A Passion-like event
A white fire, a long and silent flash of lightning, lit up the sky that night in April 1986. Readying itself for the celebrations of the 1st of May, the city of Pripyat was asleep, unaware that less than 2km away the air was being transformed into a deadly, viscous poison by the equivalent in radiation to 500 Hiroshima bombs. The first firefighters arrived some minutes later. Every available man was directed, at all speed, to head to the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. The radiation was so strong that one of the firefighters, before dying from radiation exposure some days later, would say that the “air had a strong smell of metal”.
The Soviet Union called up an entire army – the “liquidators” – in an attempt to minimize the impact of the disaster: 600,000 people. That is, twenty times the size of the army Napoleon took to Egypt, six times the size of the allied armies during the D-Day landings in Normandy. Thousands of military personnel and huge number of civilian volunteers: doctors, workers, scientists, farmers, students, police ecc. Many hoped to receive some economic recompense, or a better job. Others simply wanted to help save their country from the effects of radiation. After putting out the fires at Reactor number 4, they cleared the area of the accumulated waste and enshrouded the reactor in a concrete and steel “sarcophagus”. The work was deadly. The number of casualties sustained by the army of 600,000 “liquidators” still isn’t fully known, but it’s believed that radiation exposure has killed around 60,000 and left ill or permanently disabled another 160,000.
A sacrifice of these dimensions might appear incomprehensible. Heading off towards the unknown without adequate protective gear, the only desire being that to help one’s people – an act of personal coherence – might seem suicidal, or simply absurd. What mysterious force pushed so many men to give their own lives?
In the atomic desolation of Chernobyl, the logic of freely-given love and of gift-of-self gave birth to a miracle. In a world which so often appears turned in on itself, in navel-gazing solitude, remembering that the miracle of love is still possible is a beautiful thing.
Many Passion-like events have marked and still mark the history of humanity today. How much suffering, how many absurd and incomprehensible sacrifices would men and women today. So much so that we might even be led to believe that there’s no avoiding suffering, that suffering implies the absence of meaning.
The sacrifice of those “liquidators”, with their antiquated plastic masks, might remind us of another Sacrifice, an offering made 2000 years ago and which we celebrate again this week. A Sacrifice which showed that Love is stronger than death.