijuši gumijas zābaki, gumijas cimdi, sejas maskas… un nekā cita īpašai aizsardzībai.

Mans patēvs jau aizgājis mūžībā. Ar vēzi un veselu slimību sarakstu. Nav šaubu, ka Černobiļa sagandēja gan veselību, gan dvēseles mieru. Viņš nespēja piedot šo netaisnību, un tuviniekiem bija bieži jādzird šie stāsti. Statistika par upuriem ir nepilnīga, bet par skaitļiem es nedomāju. Es domāju par šo briesmīgo nelaimi, par cilvēku pašaizliedzību un drosmi. Domāju arī par tiem, kuri kaut vai ne no brīvas gribas, bet tomēr upurēja savas veselības un pat dzīvības, lai šo indi savāktu. Domāju arī par lielo netaisnību.

Tāpēc man vienmēr liekas, ka tas nenotika pavasarī. Jo manā zemapziņā tas palicis kā drūms, drūms laiks.

 

“Son of Saul” is hard to watch but so worth it

There are good movies and then there are special movies. There are stories and then there are powerful stories. I love movies that tell a good story and engage my emotions and imagination. A good story draws you in and helps you to relate to the main characters. It helps you to try to imagine yourself in their shoes.

“Son of Saul” (2015), movie made in Hungary, is a heartbreaking story. Sometimes we may think – why another movie about the Holocaust? We know the history, we know the suffering, we know the banality of this evil. What else can we say about this evil? What else needs to be said that has not been said already?

I must say that “Son of Saul” moved me more than most movies about the Holocaust. It follows two days in the life of Saul, a Hungarian Jew, who is forced to work as Sonderkommando. These were prisoners in extermination camps like Auschwitz who were made to dispose of the bodies. Saul tries to give a proper Jewish burial to a young nameless boy who could be his son.

What makes this story different from others? Many things. The soundtrack is haunting – there is no music but only the every day sounds of the camp. People, shovels, doors, prayers, screams, commands, whispers. Also there is no melodrama. The camera blurs the background where you can see the indescribable things but the focus is on the faces of main characters. It is a beautiful and unforgettable portrait of one guy trying to keep his humanity in this hell.

Saul is trying to survive but more than anything he is trying to survive as a person. He is desperately trying to hold on to something higher and deeper and eternal. He is fighting to keep his soul and not caring anymore if he loses his body. Looking in his face, I try to imagine his thoughts.

I like that the director found native speakers (sorry but I often don’t get convinced by an American or British actor) and all the characters speak in their own languages. Hungarian, German, Russian, Polish… I don’t know what it is about the language but it is such a part of who we are. There is a scene in the movie where a German SS officer who is deciding whether to keep Saul alive or not, says, “Hungarian is such a nice language.” The paradox of evil – to like the language and maybe even the culture but to kill the people who belong to that culture and language.

It is more than just a story about the Holocaust and I find it very relevant.

For me it is difficult to relate to Oscar Schindler or Władysław Szpilman but here I felt I could put myself in the time and place. Saul could be anyone. Saul is anyone and everyone. He could be speaking Latvian or Armenian or Rwandan or Arabic or Farsi or Hebrew or Rohingya… son of men.

 

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Images from the movie “Son of Saul”