I thought I'd escaped from Chernobyl – but I hadn't

Evacuated with other British students from Belarus in 1986, Catriona Munro was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. She feels more fortunate than those left behind
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The Independent Online

I don't recall what caused me to sit in the spring sunshine on the roof of a student hostel in the Belarussian capital of Minsk in late April 1986. I would like to think I was revising my Russian present passive participles, driven by terror of the Stakhanovite tutors at the local institute providing Russian-language immersion for British students. But I suspect I might in fact have been covertly reading a Jeffrey Archer novel that one of my 15 fellow British students had smuggled in as a respite from the daily hunt for Vitamin C and the nightly arguments in halting Russian about why we did not consider ourselves callous imperialists with no oil who wanted to kill everyone. (The locals loved that Jeffrey Archer novel, falling upon it in a city where foreign literature was largely unavailable: "Such simple language! Such simplistic plots!")

Ascent to the roof may well have turned out to be a spectacular miscalculation of time and place. Some days later, we discovered that 100 kilometres south, in a place shortly to become an international exclusion zone called Chernobyl, a ramshackle nuclear power station had been in the process of disgorging half the Periodic Table over us.

For 22 years, the only effects of Chernobyl for me, one of the lucky evacuees, was a story to dine out on. Nemesis claimed me three years ago when, at the age of 43, I was diagnosed with Stage IV incurable breast cancer. This was a huge shock: an illness-free life, no family history of cancer; statistically a rather irritatingly young age to be this ill.

The word "Chernobyl" occasionally dropped from the lips of various actors in the medical establishment, with immediate caveats that this was not a diagnosis; this was an evidence-free zone. I was told of documented cases of the incidence of cancer among my fellow students from that time (we had all come from different universities and had lost touch after Minsk). I set off on a mission. This consisted of barking fruitlessly up a number of trees: how do you track down people you have not seen for 22 years and whose names you have forgotten? I have been unable to find anyone who shared those strange days in Soviet Belarus. In strict scientific terms, our limited numbers would presumably cut no evidential ice, regardless of what has happened to us. But on this anniversary, I oddly miss them.

I smoke cigarettes. I have been known to drink alcohol. Why should I not win the cancer lottery? Plenty of people do. Obviously, I would love to attribute my cancer to a man-made rather than self-inflicted cause. An American friend has a mantra that "'fair' and 'unfair' are words you need to cut straight out of your vocabulary", which I find strangely comforting. Of course, confusing cause with effect is a bad human habit. But cause remains a bugbear for the cancer patient in the strange new world we have to inhabit. And I am suspicious.

In 1986, apart from soap, vitamin tablets, tissues, tampons, any available anti-leech strategy for the showers and a "discretionary" amount of household cleaner, the one accessory we had officially been advised to cram into our suitcases for our three-month Minsk trip was a short-wave radio. In those dark days social networking was restricted to cake shops (not bars, as alcohol was illegal and we could not afford the black market stuff corruptly hawked by waiters in the local Intourist restaurants). Getting news was a straightforward choice between the BBC World Service and the Soviet news service, Vremya. Eventually, around three days after my sunbathing episode, Vremya duly reported that there had been a minor accident in Chernobyl with two sad fatalities. The BBC was reporting a very different, wildly more alarming, account of many casualties and mass evacuations.

The British cultural attaché in Moscow had delivered us a pre-deployment homily on the need to avoid profaning the Soviet flag or dealing on the black market, and, he intoned crucially, "for God's sake don't marry one of them" (somebody always, always did). Unfortunately there had been no instructions on how to flee a nuclear accident. I finally realised why Chekhov's three sisters were adamant that everything would be all right if they could only get to Moscow.

Simply taking a train without official permission in the Soviet Union if you were a foreigner was an illegal act of political hostility. Eventually, the Moscow embassy managed to contact us on the hostel's creaking landline, overloaded, we assumed, with rival eavesdropping devices. Now there were some instructions: get the local authorities to help us drag ourselves to Moscow forthwith.

Meanwhile, ears glued to the World Service, someone heard that in response to the incident, Denmark had exhausted its national supplies of iodine. In a fortuitous twist of fate, iodine was widely available, and considered a medical panacea in the Soviet Union – where oranges were a rarity. It was an in-joke that it was used to treat everything from acute appendicitis to chronic depression. We looked it up in the dictionary ("eeyod"). Five minutes later a throng of crazed British students burst into a tiny local chemist screaming "Eeyod!" "EEYOD!" at the unfortunate assistant, clad in her starched whites and wobbling chef's-hat-like headgear. Caught up in our panic, she immediately mounted a robust defence of her floor-to-ceiling shelves of bottles of brown iodine, screaming, "Niyet, niyet, niyet! We have no iodine!", like Kruschchev banging his shoe on the desk at the United Nations. We bought up a job-load, drank it all neat or watered down and were violently sick.

In the tense few hours afterwards, drawing dramatically on lung-scarring local cigarettes and speculating in their acrid clouds about the likelihood of bearing fully limbed children in the distant future, help came. It was the local authorities at the institute who negotiated us through the bureaucracy. And the kind, helpful Belarussian students and lecturers who helped us haul our luggage on to the tram and, bewildered, waved us off at the station.

Not for the first time, I thought about the Soviet project. Was it just a massive exercise in cynicism? I often wonder what lay behind the bemused looks of the Belarussian students as they helped us to leave. Our clouded views in that era of paranoid, nerve-jangling bipolar geopolitics had led us to categorise these people. The KGB fast stream, with their impassive granite faces, seemed shrouded in a force field of pity at our exploitation as hapless pawns of propaganda-led, point-scoring capitalism. Considerably more terrifying was the KGB slow stream, with their treacherous eyes, snarling Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and apparatchik ambition.

But then, there was the vast majority: the engaging normals, interested and interesting, who had played us saxophone quartets and Beatles song parodies, and asked us earnest questions about the Falklands War, pop music and "Myergeryet Thyetchyer". Perhaps they looked at our feathery 1980s hairstyles and student-cheap fake Vuitton luggage and actually thought we were unspeakably ghastly. What on earth became of them? For some of the UK students, it was all too fascinating and an unbearable wrench to leave.

Moscow was the highest drama, where the embassy was on the receiving end of earache from the authorities. British officials met us, issued us with carbolic soap and instructed us to scrub, particularly under our fingernails, in a hastily booked hotel. I noticed one furtively taking dust samples from random outdoor surfaces when she thought nobody was looking.

The Russians had decreed that we must have tests in a local polyclinic before they let us out of the country. It was clear that the bored taxi drivers had no idea where this was, and a Wacky Races-style car chase ensued through the city streets, back and forth past the grim-faced, red-flag-wielding May Day parade cohorts. Finally on site, we had our first experience of being Geiger-counted: a white plastic snout waved over us, clicking alarmingly. In addition, they checked blood pressure, urine samples, height and weight, issued us with "all-clear" certificates and said we could go home.

Luckily, British Airways was nationalised in those days, so the UK government was able to force a reluctant cabin crew to repatriate a bunch of mare-eyed 21-year-olds, glowing from our 100-times-over-the-norm radiation levels. BA's rather touching strategy was to force us to strip and change into standard-issue grey tracksuits, carrying our own clothes in plastic bags like dispossessed refugees. They Geiger-counted us again for good measure and rustled up some airline food. After a two-month diet of garlic, stodgy cakes, and shashlik – skewers of unidentifiable meat – this was cordon bleu.

Back in London, we were hermetically sealed in a Heathrow departure lounge where excited boffins from the National Radiological Protection Board Geiger-counted us again as the press filmed us through the glass. They dispelled wild rumours of a stint in a sinister subterranean decontamination unit for a lengthy hose-down (someone had got hold of a tabloid newspaper). Instead, we were sent home. The only written follow-up – for me, anyway – was a report from the boffins, informing us that they had located a number of spots of radioactivity on the plane that had flown us home. These were removed, Blue Peter-style, with a strip of Sellotape which was then binned, securely one assumes.

You can read hundreds of reports on the Chernobyl effects from UN monitors, national and international agencies and a wealth of pressure groups. A cynical eye might see most of them as trammelled with conflicting agendas, containing wildly differing statistics and evaluation.

The recent horrors in Japan have filled the press with acreage of tirades from anti-nuclear voices and counter-tirades from the pro-nuclear lobby. Is the nuclear safety question simply a question of controlled radiation dosage? Or is it really a question of how iodine-131 is wreaking havoc with your particular DNA?

I wonder whether the real question, right now, is who is really in charge, and how good are they, from the scientists to the politicians? And I still think of those young Belarussian students who have lived through such bizarre and questionable times, without a voice in the last dictatorship and least-visited place in Europe. If they have lived. Regardless of what has happened to me, I still think we were the lucky ones.