BUENOS AIRES – Working 150 meters away from Reactor No. 4, a pair of white gloves and a mask were truck driver Oleksandr Zahorodnyuk’s sole protection against radiation in 1986 following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The 63-year-old Ukrainian, who had to work transporting debris, rocks and dirt in a zone exposed to high levels of radiation for 28 days, has spent the last 20 years breathing cleaner air in Argentina.
“Nobody knew then that people were going to die,” the former truck driver told Efe.
Zahorodnyuk was one of thousands of “liquidators,” a name given to those who came from different regions of the then USSR to work in the area to curb the consequences of the radiation brought about after the accident on 26 April 1986.
He remembered the city being completely empty, people wearing protective masks and the imprint fire left on the forest he had to drive through to reach the plant.
“My hair stood on end every time I passed it.”
Zahorodnyuk arrived in Chernobyl on 1 September, four months after the disaster.
He was part of a team of 30 people working at a nuclear power plant being built in southern Ukraine.
“They sent between 20-30 people over 15 days, it was obligatory to go, if you refused they sent you into the army for six months,” he said.
The liquidators were given ID documents and assigned a category from 1-3, which would determine how close they got to the reactor.
Zahorodnyuk was given category 2.
The authorities had divided the area up into three zones, the first one being within a 10-kilometer radius of the reactor. The area was considered highly radioactive.
“When I went into an area where there was radiation, my throat would itch. It happens to a lot of people. When you breathe, your throat itches,” he said.
There were two other zones, one 20-km around the site (considered fairly radioactive) and another 30 km away in which the air was considered “clean.”
“How could that be? It was a lie,” he said.
At the end of every working day the workers took of the radiation meters they wore on their clothes. “‘How much do we have?’ and they’d say ‘no, none, none,’ nobody ever told us how much we had.”
In 2000, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation carried out a report on Chernobyl in which it attributed 30 deaths to the tragedy.
Five years later, a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization said 4,000 of the people who were most exposed to the radiation could die in the long term.
Zahorodnyuk said he doesn’t have physical consequences as a result of exposure to the radiation, but after his time working in Chernobyl has experienced health problems.
“A lot of headaches. More than once a week. Very painful. I had kidney problems, high pressure,” he said.
In 1998 he decided to move away from Ukraine owing to his health concerns.
“Of the colleagues who were with me and who stayed there (in Ukraine) eight have already died,” he said.
After the dissolution of the USSR, Argentina signed an agreement welcoming citizens from Eastern and Central Europe.
The former truck driver filled out the relevant paperwork and decided to travel to the South American country.
“Sold my car and everything else and I came here. And I have been trying it out for 21 years. I like it here.”
A friend of mine moved here in ‘96. He knew about my problems and told me to come and try it out,” he said.
Since being in Argentina, his pressure has normalized, he doesn’t get headaches and his kidneys don’t bother him.
But the move wasn’t easy. He arrived in Argentina without knowing any Spanish and there weren’t many jobs. “I found one as a carpenter, later in construction and then as a mechanic.”
In 1999, Zahorodnyuk met his current partner, a Peruvian artisan with whom four years later he had a second daughter.
He now works as a mechanic and driver.
Zahorodnyuk has not seen the recent “Chernobyl” television series as he doesn’t make enough to be able to access the internet.
He grows fruit and vegetables and raises chickens and ducks at his home in Merlo, in Buenos Aires’ western outskirts, where he lives with his family.
He has not returned to Ukraine. “Not because I don’t want to, though I wouldn’t live there, but because of economic reasons,” he said.
“I like Argentina, I’ve got my house and I’m relaxed because I know how to do everything.”