On April 26th, 1986 Eldar Sultanov was a police officer in Gostomel, 35 kilometres from Kiev, capital of the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
“I was sitting on the couch, watching the evening news. They showed the nuclear plant in Chernobyl engulfed by flames.”
Sultanov, then 35, decided immediately to volunteer for the rescue operations.
The explosion in the reactor area of the fourth unit of the nuclear plant in Chernobyl, close to the border with today’s Belarus, was caused by a flawed nuclear reactor, coupled with human error, and it resulted in the prolonged release of at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere. The blast in the heart of Europe remains history’s deadliest and it changed the life of millions, forever.
It is estimated that over 7,000 Azerbaijanis took part in the emergency and clearing of the aftermath of the explosion - and of them, about 5,000 are still alive.
"I joined the police in Baku in 1972, two years later I was transferred to Ukraine, so by the time of the disaster, I had been living and working there for 12 years. I owed it to the people, if I did not step forward to help in such difficult times, I would have felt dishonest.”
Like scores of other volunteers, however, Sultanov was unaware of the consequences awaiting him.
"We had to sign a contract stating we’d take full responsibility ourselves. The paper did not have a word about the radiation doses, not mentioning anything about security measures. There were jobs that we were obliged to carry out in seconds, and had no chance to give or show displeasure."
Some people suspected the harm, but could not loudly mention it as information was classified. Protection from the emissions was inadequate, so were the cleansing measures after each shift, and the military units where the workers would check lacked proper post-exposure procedures.
"We were told to change clothes every day and to take a cold shower after our shift, but not everyone could bear it, some ran directly under warm water. And it was harmful. We ate high- calorie food and drank water only from special bottles. Once you opened a bottle it was strictly forbidden to use it a second time."
There are no exact figures of the size and scope of the effects on the clean-up workers’ health resulting from the exposure to the both high and low rates of radiation. Low doses however, increased the risk of blood cancer, leukemia, and were more than initially estimated.
According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO) about 350,000 clean-up workers, or “liquidators, from the power plant staff, the army, the local police and the fire brigades were initially involved in containing and clearing up the radioactive debris during 1986 and 1987.” Furthermore, “About 240,000 liquidators received the highest radiation doses while conducting major mitigation activities within the 30km zone around the reactor,” stated the WHO in a report in 2006. “Later, the number of registered liquidators rose to 600,000 although only a small fraction of these were exposed to high levels of radiation.”
In May 1986, after a few weeks into the job, the radiation hit Sultanov. He was hospitalized for a month and then went back to work on the clean-up operations. A year later, in May 1987, half-paralyzed, he left the hazard area, and was moved to a clinic in Kiev where he was treated for radiation-related conditions for over five months - although the story doctors told him was different.
"I lost sight, and I could walk only holding onto the wall,” Sultanov, now 66, recalls. “I lived in those conditions for about three months. Nobody believed that I could return to be a normal, healthy man. Then slowly I started improving."
“From the outside, I give the impression of being a fully able-bodied person. I am not,” laments Sultanov who underwent various surgeries, two of them on his heart. “Even sleeping is difficult: I have problems breathing while lying down, so I have to fall asleep half-sitting, leaning against an upholstered headboard, my bed looks more like a sofa.”
In the aftermath of the disaster, the Soviet Union’s authorities turning a deaf ear to the international demands to disclose the size of the blast and its devastating effects - every piece of information was classified, those affected by the radiation were unable to get their disability status recognized, and doctors refused to confirm whether their illnesses were the result of the exposure to radiation.
Sultanov himself, while in the hospital, was notified that his condition was congenital and did not depend on the radioactive emissions.
"At that time, we had to keep quiet,” he resents. “Those who dared to be vocal and demand their rights could easily end up in a straitjacket, isolated in a mental hospital. This is a serious crime toward these people.”
Soon after, Eldar appealed to the Ministry of Health of the Ukrainian SSR, demanding his illness was recognized as a consequences of the exposure to the emissions. In 1987, Suleymanov became one of the few participants from Azerbaijan, which obtained the correct diagnosis and the official status of Chernobyl's disabled.
"I was granted a good pension, about 800 Azerbaijani manat in today’s currency; the average pension corresponded to about 150 manat. Back then the bread costed 0.30 manat, imagine how much bread could be bought for this amount?” he exclaims. “After the collapse of the USSR pensions slowly but steadily decreased."
In the dying months of the USSR, people took action in Azerbaijan. On the fourth anniversary, in 1990, former volunteers founded the "Union of Chernobyl Disabled People of Azerbaijan." Sultanov has been the association’s deputy chairman since then. Three years later, the union pressed the Parliament of the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan to approve a bill to protect the rights of the Azerbaijani liquidators. The law "On the status and social protection of citizens who participated in the liquidation of the Chernobyl tragedy and the victims of this disaster," established ad-hoc compensations and benefits, including specific provisions for health assistance and access to medicine.
“It was one of the first laws Heydar Aliyev adopted when he came to power,” explains Sultanov. “We were surprised and pleased. The law was slightly modified from the original plan, but the basic protection value remained the same.”
Yet, former liquidators complain of some shortcomings in the law: "On prevention of disability, rehabilitation and social protection of the disabled," specifically in the access to health care. According to Article 14-1 of the Act, persons with disabilities have the right to free qualified medical care in public health institutions and thermal water treatments, and to buy medicine in pharmacies on preferential terms. In practice, access to medicine for example, is long and bureaucratic.
“It is tedious,” he laments. “I prefer to buy them at the pharmacy for my own money than to pass the whole procedure.”
Thirty-one years on, no commission nor single professional in Azerbaijan checks on the health of children born to a family of liquidators.
"I was very fortunate. Today I am the father of three children, and recently I became a grandfather. None of my children are sick. But this does not reduce the need for specialists in the country today," maintains Suleymanov.
The state Cabinet of Ministers has been debating the construction of a large rehabilitation center for the liquidators of the Chernobyl accident, for several years now. But to no avail.
Today Eldar Suleymanov, who spends his time between the work with the Union and reading, often questions the sacrifice that people like him did.
"Nobody thinks that we liquidators and volunteers have played an irreplaceable role in effectively rescuing part of the world. With hindsight, I am not sure I would go for it today, of course, if it happened in Azerbaijan, then yes - I would not even think about it."
Today liquidators from Azerbaijan are entitled to an allowance amounting, on average, to AZN 400 ($225), depending on the degree of disability. In addition, in 2016, 2,841 people received a presidential scholarship which is, on average, about AZN 129 ($80).
For many, this is not enough.
“Nothing is perfect, but empty criticism is of no use, we should not forget the positive steps the government did toward us. Today, I get 550 manat ($300) a month, and for me it is enough,” explains Sultanov.
His childhood passion for backgammon has become his hobby, and a reason for pride as he has won various competitions, also at the national level.
Like thousands of others, Chernobyl left a deep mark in Sultanov’s life. Yet, he feels a profound sense of honor, and he has not lived in vain.