"It looks like war, but there’s no shooting" – Liquidators of the Chernobyl Catastrophe
27 April, 2018

In the frontline village of Starohnativka, Donetsk region, live twenty families of Chernobyl liquidators. Why are there so many liquidators in one village? It’s a coincidence. But every year the number decreases: some leave, others die.

"The first line of defense" – locals say in the words of the military. Although, compared with the last few years, the shooting has decreased. Now the village of Hranitne receives most of it. It’s closer to the line of contact.

The locals here have the same problems as everyone else who lives near the line of contact: lack of coal and firewood, no medicine or good doctors, a small pension. The liquidators need to re-register their documents and prove that they really were in Chernobyl. The village was recently tacked on to Volnovakha – the former district center, Telmanove, became occupied territory. Today liquidators are rarely remembered, even on the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The authorities have more urgent matters to worry about.

First story: Leontiy Khorkhulu and Tamara Kryva

Leontiy Khorkhulu worked at the Chernobyl power plant measuring radiation. He went there a year after the accident, in 1987. He was a military officer and that’s where was assigned to. He made 56 trips. He says he was going for the "record". In 2004, he had a stroke, which left him paralyzed. He has not gotten out of bed in 14 years.  His wife Tamara – who “inherited” him as her husband – takes care of him.

Leontiy Khorkhulu worked at Chernobyl measuring radiation in 1987. In 2004, he was paralyzed after having a stroke. He has not been able to get out of bed since. Starohnativka, Donetsk region, 22.04.18 Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

“They brought you in for an interview, and tomorrow we’re immediately going to the zone. Are you not afraid?” Leontiy remembers 1987 when he ended up in Chernobyl. “What is there to be afraid of? Everyone goes there. Alright, let's go. It's okay. The sarcophagus has been closed, those guys are soldiers too.”

“April 26 .. 32 years have already gone by. They initially hid everything. Overall, somewhere around 600,000 people have gone through this, all of my books are about Chernobyl – memoirs with many names. Everyone dies before the age of 50, well, most.”Leontiy made 56 trips to the exclusion zone. Each shift lasted 8 hours. Starohnativka, Donetsk region, 22.04.18 Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

Leontiy’s only entertainments are the books and the TV in the next room when the curtain isn’t covering the screen. Tamara takes care of him, feeds him and gives him medicine regularly. She feeds him fruit twice a day – for the vitamins. She says: "Leo will live to 100.”  Tamara’s first husband was also a liquidator and Leontiy’s friend. When he died, his last request was that Tamara marries his friend. They lived together for four years before Leontiy had a stroke.

"He got on my nerves, I wanted to leave him. One time I chased him with stick from the store where he was drinking. And then he had a stroke. I couldn’t very well leave him, could I? So, I look after him"

Tamara Kryva buried her first husband, who was also a liquidator, and his last wish was for her to marry Leontiy. The two men were friends and worked at Chernobyl together. They have three children and 8 grandchildren. Starohnativka, Donetsk region, 22.04.18 Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

Tamara is from Shepetivka but has lived almost all of her life in the Donetsk region. She says she liked the houses and fences – they looked like the kind wealthy families had. Now she heads the Chernobyl Union, collecting money for funerals when someone dies. She has three children and eight grandchildren, a small house and a garden. There’s only one problem – the house has a crack as a result of constant explosions.

Tamara feeds her bedridden husband fruit twice a day because he needs the vitamins. Starohnativka, Donetsk region, 22.04.18 Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

She talks about her grandchildren, who hid in the basement during the shelling. Leontiy did not hide in the basement then – three people are needed to get him down. He said, If I die, then I die.

Tamara has a small garden and farm, she is the head of the association of the people from Chernobyl. She collects money for the funerals when someone dies. Starohnativka, Donetsk region, 22.04.18 Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

"He was beautiful, a good football player, we called him Diego Maradona,” she says, showing photos of a young Leontiy.

“He was handsome, he played football well, we called him Diego Maradonna,” Tamara says, describing her husband Leontiy. She shows us his photo and liquidator’s certificate. Starohnativka, Donetsk region, 22.04.18 Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

Leontiy jokingly calls his wife "Bandera." Tamara is a "Greek-Tatar". Leontiy laughs but then turns serious.

Leontiy’s only forms of entertainment are books and the television in the next room, that’s if the curtain isn’t covering the screen. Starohnativka, Donetsk region, 22.04.18 Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

“Well, I’m thankful for the girl. She’s been looking after me for 14 years, not everyone would have agreed to this, this is a civil act of heroism.”

Second Story: Mykola and Valentyna Kotesov

Mykola Kotesov doesn’t have a liquidator certificate. In Chernobyl, he was a guard on the border of the exclusion zone. Because of this, he gets the minimum pension.

When Mykola was doing his military service in May 1986, he lived in a tent 10km away from the reactor, guarding the “border.” Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

In 1986 he spent the month of May living in a tent 10 kilometers away from the reactor. He was guarding the entrance to the exclusion zone with a couple of others, to ensure there was no looting and theft.

"When we arrived, the air was different, apparently from radiation,” he recalls his time serving in the exclusion zone.

Mykola and Valentyna live on the breadline. Valentyna complains that they Mykola does not receive the same pension as the other liquidators. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

“When arrived it was May and we were in gas masks. We were sweating and afraid of radiation. Then, after a week, we took the gas masks off and put the respirators on. The part near the nose turned red from radiation. Then we threw that out too. What’s the point of wearing it, if it’s covered in radiation?”

Mykola remembers how they hid from mosquitoes, how they dug a hiding space for food, and how they shared left overs with the locals.

Valentyna has a small farm. They grow things in the garden, they have a cow and sell the milk to their neighbors. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

The couple lives in poverty. They grow vegetables and sell the milk from their cow to the neighbors. Valentyna complains that Mykola doesn’t receive the same pension as the other liquidators.

Mykola and Valentyna have two children (their middle child died when he was 10). The younger is in seventh grade. Their daughter lives with their grandson in non-government controlled Makiivka. They try to help them with produce and money. Sometimes they visit. Mykola says that the checkpoint reminds him of the one in the exclusion zone.

The crossing at the checkpoint in Donetsk reminds Mykola of the checkpoint at the exclusion zone. The only difference is that it was quiet there, there was no shooting. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

“It’s similar, there’s barbed wire… But no one was shooting there. We didn’t know what we could die from there. But here something can fall and kill you. We have already lived, but the children... It's frightening, of course, ideally, there would be no war. But now they’re shooting somewhere far away, it doesn’t disturb us particularly. In Chernobyl, I was afraid that I might not be able to have children. But God had mercy on us.”

Third Story: Yuriy and Valentyna Bostandzhy

Yuriy Bostandzhy worked at the Starhnativka fish farm. He was sent to work in Chernobyl on a “voluntary-compulsory” basis at the age of 21. He says that he had no idea where he would be sent when he turned up at the district center. Once he arrived, he was ordered to work at the bath house, where officers would bathe after returning from Chernobyl.

“They told me to go to Telmanove. That’s when I knew for certain that there was an explosion in Chernobyl. That was May 21. You couldn’t refuse, that meant prison. I went like a normal guy. I was in Chernobyl itself for two months. I had no way out, I’ll tell you straight away. All kinds of generals bathed in the outdoor baths, but I lived right in the zone.”

Yuriy Bostandzhy was sent to work in Chernobyl on a “voluntary-compulsory” basis at the age of 21. He was ordered to work in the baths where the officers went to bathe. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

Yuriy says he was frightened. Their part was in the 30-kilometer zone. The air tasted sweet, he says. "It was hard to open my mouth. I asked the older ones, they said it was radiation."

He says they were given mineral water and fed "very well."

"They had canned meat from 1946 that had come from the warehouses, but I had never eaten canned meat as tasty as that in my life. The tomatoes were a deep red. Everything was from 1946, but tasty."

Yuriy also recalls how they ate the fruit in the exclusion one:“You’d walk along the streets, the houses were empty. Everything was sealed. Beautiful strawberries, pears, apples. But you couldn’t eat it… But we did. We wanted to.”

Yuriy has created an oasis in his garden with flowers, a barbecue, a gravel path and a gazebo. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

Yuriy does not receive a liquidator’s pension. He earns money from truck-driving, he transports grain. He has made himself an oasis in his own yard, with flowers, a barbecue and a gravel path. At the weekends he sits outside, under the gazebo, drinking with his friends. He is proud of the two beauties in his life: his wife and daughter.

Yuriy earns money from transporting grain in his truck. He does not a receive a liquidator’s pension. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

Valentyna worked in Telmanove but quit her job when the area fell under occupation. She now works in farming.  

Their family are of Greek heritage from near the Sea of Azov. Yuriy’s mother is buried in Athens, where she was working at the time. It was too expensive to bring her body back home, so her son only has some soil from the place where she was buried. Their house is on the outskirts. From their yard, you can clearly see where the occupied territory is, where the missiles were launched from and where they hit the neighboring house.

Bostandzhy tells his wife not to be photographed with him, “in case she wants to marry again.” Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE  

“Just don’t photograph my truck,” Yuriy worries, “Because people will say that there’s no way you buy that on a low pension. Valentyna, go away, we can’t be photographed together. Maybe I’ll marry again one day.”

/By Anna Tokhmakhchi and Anastasiia Vlasova

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko and Natalie Vikhrov