Toen in april 1986 een van de reactoren van de kerncentrale bij Tsjernobyl ontplofte, had ik als jonge militair al vele nucleaire oefeningen achter de rug. We waren getraind om een aanval van het Warschaupact met nucleaire wapens te doorstaan. Maar we begrepen donders goed dat we ondanks onze uitrusting en vaardigheden, maar een kleine kans hadden om een nucleaire explosie in onze nabijheid te overleven.
Vanuit professioneel oogpunt leert Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster van Nobelprijswinnares Svetlana Aleksijevitsj (Alexievich in het Engels) me dat het met de nucleaire rampenbestrijding in de Sovjet-Unie van 1986 belabberd gesteld was. Van een doordacht rampenplan inclusief een bedreven en toegeruste rampendienst was geen sprake. Er werd vooral geïmproviseerd. Puinruimers werden met onvoldoende bescherming het besmette gebied ingestuurd.
Emotioneel gezien wordt dit boek me telkens te veel. De verhalen van overlevenden, die Aleksijevitsj heeft opgetekend, zijn zó aangrijpend dat ik het boek na tien of twintig bladzijden steeds weer moet wegleggen. Om op adem te komen. Me te herpakken. Een fragment:
‘We left on the third day. The reactor was on fire. […] 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 he hospital. They had black spots all over their bodies. These spots would appear, the 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 eveyone 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 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.’
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, Svetlana Alexievich, Picador, 2006