Unsweetened Truth

Here in “the west”, we have more or less always been spoiled with information and nowadays everything is revealed, even information that we neither want nor need, but the citizens of the USSR did for sure not enjoy the same luxury and even after the fall of the great union, it shall not be taken for granted that the old secrets are revealed. “What I am about to tell you, will never be published by any Ukrainian paper” says 46 years old Sergey Nikolaevich Bondarenko, a former liquidator who was one of the soldiers who participated during the evacuation of Pripyat. “Nor will they talk about it on television. The official truth is a sweetened up version presented with the courage  and pain of our people, but the real truth is too inconvenient for our government, and therefore it’s important not to shut up.”

S. Bondarenko with comrades.
Please do not copy. 
When the alarm sounded, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Powerplant in April 26th, 1986, Sergey Bondarenko was 19 years old and situated with his army unit, the special motorized military units MVD USSR in the Kiev Red Order Decorated Military District. At dawn, the unit №5403 SMCHS was alerted. The soldiers were put in fully armoured vehicles, each and every one of them carrying their private service weapons, gas masks, shields, helmets, vests and grenade This was all by the means of preventing riots and this was all that they knew for the first period of time. No one knew what was going on or where they were going, until the senior officers received their orders to without any delay set course to Chernobyl, a small town in the outskirts of the Kiev region. 

On their way to Chernobyl, the path of the 5403rd unit was crossed by other parts of the Kiev Garrison, which had also been alerted, and five hours after the first explosion at the 4th reactor complex, Bondarenko’s unit arrived in Pripyat. 

“The first day after the accident was a mess” says Sergey Bondarenko. “No one knew what to do and the residents of Pripyat were not informed about anything and thus suspected nothing. Only military chemists carrying dosimeters were silently scanning the neighbourhood to measure the radiation levels.”

The soldiers were given indicators to be carried, but these had expired and could not properly measure the airborne radiation. Sergey Bondarenko tells further from his memory:

“ On the night of 26 April 1986 the orders from the chief of intelligence were for our entire division to be taken 20 kilometers from the present location and to the forest of the river Pripyat, to rest. There on the river bank, we met with employees from the Chernobyl NPP, who as if nothing had happened, were fishing. To our questions about what happened in Chernobyl, they gave evasive answers, explaining that it is only just simply a standard situation and that the consequences were under special control.”

Shortly after that, Bondarenko and his comrades were forced to relocate again, as they were informed of that the levels of radiation on this site were too high. That evening the soldiers were given a not very solid dinner consisting of one can of minced sausages, two slices of bread and four sugar cubes. It became necessary to sleep but there were no place to sleep nearby the forest and there were no tents, so it was decided to sleep in the open air, fully exposed to the radioactive fallout. 

“Our camping place was in a radioactive forest, and 19 years old soldiers were washing themselves in a river contaminated by heavily radioactive metals”

Then the evacuation of Pripyat began. The instructions were to evict the population in six hours (the procedure demanded eight hours) and Pripyat was divided in different sectors, each to be taken care of by groups of soldiers wearing their usual uniforms. I ask Sergey Bondarenko why they weren’t wearing protection suits and his answer is very concise - if the military men would have been wearing protective suits or masks, the residents would have understood that something was wrong, and it was important to avoid outbreaks of panic.  Each entrance of each aparment block had its own bus waiting for the residents and the main task of the soldiers was to inform people to bring their documents and food enough to last for a few days. The evacuation would only be for three days, the residents were told. But when they left, their houses were immediately sealed.  Sergey Bondarenko recalls the horrible sight of watching the people leave their homes. Many were carrying for them important things, and even such things as TV-sets and carpets, but everything had to be left by their homes. Children were crying and people were upset - the evacuation of Pripyat was only relatively calm. 

“All through the night of April 27th, we guarded a deserted city” tells Sergey Bondarenko “My comrades and I were on patrol until the morning. The town was dead. Only single apartments were lit up and on some of the balconies, dogs were howling at the moon. We had to check up on these apartments. There were people who had permission to remain in the town - plant workers, policemen, doctors and military [officers]. We went to check on the rooftops and saw the ominous glow from the power station. It continued to burn even on this third day” 

The soldiers were almost completely cut off from the world outside what would become the 30 kilometers wide exclusion zone, but their pocket radio receivers still managed to receive transmissions from the radio program of Seva Novgorodtsev, “Seva Oborot”, which allowed them to take part of BBC transmissions in Russian in matters of new as well as music. And it was through the BBC that the soldiers first found out about what had happened at the ChNPP; days before it was officially announced on Soviet TV.  

On the 30th of April came the orders to leave the Chernobyl zone and return to Kiev.  Before the departure, the soldiers were shown formal gratitude for the evacuation of the village and protection of its inhabitants. After that, arrived a truck loaded with water tanks, so that 150 soldiers could wash up after their duty in the zone. Everything was polluted, and their uniforms were buried by the roadside. Documents and personal belongings were taken away and not to be returned until the arrival in Kiev. 

In Kiev the members of the units were set in quarantine. Visitors were prohibited. If parents or relatives still came to visit, they could do so from a two floors difference. The soldiers were not allowed to tell anything about where they had been or what they had done, and to make sure that no one made a slip of the tongue, there were intelligence officers surveiling it all Also letters were searched. Every day these liquidators had to go to leave blood samples at the hospital, whilst the doctors would not respond to any questions.  After three months, the quarantine was lifted. 

“Practically everyone who were in the zone developed dermatitis” says Sergey Bondarenko “There were cases of soldiers fainting, but that wasn’t paid attention to. On the identification cards (of the Soviet Armed Forces) they wrote the radiation doses received to 10 Roentgen for soldiers and 25 for the officers. In 1996 they wrote me up for 43,6 Roentgen. Whence this figure come, I do not know.”

In 1996, Sergey Nikolaevich Bondareko was taken in for the first of the operations on his thyroid glands. There was a tumor detected, as a long term result of the exposure of radiation. Bondarenko was given a so called Group-2 pension for disabled, and granted 2000 Ukrainian gryvnas per month (approx. €180), which is barely enough for a month’s supply of food if you have a family.  These are horrible conditions to live on, especially if facing a permanent health condition. Many liquidators were initially offered a large pay, good pensions, cars and other bonuses if they took on the life demanding tasks of cleaning up after the disasters, but they received nothing; their own country turned its back on them and they’re still struggling to be allowed to live a decent life.

Sergey Nikolaevich Bondarenko, speaking for
the liquidators. Please do not copy.
Much more remains, of what Sergey Bondarenko told me, and much remains to be said and done about the situation of the surviving liquidators and about those who are gone. But let us focus on those who are alive.  Sergey Bondarenko is still fighting for the rights of the liquidators. To be treated as the human beings they are. 

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