Ukraine | Near Chernobyl, the ‘football forest’ designed to radiate life

The invisible evils of cesium-131 and much longer enduring isotopes—400 times the radioactivity released at Hiroshima—rained onto the town and north into the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Other than the 30 who died at the scene and from radiation sickness incurred on the day, children were the most vulnerable population in the short term. Since 1990, some 4,000 children and teenagers in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, while birth defects, miscarriages and other maladies have also spiked.

Shcherbak and others from the time recall a Kyiv almost without children in the aftermath of the accident. As winds shifted the radioactive plume to the south, directly over Ukraine’s eternal city, panic resulted with people clogging train stations and bus depots, recalling the period of Nazi incursion in 1941. Children were sequestered indoors, parents advised to wash their children’s hair daily, following the example of the persistent street and window washing—the city “washed and ‘licked,’ ” in Shcherbak’s words, “to an incredible cleanliness.” Ultimately, a large proportion of the children, who had already started inventing radiation games or knocking down blocks and yelling, “Fourth Reactor!” were sent away from Kyiv—to relatives or to summer camps—until the fall. Writes Taras at Ukrainiana (“Chernobyl Is 22,” Apr 26):

I remember those days quite vividly. It was sunny. It was summer-hot. My friends and I would play soccer. As rumors began to spread, my parents would ground me. I remember staring out the firmly sealed window, consumed with jealousy, watching my buddies playing out in the field. I stayed in Kyiv until May 8.

Football became both a potential threat and relief. In the chapter “End of the World” in György Dragomán‘s recently published novel The White King, the Chernobyl accident enters the narrative of 11-year-old Djata, a backup goalkeeper. The vignette helps illustrate the feeling of distrust concerning government directives following the disaster, when iodine was sometimes self-prescribed to personal harm and the belief circulated that red wine or vodka could counter radiation’s effects:

And then the colonel said that last night there was an accident in an atomic power plant in the Great Soviet Union and that the wind brought the radioactivity here, and the fact of the matter was that the game shouldn’t even be allowed to go ahead, but they didn’t want people to panic, so it would be held after all, but he advised us goalies not to dive and to avoid contact with the ball because the ball picks up radioactivity from the grass, and anyway, we should watch out for ourselves because we were handsome, healthy little lads, and then he gave us each this white pill, saying we had to swallow it here and now. “It’s just iodide,” he said, “don’t be scared,” and only after we took the pills did I remember once seeing a movie about the Germans, about how they’d poisoned themselves with white pills like this, and maybe Comrade Colonel wanted to poison us too because he was sorry about telling us about the accident, and I could tell that Janika was thinking the same thing.

In 2006, a goal festers in the Pripyat high school field. On the day of the Chernobyl accident, physical training and soccer practices went on as usual. (© pripyat.com)

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