A phone call woke up my family in Kiev, Ukraine, in the early hours of Saturday, April 26, 1986. As you know, such phone calls are never a good sign.
The caller told my father, a major and a lecturer at the Police Academy of Ukraine, that an emergency alert was issued and all personnel must immediately get to the academy headquarters.
At the headquarters, the commanding officer said there had been a big accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, approximately 50 miles away from Kiev. My father and all other personnel were ordered to go there and help evacuate people. They stayed in Chernobyl for three days and three nights with no protection, not even a mask.
That first day, while my father was away and we were wondering what had happened, a relative called. She was the type to know all the latest gossip in town. "Close all the windows, stay indoors and store your water," she said.
Alas, there was no way to know that our old wooden window frames were no use against radiation, and the water had already been contaminated.
In the following days, some official advice appeared: Wash your footwear upon returning home, take a shower and wash your hair every time you have been outside, change your clothes frequently and, of course, keep your windows shut.
In the nights, we could hear water trucks plying the streets to wash off radiation. They would come up to apartment buildings and aim the hoses at walls and windows as high as they could reach.
In the first days of May, another rumor hit the city: "Get your kids out of here as soon as possible." And that's when the real panic started.
Trying to cope with uncertainty and fear in the first days and weeks after the accident, people were coming up with dozens of "Chernobyl jokes." My mother, a Soviet journalist, was writing them down in a little notebook with red flag on the cover:
"What is the best way to deal with radiation, comrade?
Just wrap yourself in a white sheet and slowly crawl to the nearest cemetery.
Not to create panic."
To curb the panic, Soviet authorities, despite existing dry laws, made vodka and wine readily available even at street vending stalls.
When I heard about the Fukushima disaster, it was like having a flashback. The Japanese government chanted the same "everything is under control" emergency mantra as Soviet authorities did back in 1986.
Here in Ukraine, we know the taste of radiation panic but we lived through it and moved on. So, I hope the Japanese people, too, can crack a joke, have a glass of wine and leave it behind eventually.
But I also know that the real cost of such accidents goes far beyond the acres and acres of contaminated land or the many lives claimed directly by the accident. That cost includes the deep-rooted fear hiding in the heart of every human being after a tragedy like this.
Dana Smolyak is chief political correspondent for Radio Ukraine International English Service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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