Chernobyl 30 years on: Australian survivor recounts ‘catastrophic time’

Memorials have been held across the globe this week to remember the victims of the Chernobyl disaster.

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Survivor Alexander Vainer, who moved to Australia soon after the accident, spoke to SBS about the event.

Where were you when the accident happened?

I used to work for Chernobyl. I am a builder. I was renovating a children’s pioneer camp when the Chernobyl accident happened and the team were not far from (the power plant). A supervisor came to us saying that Chernobyl had blown up. It was on April 26th 1986. He also told us that instead of renovating the children’s camp, we had to work on the same buildings but make a field hospital from it. We had cars driving from the Chernobyl area into our place every day. Parked in front, these cars had 1,000 roentgen (unit of measurement for radiation). They were in Chernobyl for a whole day and then would come and leave the cars in the camp for a night and the drivers would change. They were rostered daily. No one would work twice (driving into Chernobyl).

The camp became a hospital for workers?

It was for the rescuers who were fighting against the fire in Chernobyl. Those who worked (at the plant) were evacuated to Moscow right after it happened.

What else did you see that day?

The special supervisor who must look after certain areas came to us. He was a friend of mine, and he told us that the fourth station (reactor) in Chernobyl had exploded and that we had to be vigilant, that instead of the pioneer camp we’d be rebuilding a field hospital. As soon as we finished our work we could go home. We stayed there from the 26th of April until the 9th of May. Cars that were employed in the accident area and the drivers would come to our camp every day, new drivers would come and take over and leave the next morning. We were looking after all of it as well, taking on that stuff. The roads were always covered with foam, absorbing radiation. We were very close, there was about 30-35 km to Chernobyl.

Were you scared?

What was there to be scared of? We were practically called up as if mobilised. We couldn’t leave, we had to finish our work and then leave. You don’t joke around with the government. We were told to finish our job at such a catastrophic time like Chernobyl and so we did finish it without leaving the area. Normally, we used to be able to travel to Kiev and back, but after the accident happened, the area was closed down, no one could go in or out of the area. All this time we were there and then they let us go to Kiev.

Were you worried about your family?

We couldn’t communicate with them, they knew where we were and that was it. We had no phones like today. Of course I was worried about my family, how could you not if in Kiev they were saying that in order to lower the radiation, they should mop the floor with a wet cloth. And keep the doors and windows shut.

Was your family scared for you?

What could they do? Our daughter was about to give birth. There was a panic in the city. Airports, train and bus stations were overcrowded, people wanted to flee the city, but they couldn’t and we stayed. As the saying goes ‘what will be, shall be’.

What did you have to do when the camp became a hospital?

We were doing the reconstruction, we lived there as well. We did all the same like in usual times. There was no panic, we simply tried to finish it as quickly as possible so it could be used as a field hospital, and we worked 16 hours per day.

How many people came through?

When we were working there, not many people came through, maybe 12 all together. I don’t know how many came after. We finished on the 9th of May and on the 10th we were placed in the buses and sent back home. You can’t tell, judging by the look of these people, that they were sick. They look just fine, despite catching roentgen. What happened to them after, only God knows. It is not obvious that you are sick at the beginning, a person seems quite healthy. As the time goes by, the roentgens start to affect people, the organs start to rot and so on, different sicknesses come to appear. But at the beginning, a person doesn’t even understand that he caught the radioactive stuff.

Have you had any physical after-effects?

To be honest, it is terrible. I have got diabetes, the legs are in pain, my heart stopped functioning well. Mind that (before the accident), I was a master of sports in wrestling. I was a phenomenally healthy man. Now I’m almost nothing. It’s a blessing that I’m still alive. Only three of us are, of those who worked there. One lives in Israel, another in Kiev and me in here. The one who is in Israel is disabled though. We have another one in Israel but he is at death’s door now. Generally, no healthy man is left after that, bear in mind that everyone was 10-15 years younger than me.

When did these diseases start to come up?

The fourth day after I came to Australia, I was sent for a leg surgery, it was in 1989. My leg just stopped working. I had 23 surgeries on this leg and thanks to Australian medicine I still have it and am alive. My doctor says, had it happened 30 years before I wouldn’t have been here.

Do you believe these health problems are related to Chernobyl?

In my family we have never had a sick person. Everybody was extremely healthy. My grandfather was the World Champion in circus wrestling in 1903. Those were the people of big strength, you wouldn’t believe. He could tear apart a chain that lifts three tonnes, he tore it and it broke. Imagine how strong they were. But my younger daughter had three miscarriages and her son was born with Cerebral Palsy. The only one in our family.  How else can I consider the roots of these health problems? I myself was a master of sports in classic wrestling. And I was acquainted with many professional sport celebrities at that time. I think it’s due to my innate strength that I am still alive.

Translation by Olga Klepova.