Paulo Coelho

Stories & Reflections

Chernobyl and I

Author: Paulo Coelho

2004: I saw the nuclear plant from the window of the plane. We arrive in a small village, where an improvised museum was created. A sleepy young man take the five people to a room where there arte some artifacts, masks, and a projector connected to an old television. We start watching the video, filmed in the morning of April 26, 1986. A normal day in a normal city.

A man is sitting, having coffee. A mother is strolling with her baby on the street. People are busy, going to work; one or two people are waiting at the bus stop. An elderly man is reading the newspaper at a public square bench.

But the video has a problem: there are several horizontal lines, as if the tracking bottom needed to be adjusted, so that I and the other people, who are with me, could see a better image.

I think of having someone fixing it, but I also think that someone must have noticed it, and soon they will take care of it. The video about the small  city keeps running with absolutely nothing interesting besides the scenes of ordinary life.

It is possible that some of these people know that an accident has happened 2km from there. It is also possible that they know that there were 30 casualties, which is a high number, but not high enough to change the routine of the city’s inhabitants.

The scenes now show school buses parking. There they’ll stay for many days, while nothing happens. The images are very bad, and I turn to Katya, asking her to see what is going on.

She doesn’t answer – she lost her voice.

I turn to Oleg, who says a single sentence:

‘It isn’t the tracking. It is radiation.’

At 1:23 a.m. on April 26, the worst disaster created by the man took place in Chernobyl, Ukraine, where I am now watching this video.

With the explosion of a nuclear reactor, the local people were submitted to a radiation 90 times higher than the one from the Hiroshima bomb.

It was necessary to evacuate the region immediately, but no one, absolutely no one, said anything – after all, the government doesn’t commit errors.

A week later, a small note of five lines came up in Page 32 of the local newspaper, mentioning the death of the workers, and nothing else. In the meantime, Labour Day was being celebrated throughout the entire former Soviet Union, and in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, people were parading unaware that invisible death was in the air.

I am thrown back to my past: I am at a bar in Jardim Botânico, in Rio de Janeiro, when Globo TV broadcasts the news. At this point, devices in Sweden, thousands of kilometers from Ukraine, detected the radioactive dust that is travelling in their direction.

Only 30 deaths on that day. And yet, according to the 1995 report from the United Nations, a total of nine million people around the world were directly affected by the disaster, among them 3-4 million children.

The 30 deaths, according to expert John Gofman, turned into thousand of fatal cancer cases and the same number of non-fatal cases. The silence of the guilty, however, lasted much more than expected; after all, no one sees the radioactive dust. But finally, when the entire world learned about it, when the dust had already spread throughout Europe, 400,000 people had do evacuate.

As many as 2,000 cities were simply scratched off the map.

The video, filmed by the KGB – the secret police from the Soviet Union – ends with agents putting on special clothes.

Katya, Oleg, Yuri and Lena are crying.

We get up. Because of the silence of the guilty, the innocent also stay in silence – because there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to say.

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