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When the enemy is an apple tree in bloom

After the Chernobyl accident, the world became new. Suddenly, the enemy was no longer a soldier with weapons, but lay hidden in jam and cat fur that stroked his leg. We learned to fear our own things and the air we breathed in. But how do we understand an enemy we cannot see? 

(Note: The article is mostly machine-translated from Norwegian by Gtranslate)

 

While the night watchman sat alone in the April evening thinking about what to do during the holidays, the lid of reactor four exploded in the world's largest nuclear power plant. The explosion triggered a fire visible from the city of Pripyat a few kilometers away. The fire was blue and beautiful. People got beer in the fridge, made sandwiches and sat down on the porch to have a look. The next morning the children cycled to the reactor to see. They were not the children of anyone – their parents were engineers, chemists and technicians with a high education in everything that had to do with nuclear power plants. That's why they lived in Pripyat – everyone in town was hand picked to work at the facility.

The explosion that lured them out into the evening darkness was the sound of the world's biggest environmental disaster. But the radiation had no smell, no sound. Our natural instruments – nose, ear and eyes – no longer worked. We were used to the fact that danger was something we could see; a flood, a gun – or feel; a creeping disease. But it was the freshly cut grass that came to life now, and it was difficult to understand. Because the duvet was just as soft and the potatoes tasted just as good, so why run away? The sun is shining, no smoke, no one is shooting at us, is this war? We have survived the siege of Leningrad and famine, nothing can be worse than that. Here you just have to go out – look, the kitchen garden is in full bloom, nothing has changed.

I sit on the bus on my way to Pripyat and read about the days after the accident.

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It is Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Aleksijevich who has spent 30 years collecting testimonies from the time after the book accident Prayer for Chernobyl. Stories about all those who would not leave their apartments when they were evacuated. About the soldiers who were sent in to spa away radioactive soil, cut down trees and bury dogs and cats that ran around with their fur full of radioactive dust. They fought to get to work closest to the reactor where the wage was four times higher than further away, where the radiation hazard was less. I read about those who with vodka bottles bribed the soldiers who kept watch, to be allowed to return and pick up fur jackets and food. About the women who snuck into the isolation of their radiation-sick men. Alexeyevich wonders why people were not saviors. Because even though the authorities withheld information in the beginning, they quickly knew that they were in danger. The quilt was no longer a quilt, the potatoes were no longer food; instead, they were a radioactive mass that altered the genetic material in the body, causing cancer and death. The first to enter the area after the disaster were lured with a diploma and 100 rubles. Were they crazy?

Soldiers in deserted streets. The bus approaches the reactor. 50 tourists fiddle with geiger counters in hand and listen intensely to the guide Vita who tells about abortions and open wounds. That we must not sit on the grass and not touch things made of iron. That it is not allowed to wear sandals, shorts or a t-shirt. Just just in case, which she constantly repeats.

Tourists flock, fish up the phones, and selfie sticks are fired. With their heads against the geiger counter and the radioactive bed, they grin at Instagram and wait for likes.

"How dangerous is it really?" it is whispered between the rows of buses. But no one asks questions when the guide asks if we have any questions. She says that her friends think she's crazy working inside zone, as she calls it. We drive through military checkpoints where young soldiers sweep measuring instruments over car tires. I sign a document stating that the tour operator does not take responsibility no matter what may afflict us with diseases in the future. I twist in the seat.

But when we get off the bus, it smells like freshly cut grass and lilacs. A hare jumps across the road. The fear I felt on the bus is gone. It's May, and it must have looked just like this the first morning when people woke up and saw the flames over the reactor. The tourist group pushes itself through overgrown streets. Apartment blocks, amusement parks, kindergartens; 50 people once lived here. Now only the skeleton of the city remains. How many actually died as a result of the accident, no one knows. I imagine the soldiers tumbling into the streets here. The Chernobyl accident was not a war, yet the Soviet Union sent in young boys with new weapons. No other way of dealing with danger was known. Many in the book tell of the strange contrast between the soldiers and the peaceful city in the spring sun, completely empty of people. For what were they going to shoot at, a radioactive apple tree in bloom?

Sneaking dangers. I think of what Alexeyevich writes about Chernobyl being more than an accident, that Chernobyl taught us to fear our own things, the air we breathed, but also the people around us. A human being was suddenly a potential carrier of DNA defects, an object that had to be decontaminated. In the book, those who were young then say that no one would be dating someone from Chernobyl. I've thinking of everything we're afraid of now, and I think she's right. The dangers are invisible and everywhere: the sprays on the tomatoes and the hormone mimics in the face cream. Environmental toxins in plastic toys, and in the clothes we wear. Is the Oslo air clean enough? Do I get sick if I swim at Langøyene? Is it radiation from the cell phone? What exactly is in this bread, it never molds? Are there toxins in the paint? We have also become the savior of technology – genetically modified food, artificial intelligence, transhumanism. Maybe it's not progress, but our own doom we invent? Authorities say it is safe, but they told the residents of Pripyat too! And the people, they are dangerous, someone you had to protect yourself from, even the closest ones. HIV! Be careful, you can get infected, they are sick, but you can not see it! We learned to demand a health check from our boyfriend. Use rubber. And the neighbor, is he a terrorist? They may look ordinary, but even a schoolgirl with a backpack on her back can explode. And the refugees, the mother with the headscarf and three children, they look nice, but maybe they are polluted by ideas that will destroy what we believe in? I long for World War II, when the enemy wore a uniform.

The explosion that lured them out into the evening darkness was the sound of the world's biggest environmental disaster.

Countdown. We go in a flock of sheep and approach the damaged reactor, walking as close as we can. The guide points eagerly and says that it has been leaking like a strainer for 30 years. I look around, am I the only one who starts to wonder why I paid 60 euros to stand next to a reactor that is leaking? But the German and Spanish tourists have their eyes glued to the geiger counters. They are dissatisfied with the low results, and stick the counter into the ground in search of higher results. Pushes it onto fences, into house walls. Here! A German waves his arms, the geiger counter beeps like the countdown to a detonation, he has found an iron bed in the old kindergarten that gives results. The group shuffles, fishes up the phones, and selfie sticks are fired. With their heads against the geiger counter and the radioactive bed, they grin at Instagram and wait for likes. “Write that you feel great!» says a daughter to the father, who laughs loud. I laugh a little too, while I feverishly sweep away the birch leaves that stroke my forehead.

Dance through radioactive night. Some say that one reason we are unable to do anything about climate change is that we are programmed to respond to immediate danger. We hear what scientists say, worry, but continue to do everything we should not. In the choice between organic tomatoes for 40 kroner and the regular ones for 25, most people choose the latter. We're going to New York this summer, we have to save money for that. And maybe it's just nonsense with organic tomatoes anyway, a sales ploy by sneaky farmers trying to exploit the fear of invisible dangers. I've not been sick so far. Had the tomato had green spots or a poisonous stinking cloud around it, we might have chosen differently. IN Prayer for Chernobyl There are many who admit that they knew it was dangerous. But it was a bit exciting too, they felt they were involved in something big, got to be heroes and get medals. Perhaps Alexeyevich is right that Chernobyl was the start of a different way of understanding danger – but the question is whether we became any wiser by it. When the water is too dirty to drink and the bees stop flying, it does not help with fighter jets and soldiers. I'm standing in the ballroom in Pripyat, where they danced through the night while the reactor burned a few miles away. I see my species friends hunting for deadly doses of radiation and Instagram likes, and I wonder if I am watching my own downfall.

Anne Håskoll-haugen
Håskoll-Haugen is a freelance journalist,

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