Liawon Grischuk, painter and liquidator, Minsk, Belarus

"Everyone is dead"

The painter Liawon Grischuk was drafted as a reservist after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and was deployed for decontamination operations for around one month. Twice he was on the roof of the destroyed reactor for two minutes at a time. He is the only one of his unit who is still alive today.

1995 Liawon Grischuk found his way to the light of God, since then he is painting it.

"It was a hot summer day, but out of this black hole was only an icy coldness. And it was dead quiet. It was my second time on the roof of the destroyed reactor in Chernobyl, out of which there was a big gaping hole. We had been instructed to not look down under any circumstances, but we did it nonetheless and looked death into the eye. Our mission was simple enough. Using a sledgehammer to hew away at a graphite block the size of a cupboard, shovelling the fragments hardly as large as a box of cigarettes and throwing them into this black hole. We had two minutes. Over a loudspeaker, the commanding officer urged us to hurry, as he sat on the floor and watched us on a monitor. Two minutes per assignment. The ascent alone took us three hours. Not just because of the weight of the lead vest and the lead apron to protect us from the radiation, but also because of the chaos left by the explosion. Everything was a mess. It was a veritable climb from floor to floor, over rubble and collapsed walls. We sometimes squeezed ourselves through a narrow hole, other times we were urged by a warning sign to hurry along. And above us the roar of the clanging loudspeaker. Two minutes for a small piece of radioactive contaminated graphite. Two minutes that changed all our lives for ever. They sent us up twice, but we only wore the lead vest the first time because they couldn't be found the second time, leaving us with only the lead apron. The first time the officer had given me a dosimeter, which I hung around my neck and wore under my vest. Afterwards he took it back and glanced quickly through the display window and noted down the dose: 12 roentgen*. There were no longer any dosimeters the second time. I asked about the dose upon my return, but all the officer said was: "12 roentgen". It was obvious that he always wrote down the same dose no matter what actually happened up there. Only close to three decades later did the then-commanding general recall on television how he had haggled over the minutes with his superiors. It was clear to him that he had sent his people to certain death. So he negotiated and was finally able to arrive at the two minutes, which he deemed just about acceptable. He was mistaken. Of the 31 men in my brigade, I am the last survivor and have been since 2001. I'm quite sure that I am also the only one still alive among everyone who had been sent onto the roof. After the assignment, all of us became ill, our noses were bleeding. We were told that this is only temporary, that it wouldn't get worse. They advised us to drink alcohol to reduce the radiation. Many of us, myself included, stuck with this and became alcoholics. We were susceptible to all kinds of diseases, could no longer work, smoked, drank and felt we had become a burden on our relatives. In 1995 it dawned me on me, and I found my way to the light of God and faith in a protestant chapel. This saved me. I stopped drinking, had a great support in my wife, and eventually began to paint. I always paint the light that saved me. It's everywhere, even in cemeteries. It redeemed me and freed me. And it has saved my life. I'm still here and I won't stop to praise God and his light until the day I die.

*12 roentgen corresponds to 120 millisieverts or 120 times the annual dose still deemed accepetable.

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The suffering of the liquidators

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