Mohamed Makhzangi’s arousing report from Kiev following the Chernobyl disaster
Memories of a Meltdown: An Egyptian between Moscow and ChernobylBy Mohamed MakhzangiTranslated by Samah SelimPublished by the American University in Cairo Press, 2006
CAIRO: Iran’s nuclear program, along with the world’s reaction to it, is making headlines on almost a daily basis. While heads of nations discuss the geopolitical implications of nuclear proliferation, it may be apropos to look into its implications on humanity. Mohamed Makhzangi’s recollection of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 20 years ago, “Memories of a Meltdown accomplishes just that. Makhzangi translates the disaster from an international level into a reflection of individual, and very human, experiences.
A compilation of two previously published texts, “The Four Seasons of Chernobyl and “Moscow Queues (a commentary on the changing dynamics of the city as the Soviet Union collapses) this book can best be described as “investigative literary reportage. The author explains the genre as “a record distilled through the filter of literature; quotidian moments, very general, that inscribe the very particular, the literary, thus acquiring something of the duration of art. While Makhzangi’s recollections reflect actual events and situations, he takes creative license to take a momentary glimpse at their impact on his surroundings. It is journalism injected with the emotional intonations of literary fiction.
A doctor working for the Egyptian government, Makhzangi first arrived in Moscow, the first foreign country he had ever visited, in 1985 to pursue a PhD in psychiatry and alternative medicine. Having grown up reading Russian literature and enamored by “a vision of society ruled by social justice and collective solidarities, he was disappointed to find the former Soviet Union enveloped in bribery and corruption. This, however, did not prevent him from seeking out the more encouraging characteristics of Soviet life: the warmth of the people and the country’s natural beauty, and it is precisely these characteristics that he both laments and acclaims in his work as he observes the aftermaths of a nuclear accident.
On April 26, 1986, reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pipyat, Ukraine exploded. Consequently, large areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were severely contaminated, resulting in the resettlement of some 336,000 people. Roughly 6.6 million people were exposed and the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that about 9,000 of those highly exposed will die from cancer; this is a considered to be a conservative estimate by some standards.
How did this happen? While parties go back and forth laying blame, it is believed to be instigated by a scientist’s attempt to test the reactor’s turbine engine ability to generate enough electricity to power the reactor’s safety systems. Ironic.
“He was completely vaporized, writes Makhzangi of the scientist’s fate. “Sheer stupidity had managed to override more than a hundred security systems, one after the other, to the point that a reporter who covered the incident suggested the necessity of establishing a new system to be called ‘anti-stupidity security.’ So while we worry about nuclear proliferation, and so-called “dictators launching nuclear warheads in a suicidal declaration of war, we should be worrying about human carelessness.
One man’s folly resulted in the world’s worst, non-war nuclear incident – as of yet. That’s all it takes.
In Kiev at the time, Makhzangi observes how Chernobyl transforms the city and its people. “I felt that the hand of God had flung me headlong into the experience of an unprecedented historical moment of human terror. and that I had been entrusted with this moment, as a writer, within the bounds of my personal ability and material circumstances. And so he braved the warnings of radiation exposure and collected his observations of the abandoned, desolate streets of Kiev.
Makhzangi compiles his seemingly simple observations into a series of poignant vignettes: men hastily giving up their seat on the bus for a pregnant woman, now the embodiment of “poisoned people’s future children being evacuated from the city; and people bathing over and over again in an attempt to wash away the contamination.
The contamination spreads home, miles from Kiev. A fellow Egyptian PhD student receives a letter from his wife asking for reassurance. She is worried about their son who has been drinking powdered milk that she fears is from the batch of food stuff from Germany that she fears was exposed to the Chernobyl cloud. “They were supposed to destroy it all, but some Egyptian businessmen bought it dirt cheap and bribed it into the county, she writes to her husband. “I am terrified.
If all it takes is the stupidity of one individual, be it technician or politician, shouldn’t we all be afraid?
Mohamed Makhzangi was born in Egypt in 1950. He studied to become a doctor and worked for the Egyptian government. He later pursued higher studies in psychology and alternative medicine in Kiev, Ukraine. He switched careers to journalism and writing and currently works for Al-Arabi magazine. He has published several volumes of short stories.