Upon arrival my very first time there I was confronted with the loss of a team member. One of the programmers had finally succumbed to the blood cancer he had contracted in the days since the disaster. I was staggered; the rest of the programmers were sad but unsurprised. He was not the first, nor would he be the last.
The head writer on the Ukrainian side of the project turned out to also be an accomplished short-story writer with several published works. He spoke English fluently and the two of us quickly bonded over writing and the fact that he knew enough about western culture to put a brave girl traveling solo at ease.
On one of my visits I brought him a small bottle of whiskey.
“Enough with your vodka,” I said. “This is what
He was so touched by the gesture he immediately gave me his key chain, a little carved wooden head at the end of a golden chain.
“It’s my good luck charm,” he told me. “And now it’s yours.”
This good luck charm, he believed, is what kept him safe over the years. Safe when he and other Ukrainians in the Russian army were sent in to clean up Chernobyl two days after the disaster. With no special protection. No armor, no helmet, no radiation-proof gear at all—-not even a second set of clothes.
Moved by his gift and horrified by his story, I asked if he was really all right.
He shrugged. “I eat very healthy. Who knows?”
This is what I think of every time I have to take the subway stairs past posters for the Chernobyl Diaries.