The Other Chernobyl Story

Rosa Miriam Elizalde Castro, at the foot of the plane’s steps, receives the first patients of the “Chernobyl Children” program.

Anticommunism surfs on the crest of the wave of debates that have accompanied HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries. Many of those who have rushed to call it the best television production of all time have reduced its indisputable artistic value to a utilitarian and simplistic reading that allows no other point of view than that of introducing into the Left a feeling of guilt of universal dimensions.

However, the story of the Chernobyl tragedy has other chapters that have been left out of the series and that transcend the nuclear accident, the trial of the Soviet bureaucrats who restricted the information of the facts and the suicide of the scientist Valery Legasov, director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy and one of those who directed the damage control operation, tragic hero of the successful production of HBO.

Craig Mazin, the screenwriter, does not conceal his admiration for those who took it upon themselves, many at the cost of their own lives, to neutralize as much as possible the consequences of the atomic explosion. Firefighters, miners, construction workers, soldiers and ordinary civil servants worked under conditions of extreme radiation exposure.

The “liquidators” – as they were called – were not a horde of poor devils. “A mob of ignoramuses is of no use in such a complex accident. Most of them were nuclear physicists, geologists, uranium miners with experience in the manipulation of these substances, who knew perfectly well what they were exposed to”, reported the blog La pizarra de Yuri almost ten years ago. The surviving “liquidators” in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are still proud to have saved and to continue saving so many lives.

There is another story of the accident buried for decades along with the Chernobyl reactor. The radiation victims, for 21 consecutive years, traveled more than 9,000 kilometres to heal from the terrible aftermath on an Atlantic beach. The twenty-six thousand one hundred and fourteen affected, of which some 23,000 were children, occupied the houses of Tarará, a seaside resort of very white sands 27 kilometers from the Cuban capital, where, according to Ernest Hemingway, “the best jetty in Havana” is located.

Received by Fidel Castro at the foot of the plane’s stairs, the first patients arrived on March 29, 1990, to begin a project to provide comprehensive care for children affected by disasters, which also benefited victims of the 1988 Armenian earthquake and Brazilians who handled a radioactive source of Cesium 137 in the city of Goiâgnia, another nuclear accident that contaminated hundreds of people in 1987, a year after Chernobyl and of which there is no mention.

Image of the exhibition “Lost documents: Chernobyl children in Cuba”.

Cuba was the only country that responded to the Ukrainian government’s call to attend the victims of the reactor with a massive and free health program, which included not only medical services and the follow-up of each case until final recovery, but also psychological and educational care. In addition to hospitals, classrooms and recreation centers were created in Tarará for children who needed long stays and who traveled to the island with family members and teachers.

The effects of Chernobyl radioactivity lasted longer than the bombs dropped by the U.S. government in Japan during World War II, but their mortality was much lower thanks to the “liquidators” and the Cuban health system. Although there are no conclusive figures, United Nations experts have estimated that some 4,000 people died as a result of the nuclear accident compared to 246,000 deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 20 percent as a result of injuries or radiation poisoning.

No significant increase in leukaemia has been detected in the population of contaminated areas in the former Soviet Republics. The reason seems to be the fact that Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians benefited from the first clinical trials with cancer vaccines created by Cuban scientists, and also from pioneering treatments in the world to combat leukaemia and skin depigmentation. The best scientists and the most renowned pediatricians attended to those children who needed a legion of translators to carry out medical programs and alleviate the terror of families. Not without cost to Cuba. The Tarará project was maintained against all odds even during the terrible 90’s of the last century, when the Caribbean country experienced the worst economic crisis in living memory, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the hardening of Washington’s sanctions, which opportunistically tightened the siege to subjugate the rebellious island.

Most of the children who arrived in Tarará returned to their country healthy, but Aleksander Savchenko remained living on the Island. Totally cured, he studied Stomatology, married and has a daughter half Cuban, half Ukrainian. If you look right now at her Facebook wall, you will see that her latest post is a recent news item: “50 Ukrainian children will be cared for in Cuba, as part of a new cooperation program inspired by the ‘Chernobyl children’ program.

Translation by Internationalist 360°