Firm Hope Amid Chernobyl’s Gloom
By Awake! correspondent in Ukraine
ON April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear-power-plant accident in history occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Later that year Mikhail Gorbachev, then Soviet president, noted that the tragedy was a cruel reminder that “mankind does not yet control the gigantic forces it has brought to life.”
Emphasizing the significance of the Chernobyl disaster, the German edition of Psychology Today of February 1987, reported: “The reactor disaster in Chernobyl . . . was a turning point in the history of modern civilization. And it was a catastrophe that will substantially affect us for centuries.” The New York Times said that “as much long-term radiation [had been emitted] into the world’s air, topsoil and water as all the nuclear tests and bombs ever exploded.”
The German newspaper Hannoversche Allgemeine predicted that “in the next 50 years an estimated 60,000 people all over the world would die of cancer as a result of the Soviet reactor meltdown . . . A further 5,000 would suffer serious genetic damage and up to 1,000 would suffer from health defects from birth.”
The Chernobyl tragedy created a cloud of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty that has darkened hundreds of thousands of lives. Yet, some have come to enjoy a firm hope amid dense gloom. Consider the Rudnik family, consisting of Victor and Anna and their two daughters, Elena and Anja. In April 1986 the Rudniks were living in Pripet, less than two miles [3 km] from the Chernobyl reactor.
The Day of the Accident
On that tragic Saturday morning, heroic action by firemen at the crippled reactor prevented an even worse outcome. Within hours the firemen were stricken with radiation sickness, and a number later died. Grigori Medwedew, deputy chief engineer at Chernobyl in the 1970’s, describes in his book Burned Souls: “The cloud drifted across the small pinewood plantation that separates the reactor site from the town, covering the small forest with a radioactive rainfall of ash.” Many tons of vaporized radioactive material were reportedly released into the atmosphere!
Remarkably, life in Pripet, a city of over 40,000 inhabitants, seemed to go on normally that Saturday. Children played in the streets, and people prepared for the celebration of the Soviet holiday on May 1. There was no announcement of the accident and no warning of the danger. Anna Rudnik was out strolling with her three-year-old daughter, Elena, when they met Anna’s stepfather. He had heard of the accident. Worried about the risk of radiation, he quickly drove them to his home about ten miles away.
The radioactive cloud rose into the atmosphere and was swept hundreds of miles across Ukraine, Belorussia (now Belarus), Russia, and Poland, as well as over Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. On the following Monday, scientists in Sweden and Denmark became anxious when they recorded high levels of radioactivity.
Soviet soldiers, firemen, construction experts, and others were sent to Chernobyl. This group—some 600,000 strong—became known as the “liquidators.” They prevented an even worse disaster for Europe by sealing the damaged reactor with a sarcophagus of steel and concrete that was ten stories high and six feet [2 m] thick.
Evacuation of nearby areas commenced within the next few days. “We had to abandon our home, leaving everything behind—clothes, money, documents, food—everything we possessed,” explained Victor. “We were deeply anxious, since Anna was pregnant with our second child.”
Some 135,000 people had to move—all settlements within nearly 20 miles [30 km] of the reactor were abandoned. The Rudniks moved in with relatives. However, these relatives grew afraid that the Rudniks would spread radioactivity to them. “They became uneasy,” Anna said, “and in the end they asked us to leave.” Other evacuees had similar painful experiences. At last, in September 1986 the Rudniks resettled in Kaluga, about 110 miles [170 km] southwest of Moscow, Russia.
“Then we finally understood that there was no going back,” Anna observed. “We had lost our beloved family home, where we had been born and raised. It was a beautiful area carpeted with flowers and meadows, with water lilies in the creek. The forest was lush with berries and mushrooms.”
Not only was Ukraine’s beauty tainted but its role as granary of the Soviet Union was affected. Much of the country’s harvest that autumn had been contaminated. Similarly, in Scandinavia, 70 percent of the reindeer meat was declared unfit for consumption because the animals had grazed on radiated lichens. And in parts of Germany, vegetables were left to rot in the fields because of the fear of contamination.
Health Effects of Radiation
Official figures released five years after the accident state that 576,000 people were exposed to radiation. Incidences of both cancerous and noncancerous diseases are reported to be higher among such people. Especially have young people been affected. The New Scientist magazine of December 2, 1995, reported that one of Europe’s leading thyroid experts believes that “as many as 40 per cent of the children exposed to the highest levels of fallout from Chernobyl when they were under a year old could go on to develop thyroid cancer as adults.”
Because Anna had been exposed to the radiation during her pregnancy, doctors insisted that she have an abortion. When Victor and Anna refused, they had to sign a declaration promising that they would care for the child even if it was born deformed. Although Anja is not deformed, she does have myopia, respiratory problems, and cardiovascular diseases. In addition, the health of the other members of the Rudnik family has deteriorated since the disaster. Victor and Elena both developed heart problems, and Anna is but one of many who are registered as Chernobyl invalids.
Among those most heavily radiated were the liquidators who sealed the damaged reactor. Thousands who helped with the cleanup are said to have since died before their time. Many survivors have neurological and psychosomatic complaints. Depression is widespread, and suicide not uncommon.
Angela is one of the survivors who began to suffer severe health problems. At the time of the disaster, she was living in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, over 50 miles [80 km] from Chernobyl. But afterward, she spent time delivering supplies to the liquidators at the reactor site. Svetlana, another survivor, who lives in Irpin’, near Kiev, developed cancer and underwent surgery.
In April 1996, ten years after the great mishap, Mikhail Gorbachev admitted: “We were just not prepared for that sort of situation.” At the same time, President Yeltsin of Russia commented: “Mankind has never experienced a misfortune of this magnitude, with consequences so grave and so hard to eliminate.”
Significantly, the German edition of Scientific American compared the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster to what would have resulted from a medium-size nuclear war. Some estimate the number who have died because of the tragedy at about 30,000.
According to a news report last year, by the tenth anniversary of the accident, there was still an 18-mile [29 km] zone around the plant that is unfit for human life. However, the report noted that “647 determined residents have sneaked, bribed their way or openly walked back into the zone.” It observed: “Absolutely no one lives within a 6-mile [10 km] radius of the plant. Another 12-mile-wide [20 km] belt surrounding that is where the few hundred people have returned.”
Confidence Amid Widespread Fear
For many thousands who once lived near Chernobyl, life has been and still is very difficult. One study of evacuees revealed that 80 percent are unhappy in their new homes. They feel sad, tired, uneasy, irritable, and lonely. Chernobyl was not just a nuclear accident—it was a social and psychological crisis of overwhelming proportions. Not surprisingly, many refer to events as being either pre-Chernobyl or post-Chernobyl.
In contrast with so many others, the Rudnik family cope with the situation remarkably well. They began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses and, as a result, developed a strong faith in the promises found in God’s Word regarding a new world of righteousness. (Isaiah 65:17-25; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:3, 4) Then, in 1995, Victor and Anna symbolized their dedication to God by undergoing water baptism. Later their daughter Elena was also baptized.
Victor explains: “Studying the Bible enabled us to get to know our Creator, Jehovah God, and his purposes for mankind on earth. We are no longer depressed, since we know that when God’s Kingdom comes, such terrible accidents will never occur again. We look forward to the time when the countryside around our dear home near Chernobyl will recover from its depleted state and become part of a wonderful paradise.”
Angela and Svetlana, who also trust in God’s promises of a new world of righteousness, have the same bright outlook despite their radiation-induced sicknesses. “Without a knowledge of the Creator and of his purposes,” Angela noted, “life would be difficult. But having a close relationship with Jehovah helps me remain positive. My desire is to continue to serve him as a full-time preacher of the Bible.” Svetlana added: “My Christian brothers and sisters are a great help to me.”
Study of the Bible has revealed to such ones that accidents caused by “time and unforeseen occurrence” affect people wherever they live and whoever they may be. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) But Bible students have also learned that regardless of how devastating their troubles may be, there is no damage that Jehovah God cannot repair, no injury that he cannot heal, and no loss that he cannot compensate.
How can you too develop confidence in the promises of God and thus enjoy a bright hope? The writer of the Bible book of Proverbs answers: “For your confidence to come to be in Jehovah himself I have given you knowledge today.” (Proverbs 22:19) Yes, you need to take in knowledge by means of a regular Bible study. Jehovah’s Witnesses in your area will be happy to help you do this. They offer a free Bible study program that will be provided at a time and place convenient for you.
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“Mankind has never experienced a misfortune of this magnitude, with consequences so grave and so hard to eliminate.”—President Yeltsin of Russia
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Chernobyl was not just a nuclear accident—it was a social and psychological crisis of overwhelming proportions
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