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Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievitch

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievitch

I was 12 years old when the Chernobyl disaster happened and I remember being quite aware of the dangers of nuclear events - I'd learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the enduring impact of the atomic bomb. Chernobyl was something else. It was a catastrophic and unprecedented disaster; we didn’t immediately know what the lasting effect would be but we knew that they were in trouble.

It was little surprise then when the years passed and we learned that Pripyat and surrounding areas had become ghost towns, areas that would be unfit for human habitation for another 10,000 years (or so estimates go).

But people do live there. They cut through fences and snuck past military patrols to resettle in their homes or to make new homes, surrounded only by the ghosts of the tens of thousands of people that once lived in those towns and the ever-present spectre of radiation.

Svetlana Alexievitch, Belarusian investigative journalist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, spoke to those people and indeed, to people from all walks of life who were effected by Chernobyl. She spoke to widows and survivors, liquidators, contractors and military reservists who were called to Chernobyl in the days after the disaster. She spoke to families who had been evacuated from Pripyat and surrounding areas, to those who returned and to those who fled the war in Tajikistan to settle there because they had nowhere else to go.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster reads like a dystopian novel, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic survival story. First published in Russian in 1997 and expertly translated by Keith Gessen, Voices from Chernobyl is the fruit of hundreds of interviews that Alexievitch obtained over a three year period. It is an incredible and page-turning volume with accounts as fascinating as they are obscene.

It’s difficult to put into words how much of an impact this book has on the reader and any attempt will be nowhere near as eloquent as the accounts themselves. The lack of understanding of the dangers that people faced, coupled with a massive campaign of disinformation is perhaps most notable. In the aftermath of Chernobyl, they sent cranes from East Germany and robots intended for the Russian Mars exploration. Even robots from Japan made it to the site but the radiation interfered with all their workings and so they resorted to sending human beings in rubber suits instead.

There were 340,000 personnel despatched to Chernobyl but those working on the roof of the reactor got it the worst. They were wearing lead vests but the radiation came through their boots.

Voices from Chernobyl - Svetlana AlexievitchDespite the massive loss of life and how many disaster personnel succumbed to radiation poisoning or ‘Chernobyl cancer’ that took years to emerge and yet more years to eventually kill them, many of the interviewees displayed a nostalgia for the Soviet era and for the heroism of a bygone era. Time after time, interviewees would explain that they did not know the danger but they would have responded in the same way even if they had. It was their duty and they would have fulfilled it.

And then, throughout the book is the ever-present reminder that the Chernobyl disaster happened to a population less than 50 years after the Second World War.

Gulag, Auschwitz, Chernobyl. One generation saw it all.

What impressed me the most is that many of these people survived the Leningrad blockade only to suffer devastation again in Chernobyl. They spoke of the terrible winters during the blockade where people froze to death on the streets and one man mentioned, perhaps in jest, burning his belt so that the smell could stay his hunger.

Voices of Chernobyl is a study in the various shades of trauma. Some interviewees expressed that they couldn’t talk about the blockade, it was too traumatic, but Chernobyl they could talk about. Despite the catastrophic loss of life and livelihood, the events of Chernobyl still felt less traumatic to many of them than the blockade.

I cannot recommend Voices from Chernobyl enough and was so impressed that I have ordered Alexievitch’s latest book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets which was shortlisted for the 2016 Bailie Gifford prize for non-fiction.

Book Review: The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila

Helon Habila author of Chibok Girls

On the evening of 14-15 April 2014, Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 female students from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria. The girls became known the world over as the 'Chibok Girls' yet surprisingly little is known about who they are, what their families are going through or the context in which this crime occurred. To date, in December 2016, almost 200 of the original abductees remains missing and the little that we do know is that their lives with Boko Haram are ones of untold horror, violence and sexual slavery.

Helon Habila is a Nigerian born author and professor of creative writing at George Mason University, Washington, D.C. In early 2016, he returned to Nigeria to take a road trip to Maiduguri and Chibok to speak to people not only about the events on that fateful evening in 2014, but about the long wait for the girls to return home and the present climate of war and strife in the region.

The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila - coverHabila has produced a chronicle of his time in Nigeria in the short but incredibly insightful The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria.

The book begins with accounts of the events of 14 April 2014 from parents and relatives of the girls who were taken and those that escaped. The residents of Chibok had received warnings that the town would be targeted that day and they had every reason to believe it. Massacres, assassinations and terrorist attacks have become ever more prevalent in what locals have begun to call the war with Boko Haram.

Just 9 months before the abduction of the girls from Chibok, Boko Haram militants entered a secondary school in Mamudo, Yobe State and killed 42 people, most of them students.

After spending time in Chibok, Habila moves on to Maiduguri and the heart of Boko Haram territory. He speaks of the effects of the civil war and how a divide was created between Christians and Muslims as successive governments misused state resources, culminating in the declaration of Sharia law in the area in 1999. Perhaps most chilling is the description of the rise of Boko Haram from a modest force to one to be reckoned with following the Boko Haram uprising in June / July 2009.

Moving back to Chibok, Habila collects yet more first-hand accounts of the fears and devastation of a community who have lost their daughters, sisters and friends.

Woven throughout the book is the story of the girls and the accounts of those who have escaped. Perhaps to be expected with the youth of the girls and the horrors that they experienced, there is very little in the book about their time with Boko Haram. Indeed, with so few escapees (and being that the book was in production at the time 21 girls were released in October 2016), we are but depending on the narratives of a handful of very traumatised girls.

Confronted with their reticence in the face on ongoing questions about their experiences, Habila notes the following:

Hauwa, Ladi, and Juliana were ordinary girls, young enough to be my daughter, who had been raised to almost mythic status by their extraordinary experience – Helon Habila, The Chibok Girls

Insightful, powerful and intimate, The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria is highly recommended for those interested in gaining a more in-depth perspective of the lives and people effected by Boko Haram activities.

The book is out in the States and will be released in the UK on 15 December 2016.


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