First-person accounts of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster form a unique oral history of one of the worst catastrophes in human history


This big wheel is one of Dmitrij Sribnyj’s only memories of Pripyat, the town his family was forced to flee when he was just five. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

The article is written by Matthew Holmes and first published at The Guardian's The New East network.

On 26 April 1986 one of four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, triggering the biggest nuclear catastrophe in history. Some living nearby found their lives changed almost immediately, for others across Europe it would be weeks or months until the full scale of the human and environmental disaster was realised.

As the world marks the 30 year anniversary, the Guardian's New East Netrwork asked people to share their memories about the day the disaster hit. From the evacuee living in the nearby town of Pripyat to the daughter of a first responder who saw many colleagues die and a farmer from the Netherlands whose business was ruined, these are their stories.

Evacuee Dmitrij Sribnyj, 35, Peterborough, UK. Then, Pripyat

I was born in Pripyat, 2 km away from the power plant, and lived there with my grandparents. I was five years old when the disaster hit. One of my earliest memories is the morning after the explosion. My grandparents were talking about a very loud bang they had heard during the night, it was on the radio too, but nobody seemed clear what was actually going on.

I’m not sure why, but that day we went to our summer garden, close to the power plant. I could see a lot of smoke surrounding the tower and helicopters circling. I remember seeing one land on the riverside, where I used to go fishing with my grandfather, and fly to the power plant to drop sand on the burning reactor.

The next day it was announced we must leave the town, but that it wouldn’t be for long. We were told to only take documents and the things we’d need for a few days. Leaving town our column of buses passed nobody apart from several army vehicles on their way to the plant. It was then I think my grandmother realized and said “we are not going back”.

After two weeks staying with a family in a nearby village I was taken to Lithuania, then part of the Soviet Union, where my parents were settling. My father worked at another nuclear power plant in Visaginas – then Snechkus – and they were waiting to be assigned a family home.

Sribnyj and his grandfather in Pripyat about a year before the disaster.

Later it was officially announced that it would not be possible to return to Pripyat due to the high levels of radiation and my grandparents moved to Vologda, their hometown in Russia. I finished school in Lithuania before moving to the UK.

Pripyat has been a ghost town for 30 years now – I have not been back since I was evacuated, but I would love to one day.

Daughter of KGB first responder Genia, 31, London. Then, Kiev

My dad worked for the KGB’s first response unit and on the morning of April 27 he received instructions to join evacuation efforts in Pripyat. We lived in Kiev, 130 km away. I was only one at the time so don’t have any recollections of my own but I grew up with the stories which have been re-lived every April for 30 years. No one realized the gravity of the incident immediately, but the fact my dad’s instructions from Moscow were covered in the highest level of secrecy raised the alarm.

Things carried on as normal a few days after the disaster and we attended a huge parade through the streets on May 1 – but soon after my mother would take me, my sister and three other children of family friends to Chernovtsy, a town in the relatively safe west of the country. By that time she said there was a strong burning wind coming from the north that “felt like it carried millions of tiny glass shards.” By May 2, when she was boarding the train with us, hundreds of others were trying to escape. By then it was panic.

My dad stayed and continued his daily trips to the evacuation zone – first just Pripyat, then a 5 km radius, then 10 km, then 30 km. It took 20 years before he agreed to talk about what happened. He arrived at the explosion site early in the afternoon on April 27. By then most of the firefighters and plant workers had been sent home: Some had already died from radiation exposure.

The army commanders gave the orders: The priority was to collect the waste. There were no radioactive suits or protective gear, not even gloves. Most died within hours. The evacuation [of the residents living near the plant] did not go well either, many refused to leave their homes, some fought to stay, some hid. My father, now 62, said that those who stayed were almost certainly sentenced to death.

Not a year went by in our family without a Chernobyl funeral. Mostly my dad’s colleagues and friends. Last year the last remaining person to work with him in the contamination zone died. My dad also has an incurable condition, but it was never a choice, just something he says he had to do. Every Ukrainian has a similar story to tell. No one will ever forget the carelessness of this disaster and its aftermath.

If the explosion was an accident, albeit avertible, the decision to delay the communication and evacuation, as well as deliberately concealing the health dangers – were calculated actions by the government.

In the late 1990s there were a couple of charity funds set up for European families to host Chernobyl kids over the summer. I was welcomed by a generous Swiss family in France when I was 14 and I returned again after high school. I moved to London in 2006 but my family is still in Ukraine – which is still my home.

Ukranian (name witheld), 38, Leeds, UK. Then, Odessa

I was nine and living in Odessa, Ukraine. I don’t remember anything on the news when it actually happened, then slowly some disjointed reporting of a fire in Chernobyl started to appear. As a child it didn’t feel dangerous or particularly important, though lots of things in my daily life changed.

Rumours started to spread that all soft fruit was radioactive. My grandmother stopped buying it. I always ate my apples and pears whole, with the core and seeds, and suddenly I was told off for doing it.I remember running outside and playing with my friend when it started to rain, and then my friend’s mum running out after us, screaming hysterically “you can’t play in the rain anymore or your hair will fall off.”

The leaves on the trees turned yellow and dark brown really early. I remember poplars standing bare in the middle of summer, butit was a year or maybe longer, that we realized the scale of the disaster. Rumours circulated about children with tumours. A few years later my mum had several cysts removed from her breasts and womb. It is hard to say if this was caused by the disaster, but it is possible.

As more details emerged it became apparent how unprepared the Ukraine was for a large-scale environmental catastrophe. There was no organized public appeal for volunteers to house refugees or give donations. It is sad that people died of radiation exposure because they did not take simple precautions: They were not told what kind of fire they were putting out.

Resettler Vasyl Sokirenko, Chernobyl

I first moved to Chernobyl in 1990, enticed by the salary I was offered as a police officer: It was twice what I would’ve earned outside the exclusion zone. After eight years here I retired and moved back to my hometown, Sumy, in the north east of Ukraine, but didn’t last long. I was sitting in a fifth-floor apartment listening to the noise of the highway with nothing to do but drink and watch TV.

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So I decided to move back, it’s officially illegal, but after some negotiation with officials I managed to make it happen. I live in an abandoned property, grow vegetables and keep bees. It’s a nice cottage with lots of space for what I need to do. The former owners, who now live in Crimea, came back to visit once. They saw me, but there was no problem – in fact they were happy I had moved in. Without me, the house would be in ruins.

There are now about 160 of us resettlers here, all of us retired. I feel free here. I test what I eat and it’s all fine, and when summer arrives and the garden is in full bloom it will be self-evident why I chose to come back.

The article is written by Matthew Holmes and first published at The Guardian's The New East network.