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Voices from Chernobyl

Lyudmilla Ignatenko, Wife of deceased Fireman Vasily Ignatenko

"Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster" by Svetlana Alexievich, translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen

We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, "I love you." But I didn't know then how much. I had no idea… We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked. I always knew what was happening-where he was, how he was.

One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. "Close the window and go back to sleep. There's a fire at the reactor. I'll be back soon."

I didn't see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he still hadn't come back.

They went off just as they were, in their shirtsleeves. No one told them. They had been called for a fire, that was it.

Seven o'clock in the morning. At seven I was told he was in the hospital. I ran over there' but the police had already encircled it, and they weren't letting anyone through. Only ambulances. The policemen shouted: "The ambulances are radioactive' stay away!" I started looking for a friend, she was a doctor at that hospital.

I grabbed her white coat when she came out of an ambulance. "Get me inside!" "I can't. He's bad. They all are." I held onto her. "Just to see him!" "All right'" she said. "Come with me. Just for fifteen or twenty minutes."

I saw him. He was all swollen and puffed up. You could barely see his eyes.

"He needs milk. Lots of milk'" my friend said. "They should drink at least three liters each."

"But he doesn't like milk."

"He'll drink it now."

Many of the doctors and nurses in that hospital' and especially the orderlies' would get sick themselves and die. But we didn't know that then.

At ten' the cameraman Shishenok died. He was the first.

I said to my husband, "Vasenka, what should I do?" "Get out of here! Go! You have our child." I was pregnant. But how could I leave him? He was saying to me: "Go! Leave! Save the baby." "First I need to bring you some milk, then we'll decide what to do." My friend Tanya Kibenok came running in-her husband was in the same room. Her father was with her, he had a car. We got in and drove to the nearest village. We bought a bunch of three-liter bottles, six, so there was enough for everyone. But they started throwing up terribly from the milk.

They kept passing out, they got put on iv. The doctors kept telling them they'd been poisoned by gas, for some reason. No one said anything about radiation.

I couldn't get into the hospital that evening. There was a sea of people. I stood under his window, he came over and yelled something to me. It was so desperate! Someone in the crowd heard him-they were being taken to Moscow that night. All the wives got together in one group. We decided we'd go with them. "Let us go with our husbands! You have no right!" We punched and we clawed. The soldiers-there were already soldiers-they pushed us back. Then the doctor came out and said they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothing. The clothes they'd worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with the bags, but the plane was already gone. They tricked us. So that we wouldn't be there yelling and crying.

Later in the day I started throwing up. I was six months pregnant, but I had to get to Moscow.

In Moscow we asked the first police officer we saw, Where did they put the Chernobyl firemen? And he told us, which was a surprise; everyone had scared us into thinking it was top secret. "Hospital number 6. At the Shchukinskaya stop."

It was a special hospital, for radiology, and you couldn't get in without a pass. I gave some money to the woman at the door, and she said: "Go ahead." Then I had to ask someone else, beg.

Finally I was sitting in the office of the head radiologist, Angelina Vasilyevna Guskova. Right away she asked: "Do you have kids?"

What should I tell her? I can see already I need to hide that I'm pregnant. They won't let me see him! It's good I'm thin, you can't really tell anything.

"Yes," I say.

"How many?"

I'm thinking, I need to tell her two. If it's just one, she won't let me in.

"A boy and a girl."

"So you don't need to have any more. All right, listen: His central nervous system is completely compromised, his skull is completely compromised."

Okay, I'm thinking, so he'll be a little fidgety.

"And listen: If you start crying, I'll kick you out right away. No hugging or kissing. Don't even get near him. You have half an hour."

But I knew already that I wasn't leaving. If I leave, then it'll be with him. I swore to myself!

I come in, they're sitting on the bed, playing cards and laughing.

"Vasya!" they call out.

He turns around: "Oh, well, now it's over! She's found me even here!"

He looks so funny, he's got pajamas on for a size 48, and he's a size 52. The sleeves are too short, the pants are too short. But his face isn't swollen anymore. They were given some sort of fluid.

I say: "Where'd you run off to?"

He wants to hug me.

The doctor won't let him. "Sit, sit," she says. "No hugging in here."

We turned it into a joke somehow. And then everyone came over, from the other rooms too, everyone from Pripyat. There were twenty-eight of them on the plane.

I wanted to be with him alone, if only for a minute. The guys felt it, and each of them thought of some excuse, and they all went out into the hall. Then I hugged him and I kissed him. He moved away.

"Don't sit near me. Take a chair."

"That's just silliness," I said, waving it away.

The next day when I came, they were lying by themselves, each in his own room. They were banned from going in the hallway, from talking to each other. They knocked on the walls with their knuckles. Dash-dot, dash-dot. The doctors explained that everyone's body reacts differently to radiation, and what one person can handle, another can't. They even measured the radiation of the walls where they had them. To the right, the left, and the floor beneath. They moved out all the sick people from the floor below and the floor above. There was no one left in the place.

He started to change-every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks-at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers-as white film… the color of his face… his body… blue… red… gray-brown. And it's all so very mine! It's impossible to describe! It's impossible to write down! Or even to get over. The only thing that saved me was that it happened so fast; there wasn't any time to think, there wasn't any time to cry.

Fourteen days. In fourteen days a person dies.

It was the ninth of May. He always used to say to me: "You have no idea how beautiful Moscow is! Especially on V-Day, when they set off the fireworks. I want you to see it."

I was sitting with him in the room, he opened his eyes.

"Is it day or night?"

"It's nine at night."

"Open the window! They're going to set off the fireworks!"

I opened the window. We were on the eighth floor, and the whole city was there before us! There was a bouquet of fire exploding in the air.

"Look at that!" I said.

"I told you I'd show you Moscow. And I told you I'd always give you flowers on holidays…"

I looked over, and he was getting three carnations from under his pillow. He had given the nurse money, and she had bought them.

I ran over and kissed him.

"My love! My only one!"

He started growling. "What did the doctors tell you? No hugging me. And no kissing!"

He got so bad that I couldn't leave him even for a second. He was calling me constantly: "Lusya, where are you? Lusenka!" He called and called. The other biochambers, where our boys were, were being tended to by soldiers because the orderlies on staff refused, they demanded protective clothing. The soldiers carried the sanitary vessels. They wiped the floors down, changed the bedding. They did everything. Where did they get those soldiers? We didn't ask. But he-he-every day I would hear: Dead. Dead. Tischura is dead. Titenok is dead. Dead.

He was producing stool twenty-five to thirty times a day. With blood and mucus. His skin started cracking on his arms and legs. He became covered with boils. When he turned his head, there'd be a clump of hair left on the pillow. I tried joking: "It's convenient, you don't need a comb." Soon they cut all their hair. I did it for him myself. I wanted to do everything for him myself. If it had been physically possible I would have stayed with him twenty-four hours a day. I couldn't spare a minute. [Long silence.]

There's a fragment of some conversation, I'm remembering it. Someone saying: "You have to understand: This is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning. You're not suicidal. Get a hold of yourself." And I was like someone who'd lost her mind: "But I love him! I love him!" He's sleeping, and I'm whispering: "I love you!" Walking in the hospital courtyard, "I love you." Carrying his sanitary tray, "I love you."

One night, everything was quiet. We were all alone. He looked at me very, very carefully and suddenly he said:

"I want to see our child so much. How is he?"

"What are we going to name him?"

"You'll decide that yourself."

"Why myself, when there's two of us?"

"In that case, if it's a boy, he should be Vasya, and if it's a girl, Natasha."

I was like a blind person. I couldn't even feel the little pounding underneath my heart. Even though I was six months in. I thought that my little one was inside me, that he was protected.

And then-the last thing. I remember it in flashes, all broken up. I was sitting on my little chair next to him at night. At eight

I said: "Vasenka, I'm going to go for a little walk." He opened his eyes and closed them, letting me go. I had just walked to the hotel, gone up to my room, lain down on the floor-I couldn't lie on the bed; everything hurt too much-when the cleaning lady started knocking on the door. "Go! Run to him! He's calling for you like mad!"

Right away I called the nurse's post. "How is he?" "He died fifteen minutes ago." What? I was there all night. I was gone for three hours! I ran down the stairs. He was still in his biochamber, they hadn't taken him away yet. I didn't leave him anymore after that. I escorted him all the way to the cemetery. Although the thing I remember isn't the grave, it's the plastic bag. That bag.

At the morgue they said, "Want to see what we'll dress him in?" I did! They dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn't get shoes on him because his feet had swelled up. They had to cut up the formal wear, too, because they couldn't get it on him, there wasn't a whole body to put it on. The last two days in the hospital-pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I'd wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff. It's impossible to talk about. It's impossible to write about. And even to live through. They couldn't get a single pair of shoes to fit him. They buried him barefoot.

Everyone came-his parents, my parents. They bought black handkerchiefs in Moscow. The Emergency Commission met with us. They told everyone the same thing: It's impossible for us to give you the bodies of your husbands, your sons, they are very radioactive and will be buried in a Moscow cemetery in a special way. In sealed zinc caskets, under cement tiles. And you need to sign this document here.

If anyone got indignant and wanted to take the coffin back home, they were told that the dead were now, you know, heroes, and that they no longer belonged to their families. They were heroes of the state. They belonged to the state.

Right away they bought us plane tickets back home. For the next day. At home I fell asleep. I walked into the place and just fell onto the bed. I slept for three days. An ambulance came. "No," said the doctor, "she'll wake up. It's just a terrible sleep."

I was twenty-three.

Two months later I went back to Moscow. From the train station straight to the cemetery. To him! And at the cemetery

I started going into labor. Just as I started talking to him-they called the ambulance. It was two weeks before I was due.

They showed her to me-a girl. "Natashenka," I called out. "Your father named you Natashenka." She looked healthy. Arms, legs. But she had cirrhosis of the liver. Her liver had twenty-eight roentgens. Congenital heart disease. Four hours later they told me she was dead. And again: "We won't give her to you." "What do you mean you won't give her to me? It's me who won't give her to you!"

[She is silent for a long time.]

In Kiev they gave me an apartment. It was in a large building where they put everyone from the atomic station. It's a big apartment, with two rooms, the kind Vasya and I had dreamed of.

[She stands up, goes over to the window.]

There are many of us here. A whole street. That's what it's called-Chernobylskaya. These people worked at the station their whole lives. A lot of them still go there to work on a provisional basis, that's how they work there now, no one lives there anymore. They have bad diseases, they're invalids, but they don't leave their jobs, they're scared to even think of the reactor closing down. Who needs them now anywhere else? Often they die. In a minute. They just drop-someone will be walking, he falls, goes to sleep. He was carrying flowers for his nurse and his heart stopped. They die, but no one's really asked us. No one's asked what we've been through. What we saw. No one wants to hear about death. About what scares them.

But I was telling you about love. About my love…

Source: The Paris Review

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© 2007 Chernobyl Info. Photographs by Vincent Mundy © 2005