Af­ter Chernobyl, Still Wait­ing For Com­pen­sa­tion


Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Eetta Prince-Gib­son

Alexan­der Kalan­tirksy speaks halt­ing He­brew with a heavy Rus­sian ac­cent. He was seated in a straight-backed chair in his small, dark apart­ment in Bat Yam, a sub­urb of Tel Aviv.

“Nu, I am not a hero,” he said mat­ter-of­factly, and a bit im­pa­tiently. “I am an en­gi­neer. I knew what it meant. It had to be done.”

Kalan­tirksy, 77, from Mos­cow, is chair­man of the union of Chernobyl liq­uida­tors in Is­rael. He is one of an es­ti­mated 800,000 “liq­uida­tors,” men and women who were sent to the site of the Chernobyl nu­clear power plant af­ter the re­ac­tor’s ex­plo­sion on April 26, 1986. Kalan­tirsky, a con­struc­tion en­gi­neer who worked for a se­cu­rity firm at the time, was head of a team that helped build the sar­coph­a­gus, the gi­ant con­crete dome that would con­tain the leak­ing re­ac­tor so that the ra­di­a­tion would not spread.

The Sovi­ets’ uni­forms were not ad­e­quately pro­tec­tive, so most of those who were sent into the highly ra­dioac­tive ar­eas were ex­posed to huge doses of ra­di­a­tion. Some, like Kalan­tirsky, worked in the di­rect vicin­ity of the re­ac­tor for months.

The Soviet gov­ern­ment tried to keep the news of the dis­as­ter from the pub­lic — even al­low­ing the pop­u­lar an­nual May Day pa­rade to take place less than a week later in the streets of the towns of Chernobyl and Pripyat, only a few miles from the de­stroyed, and highly ra­dioac­tive, plant. Only af­ter high doses of ra­di­a­tion were mea­sured in places as far away as Switzer­land and Scan­di­navia did the Soviet gov­ern­ment ad­mit to the ac­ci­dent. Evac­u­a­tions of the con­tam­i­nated ar­eas be­gan later.

“Even­tu­ally, the whole world knew about the dis­as­ter. But most peo­ple never re­ally ask them­selves who took care of it.” Kalan­tirsky said. “We did, the liq­uida­tors. If we wouldn’t have cleaned up the re­ac­tor, the ra­di­a­tion would have spread — to Europe, to the Mid­dle East. Here in Is­rael, too, thou­sands might have been af­fected by ra­di­a­tion.”

Sev­eral dozen work­ers died soon af­ter the ac­ci­dent. Many be­came ill in the months fol­low­ing, and, in the 32 years since the dis­as­ter,


an un­known num­ber have died or now suf­fer from ill­ness re­lated to the ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure. Hun­dreds of birth de­fects have been re­ported in the area.

In their home coun­try, the liq­uida­tors were con­sid­ered he­roes. Those who sur­vived re­ceived ex­ten­sive so­cial wel­fare ben­e­fits, sub­si­dized hous­ing and pre­ferred med­i­cal treat­ment.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, some 4,000 liq­uida­tors, along with an es­ti­mated 350,000 Jews who had lived in the ar­eas af­fected by the fall­out, chose to come to Is­rael, part of the huge wave of im­mi­gra­tion to Is­rael from the for­mer Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

But once they left the FSU, and in clear vi­ola-

tion of in­ter­na­tional law, their home coun­tries cut off the liq­uida­tors’ ben­e­fits. To­day, only about 1,200 liq­uida­tors are still alive in Is­rael.

In 2002, Kalan­tirsky or­ga­nized a liq­uida­tors union, and lob­bied the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment to pass a law to pro­vide mem­bers with a sup­ple­ment of less than $1,500 a year — less than the monthly al­lo­ca­tion they re­ceived in the FSU.

“We are sick. We have needs,” Kalan­tirsky said. “But the gov­ern­ment pays us no at­ten­tion. Many of us can­not work. Some of us are very poor. No one cares.”

For years, the iq­uida­tors union tried un­suc­cess­fully to con­vince the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment to ne­go­ti­ate with their coun­tries of ori­gin to re­in­state their ben­e­fits and pay them here, as re­quired by the Vi­enna Con­ven­tion on Civil Li­a­bil­ity for Nu­clear Dam­age, which, passed in 1997, de­tailed the rights of the liq­uida­tors. But union mem­bers were un­able to bring any gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions to ne­go­ti­ate on their be­half or to pro­vide them with the ben­e­fits that they de­mand.

Frus­trated and an­gry, the union of Chernobyl liq­uida­tors in Is­rael, to­gether with Knesset mem­ber Kse­nia Svet­lova (Zion­ist Camp) and rep­re­sented by the of­fices of Gilead Sher & Co., pe­ti­tioned the high court of jus­tice to in­struct the gov­ern­ment to im­ple­ment reg­u­la­tions that will en­sure med­i­cal fol­low-ups, pro­vide hous­ing ben­e­fits and make the liq­uida­tors’ rights com­pa­ra­ble to the rights of those who work in the nu­clear re­ac­tor in Di­mona, who are able to pur­chase life in­sur­ance and re­ceive com­pen­sa­tion if they con­tract dis­eases. The court is ex­pected to hear the pe­ti­tion in May, but as of yet, there has been no of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment re­sponse.

“Whom does the gov­ern­ment think it’s fight­ing against?” Svet­lova said in an in­ter­view with the For­ward. “Peo­ple who saved the lives of mil­lions of peo­ple who are get­ting older and sicker?”

Gre­gory Bargel, 55, from Minsk, Be­larus, and Ana­toly Kundish, 66, from Ukraine, joined Kalan­tirsky in his small liv­ing room for the in­ter­view. Kalan­tirsky put out fruit and cook­ies, but his guests did not eat much. “I still get a metal­lic taste in my mouth,” Bargel ex­plained.

Bargel re­flected on his ex­pe­ri­ences in Ukraine: “In 1986, I was mar­ried with a baby daugh­ter, and my wife was preg­nant. When they called me to the re­ac­tor, I was a sol­dier in the army. And now, my life is worth less than noth­ing.”

Each man is suf­fer­ing from med­i­cal prob­lems that, he be­lieves, are re­lated to his ex­po­sure to the ra­di­a­tion. Bargel said his bones are weak­en­ing and that all his joints, es­pe­cially his knees, are so painful that even walk­ing has be­come dif­fi­cult. “I spend most of my stipend on painkillers,” he said. Kundish suf­fers from se­vere car­dio-vas­cu­lar ill­ness and is ex­tremely sen­si­tive to the sun.


Kalan­tirsky rolled up his sleeves to re­veal deeply de­formed el­bows and fore­arms. “All my bones, and my heart, too, hurt,” he said. “Of course, if I get an ill­ness, I will have med­i­cal treat­ment, like any other Is­raeli cit­i­zen. But my doc­tors say that first I have to get sick. There is noth­ing spe­cial about Chernobyl, they tell me. Chernobyl isn’t a di­ag­no­sis.”

Dr. Semion Shapira, a for­mer head of the now-closed SPECTR, a cen­ter of preven­tive medicine at the Carmel Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Haifa, agrees that a mere “Chernobyl” isn’t a di­ag­no­sis. “But that does not mean,” he said, “that the peo­ple who were ex­posed to that ra­di­a­tion do not need reg­u­lar med­i­cal fol­low-up to al­low for early de­tec­tion of ma­lig­nan­cies and other dis­eases. And they need spe­cial­ized tests.

“It’s not just the liq­uida­tors who should be re­ceiv­ing spe­cial­ized care,” Shapira told the For­ward. “It can take 30–40


years for the re­sults of the ra­di­a­tion to show them­selves. Even chil­dren born here to par­ents who lived in the area may show symp­toms. We do not know.”

And for­get­ting about the Chernobyl sur­vivors can have larger con­se­quences for fu­ture dis­as­ters. “Is­rael has one of the largest pop­u­la­tions of Chernobyl sur­vivors,” Shapira said. “We could be learn­ing so much, for our­selves and for the en­tire world.”

Svet­lova showed the For­ward a let­ter, dated July 5, 2017, to the Knesset Com­mit­tee for Im­mi­gra­tion, and In­te­gra­tion in which the min­is­ter of health, Rabbi Yaakov Litz­man, states that the rates of mor­bid­ity and mor­tal­ity among the liq­uida­tors are lower than those in the gen­eral pub­lic.

“So [Litz­man] said,” Shapiro said dis­mis­sively. “He can say any­thing. He is wrong.” The min­istry did not re­spond to the For­ward’s queries. Given the poor qual­ity of life and shorter life ex­pectancy that the liq­uida­tors be­lieve they will ex­pe­ri­ence, many have tried to pur­chase life in­sur­ance, but they claim that Is­rael’s life in­sur­ance com­pa­nies have re­fused to sell to them, not­ing that they are a poor risk. And Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties have re­fused to in­ter­vene, be­cause the in­sur­ance com­pa­nies are pri­vate com­pa­nies.

“This is the typ­i­cal runaround,” Svet­lova ex­plained. “If, as the Min­istry of Health claims, they are not any sicker — or even health­ier! — than any other group, then why are they be­ing re­fused life in­sur­ance? And why are the work­ers at the Di­mona re­ac­tor able to pur­chase life in­sur­ance? This is one of the is­sues we will bring up to the high court of jus­tice.”

They will also be de­mand­ing hous­ing ben­e­fits from the Min­istry of Im­mi­gra­tion and In­te­gra­tion. “I live in a fourth-floor walk-up,” Bargel said, “be­cause it is the only apart­ment I can af­ford. But it takes me very, very long to climb the stairs, and it is very, very painful.”

“I can­not un­der­stand why the State of Is­rael treats us like this,” Kundish said. “We go from min­istry to min­istry, and they just push us away. Maybe that’s on pur­pose — the longer the State makes us wait, the fewer of us there will be.”


SEEK­ING LIQ­UID­ITY: Gre­gory Bargel, Alexan­der Kalan­tirsky and Ana­toly Kundish have tried for years to have their ben­e­fits re­in­stated.


WARN­ING, KEEP OUT: The Chernobyl nu­clear re­ac­tor ex­ploded in April of 1986.

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