Why is everyone so ignorant of Romania

Chernobyl: The worst-case scenario and the system

End of April 1986. Curious scenes on a boulevard in the center of the Romanian capital Bucharest: an unusually long column of black state limousines is waiting in front of the gate to the courtyard of a ministry. The cars go in one after the other, come out after a few minutes and disappear.

Queuing to get food or gasoline is part of the dreary everyday life of the Romanian population. But this "new", hitherto unknown snake on the Bucharest boulevard "des Sieges" has something sinister about it. The pupils of a neighboring high school discover the secret: A driver from the column tells that he is filling clean water into plastic canisters for the party and state leadership from a deep well in the courtyard of the ministry, because the tap water has high radioactive values. An official report about increased radioactive radiation and the reasons for it did not exist at the time.

Radioactive clouds

On April 26, 1986 - at exactly 1 a.m. and 23 minutes - a nuclear reactor exploded in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The accident had massive consequences for the environment, not only in parts of what was then the Soviet Union, but also in northern, central and south-eastern Europe.

Sebastian Pflugbeil: "Contaminated food in the school canteens"

The radioactive cloud over Chernobyl had spread rapidly in the direction of Belarus and Russia and two days later moved to Scandinavia, Poland, the south of the Federal Republic of Germany and what was then the GDR. Contaminated rain also fell on Romania and Bulgaria. Radioactive clouds spread over the entire northern hemisphere within a few days.

The belittlement by the Stasi

"Keeping everything under control" was not only the motto of the Romanians, but also that of the GDR security authorities when they received the first information from their Soviet colleagues three days after the catastrophe. Three days in which parts of the population had already heard the news from Western radio and television stations.

The GDR stations only broadcast the trivializations controlled by the Stasi. In doing so, the party and state leadership wanted not only to hide the actual disaster situation, but also to prevent any effects on the economy.

Chernobyl has left a deep furrow through the population of the former communist "brother states". This is the conclusion reached by experts at an event in Berlin on the subject of "The GAU and the Stasi". Above all, the catastrophe made it clear how a dictatorship and its political secret police react to an "anthropological shock".

Contaminated food

Nicolae Ceausescu: I only wanted to pass on the "most necessary information" to the population

Because the GDR leadership did not publish any readings about possible radioactive contamination of vegetables and milk, these goods were no longer exportable and were sold domestically. “The shops have never been as full as they were then,” contemporary witnesses recall today. Contaminated food was then allocated to school canteens, says the physicist and former GDR civil rights activist Sebastian Pflugbeil. Students whose parents had seen the news on "West-Fernsehen" and told their children about possible contamination did not touch the food. Much to the delight of the "ignorant" who were suddenly allowed to eat two or three servings. Officially, it was said in the GDR that there were no health hazards at any time, according to Pflugbeil.

Similar policies were pursued in the "brother states". In Bulgaria there was a day-long news blackout following the disaster. Paraskeva Ninova, a doctor and professor who was in charge of all children's hospitals in Bulgaria at the time, reported on secret instructions to chief physicians: The children should no longer get fresh milk and salad in clinics - this was the first protective measures against increased radioactivity out. But they were initially withheld from the public. Even the May 1st trains in Sofia took place under the radioactive rain.

"Radiant" celebrations

In other countries, too, it took a while for the relevant warnings to appear. In Romania, people spent May 1st - the non-working International Labor Day - in the open air and in the already contaminated "greenery". Only then did the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu gather the party leadership and decide to only provide the population with "the most necessary information".

Everything empty - Pripyat exclusion zone today

Many had heard of the disaster on the western radio stations Radio Free Europe and Deutsche Welle, but hardly anyone could assess the dangers. It was not until May 2nd that it was officially recommended in Romania to wash fruit and vegetables well - and that children stay mostly in closed rooms. At the beginning of May iodine tablets or juices against the radioactive radiation were distributed to kindergartens and schools throughout the Eastern Bloc.

Unexplored consequences

To date, there is no reliable data on the number of victims or the health consequences of the disaster. "The investigations into this are pretty poor," said former GDR civil rights activist Sebastian Pflugbeil in an interview with DW.

In the first few years it was forbidden to keep records of victims, the level of nuclear radiation and possible illnesses. "There are no reliable data, the numbers have been manipulated," said Pflugbeil. The World Health Organization (WHO) assumes a total of around 8,000 fatalities worldwide, around half of which died of subsequent consequential damage.