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remembering Chernobyl

Vasily Fedirko stands in the Pirogovichi village graveyard on April 26 as he pays tribute to his wife’s parents. Every year at Easter time, Ukrainians return to their native villages to eat a ceremonial meal in the cemetery and remember those who have died. Especially in Chernobyl-affected areas, this tradition has become a reunion as former neighbors come together once more to feast and reminisce. Vasily and his wife Valentina moved back to Pirogovichi in 2003 when her parents died. This year their daughter Oksana came all the way from the Russian Far East for the holiday.
On this day, 25 years ago, the Chernobyl tragedy began. It hasn’t ended yet.

Some 350,000 people were displaced by the accident. They will never return home. 850,000 liquidators worked in the clean up after the accident. Many of them now have health problems. A total of six million people still live in the contaminated region today.

Every year, at solemn anniversaries such as today, somber government officials stand up and make speeches about how we must never forget. They will make these speeches today.

I disagree. We will forget. In fact, we must. We can’t spend all our lives mourning the tragedies and mistakes of the past. At best, we would all become paralyzed.

Memory is a curious thing. It ebbs and flows. After my years in the Chernobyl region, I remember it 100 times a week, but it is not the tragedy I recall. I see the lilac and cherries blooming here and I think of spring arriving in the Ukrainian village where I lived. I get on a train and I remember Lyuda and her friends playing the card game Durak on their daily commute to the Chernobyl plant. I see a tattoo and I grieve for a moment for Vasily, who died last year of cancer at age 57. I picture the drawing of his wife, which he tattooed on his shoulder after she died, also from cancer, in 2007.

The more personal a memory is, the more different ways it gets triggered. This is one reason I share people’ stories, to personalize the catastrophe. And this is why I object to the news wire photos you’ll see today. Essentially the same shots you saw last year: The abandoned Ferris wheel in Pripyat. A dosimeter outside the Chernobyl plant. Mourners at the memorial in Slavutych. How quickly our vision narrows and our collective memories grow worn!

The people who live near Chernobyl don’t think and talk about the accident every day. How could they? They have lives to lead. The ones who can’t cease talking about it sound like soldiers with post-traumatic stress—not the healthiest of the survivors.

So let us not dwell on death. Let’s celebrate 25 years of perseverance. Let’s ask how we can help those who are still struggling. Let us remember and honor the tragedy today, and tomorrow, let us forget, and go on to remember other things. The lilac and cherry trees are blooming.

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