That was in January 1987, nine months after the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant.
From Kazakhstan To Chornobyl
"We heard some rumors but didn't know anything about it," said Suyunbai, a 52-year-old member of Kazakhstan's Union of Chornobyl Veterans. "When I first arrived in Chornobyl, what struck me and stuck in my memory was the landscape. It looked like a beautiful painting. When approaching, you could see a city far away, a forest and a path, a river, and the church's [dome] was shining. It was like a painting. It remains a memory of my life."
As the military motorcade approached the site of the disaster, the picture changed dramatically.
"But when we were approaching Chornobyl, [the view] was very different. We called it 'a rusty forest.' It was all burnt. It was staggering. We couldn't comprehend it. It was horrible. But then we had to get used to it slowly," Suyunbai said.
For what turned out to be seven months of work, Suyunbai and his fellow officers had one night of training in Kazakhstan. They were not told that a nuclear explosion had taken place. Even as a former officer in a chemical unit, Suyunbai did not know how high the radiation levels were.
"[We had] no special clothing, just a regular military uniform, because [we were told that] there was already no high radiation," he said. "The radiation level was suitable to work for two hours a day. So we wore a regular uniform. Then we'd [take it off and] shake it, shower, and change only our underwear. The next day was the same."
Thousands Of Clean-Up Workers
Suyunbai is one of some 32,000 people from Kazakhstan who went to Chornobyl to clean up after the disaster. Russian liquidator groups estimate that in total around 600,000 people took part in the clean-up operation. They say the number could be even higher.
Kadyrbek Sasykulov, the president of the Union of Chornobyl, a Kyrgyz veterans' association, participated in the liquidation work in 1988.
By that time, he says, people knew about the scale of the disaster. But, despite their protests or even outright refusal, Sasykulov and many others were forced to go to Chornobyl.
"They said we were going to construct a power plant," Sasykulov said. "We didn't know what kind of plant it was. They said: 'You'll go to the Samara region' and we left the next day. Only in Samara did we learn that Chornobyl was our destination. Some 80 percent of us protested. But our commanders said we would be punished as deserters if we left. They threatened us."
Sasykulov worked in Chornobyl for four months.
"On the third day, many of us felt a sour taste in our mouths and our bodies felt weak. In 1989, after I returned, I had pain all over my body and my joints were weak. In 1991, I retired as a disabled veteran, as did my fellow officers who served at Chornobyl," Sasykulov said.
Sasykulov's story is sadly familiar. Many liquidators have since faced severe health problems. Of the 32,000 liquidators from Kazakhstan, there are now just 6,000 left. According to the Almaty-based Union of Chornobyl, some 4,000 former liquidators die every year in post-Soviet countries.
Sasykulov is one of 4,500 Kyrgyz citizens who cleaned up the disaster in 1986-89. There are some 1,750 left in Kyrgyzstan at present.
He says the children of the liquidators are also suffering from the consequences of the disaster.
"Over 85 percent of [those remaining] are disabled," Sasykulov said. "There are 1,650 children born from the liquidators. Of them, 15 percent are badly sick and disabled. Our task is to address their social needs and also provide medical assistance. Lack of medicine is a big problem. Many Chornobyl liquidators die, many of them and their children are sick."
Seeking More Compensation
Along with their ailing health, the former liquidators have fought another battle -- receiving adequate financial compensation for their suffering.
Over the past few years, Chornobyl veterans have steadily been stripped of their benefits and privileges in all Central Asian countries. In Soviet times, liquidators were given free medicine, health care, and holidays in health resorts and sanatoriums.
The amount of financial compensation depends on the salaries liquidators received before being sent to Chornobyl. But these monthly sums are usually too small to cover even medical expenses.
In a country with an average monthly wage of around $60, Kyrgyzstan's Chornobyl liquidators get some $15-$20 a month. In wealthier Kazakhstan, where the average wage is around $150, Suyunbai gets $110 dollars a month. But he says it covers only utilities.
Russian liquidators are not much better off. Aleksandr Velikin, a 53-year-old liquidator from St. Petersburg, received as little as $36 a month until he sued the authorities last year. Thanks to his court victory, his monthly payment was raised to the ruble equivalent of $130.
Velikin has run the Leningrad Oblast's Chornobyl Union for the past 15 years. He has helped thousands of other liquidators in his region increase their monetary compensation from the state.
The union -- which comprises only himself, a fellow liquidator, and a secretary -- is currently assisting more than 1,700 liquidators in seeking damages in court.
Velikin says the government is violating Russian law by paying Chornobyl clean-up workers such paltry compensation.
"If my employer has caused me damage, he is obligated to pay me compensation in the form of lost salaries, pay for all my medical services, for sanatorium treatment, and medicine," Velikan says. "The government has totally distorted the law and now they are trying to present these payments and privileges as 'benefits.' And 'benefit' means: 'I respect you, I have money today, I will give some to you. [But] sorry, tomorrow I won't have money so I won't give you anything."
Velikin spent three months in the fall of 1986 cleaning up Chornobyl's nuclear reactors and helping erect the concrete sarcophagus that seals off the collapsed reactor. But he says that was the easy part.
Twenty years on, his eyes well with tears as he recalls his worst Chornobyl memory -- clearing the belongings from the houses of the nearby ghost town, Prypyat, evacuated after the accident.
"I enter a two-room flat," he said. "Just try to imagine that you are in a rush for work, you run out quickly. The bed is unmade, you ate something on the run -- there is a half-eaten sandwich and a cup of tea on the table. The flat had been left in such a state. All this was endurable, apart from one thing -- I walked into the second room, a child's bed stood there, the bedspread was thrown off, and there was the imprint of a child's head on the pillow. My daughter was 4 years old at the time."
Velikin says the tragedy of Chornobyl has not yet ended for him.
What he is lobbying for, he insists, is not compassion or fame, but simply official recognition of the damage wrought by Chornobyl to the health and the lives of the liquidators.
"I'm not a hero," he says. "But I did my job honestly."
Mikhail Gorbachev prepares to address the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow on March 1, 1986, seven weeks before the Chornobyl accident (TASS)
SOVIET TELEVISION: Listen to the April 28, 1986, announcement on Soviet television of the Chornobyl nuclear accident two days earlier: Real Audio Windows Media
"There has been an accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power station. One of the atomic reactors has been damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Assistance is being given to the injured and a government commission has been set up."
TELLING THE NATION: Listen to an excerpt from May 14, 1986, address to the nation by Soviet leader MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, in which he acknowledges the disaster for the first time and discusses measures being taken to limit the damage: Real Audio Windows Media
"All of you know that we have been struck by a misfortune recently -- the accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. It has painfully affected the Soviet people and troubled the international community. We have, for the first time, confronted in reality the dreadful force of nuclear energy that got out of control. Considering the extraordinary and dangerous character of what happened in Chornobyl, the Politburo [of the Central Committee of the Communist Party] has taken in its hands all organization of efforts to eliminate the disaster and confine its consequences as soon as possible. The party, Soviet and economic authorities of Ukraine and Belarus have assumed an enormous share of work and responsibility. As of today 292 people have been hospitalized with radiation sickness of various levels of severity. Seven of them have died. On behalf of the Central Committee of the [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and the Soviet government, I express deep sympathy to the families and relatives of those who have died, their colleagues, all those who have suffered from this misfortune, who have endured personal grief."
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