Chicago Family Remembers Living Through Chernobyl | WBEZ
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Chicago Family Remembers Living Through Chernobyl

(Audio available after show airs)

Thirty years ago this week, the Chelekhova family of Chicago was living in Kiev, Ukraine when the Chernobyl (Chornobyl) nuclear disaster occurred. 

The former Soviet government withheld information about the dangers, and three days later, as people learned of the radiation danger, Tatiana Chelekhova’s children, Mila and Genia (12 and 11), were on a camping trip just 45 miles from Chernobyl with hundreds of other children. 

We revisit a conversation former Worldview producer, Joe Linstroth, had with the Chelekhova family as they reflected on that fateful time for the 25th anniversary of the disaster.

This interview originally aired in 2011.

The Chelekhova family was living in Kiev when the Chernobyl (Chornobyl) nuclear disaster occurred on April 26, 1986. There was little information revealed by the government about the extent of the danger of radiation, the mother Tatiana explained. Three days later, her young children Mila and Genia (12 and 11) were on a camping trip in the woods 45 miles from Chernobyl with hundreds of other children. Once she found out what happened from a friend, Tatiana rushed to the campsite to gather her children and others and take them away with little explanation.

The Chelakhova family now makes their home in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood. In 1990, Tatiana was invited by the Chicago Park District to come to the United States, after working as a flower designer for the Ukrainian government.

After the explosion, the only information Tatiana remembers receiving came from friends and neighbors giving advice. They all showered and washed their clothes, and made their way to St. Petersburg after deciding to leave Kiev as soon as possible. 

"The panic was so big in Kiev that people literally attacked the trains," Tatiana said. 

Once in St. Petersburg, everyone arriving was inspected with a geiger counter. Daughter Mila remembers losing a pair of her favorite tennis shoes, deemed too full of radiation to keep. "We were still thinking it was a summer vacation...and then there went my trainers!" said Mila.

The family spent the summer in St. Petersburg, but it was a rough time; Genia was sick for a month with a constant fever. She eventually lost her remaining baby teeth, and described her lips and mouth turning black. The symptoms eventually went away, but says she continues to worry about the long term consequences of that illness.

After a summer in St. Petersburg, Tatiana sent her daughters to their grandparents' summer home in the northern Ukraine for the fall, and she returned to Kiev. Tatiana remembers no longer being able to pick mushrooms or go fishing, and the odd precautions stores took to keep the radiation out, utilizing plastic strips over open doorways. She said there was no special medicine given to those exposed, but local remedies included drinking red wine to flush radiation out of the body. "The government didn't take care of us at all," said Tatiana.

During that time, however, the Ukrainian sense of community flourished. Tatiana said nobody relied on the government. Instead, "everybody helped everybody," she recalled.

It was only later that the effects of the accident began to show. Ten years after, Tatiana lost both her cousin and her best friend to brain tumors. She says the cemetary in Kiev has a special section for people who died in Chernobyl, and that they were buried like nuclear waste three meters below the ground. Her work after the accident primarily consisted of preparing flowers for funerals. Upon coming to the United States, she said she was so happy there were clean flowers.

Of the lessons she learned in Chernobyl, Tatiana said she believes that information is necessary, explaining that "people get nervous when they don't know what's happening."

She also added, "I am so impressed with what happened in Japan, how people evacuated, how the whole entire city was evacuated within one day."

Daughters Mila and Genia don't remember much from the accident, but Mila says, "I think more about details," with Genia adding, "I appreciate nature even more because of this experience, because I am able to be out there and not worry about exposing myself to [radiation]."

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