Giving Voice to People's Suffering
Dec. 8, 2016
Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer who won a Nobel Prize for her book on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, visited evacuees in Fukushima Prefecture recently to hear about their experiences.
Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 for her writing about human suffering through the testimonies of witnesses of the Chernobyl disaster. She has been highly praised for her oral history of that event.
Alexievich was invited to speak at a university in Tokyo.
"It may be impossible to stop nuclear power plants right away, but it's important to consider what you can and should do," she said at the event.
Alexievich’s books are written collages of testimonies by ordinary people. Her book, "Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future," published in 1997, is representative of her work. It's a collection of statements from the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 30 years ago in the former Soviet Union.
About a quarter of the land in Alexievich’s home country of Belarus was contaminated and seriously damaged by radioactive material. Even now, many former residents are not allowed to return to their hometowns.
Alexievich spent more than 10 years interviewing over 300 people, sometimes on camera.
"In the last few days, whenever I lifted my husband’s body, his skin would peel off and stick to my hand," the wife of one firefighter told her.
She then wrote about their deep shock and continual sadness.
The Nobel Committee described her work as “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
"I try to listen to people no one sees or hears," Alexievich says. "There’s much more power in their emotions than in economic or medical data.... So I think it’s important to remember their lives."
Alexievich came to Japan to hear what people in Fukushima prefecture have to say, and visited temporary housing to listen to residents' stories.
She met with a former resident of Iitate village, a town that's still under an evacuation order.
"I was a dairy farmer in Iitate, but now I’m unemployed," Kenichi Hasegawa told her.
Before the earthquake, he had about 50 cows, and was living with 7 members of his family that spanned 4 generations. Hasegawa drove Alexievich to his former home, which still stands empty.
After the accident, all of his cows had to be put down or let go. Unable to continue dairy farming due to radiation, Hasegawa decided to demolish the cow shed. His family is now scattered.
"Wasn’t it difficult to leave home?" Alexievich asked him.
“Yes, it was… We can’t live the way we did before the accident, because of the radiation,” Hasegawa said.
Government officials say the evacuation order on Iitate will be lifted next March, but Hasegawa is anxious about the future.
"They say we’ll be able to return home, but haven't mentioned their plans for the village after that," he says. "My children won’t be returning."
"In Fukushima, I saw the exact same situation I’d seen in Chernobyl. The destroyed homes, the empty villages and cities, the victims’ despair -- they're all the same," Alexievich said. "In both countries, governments rushed to develop new technology, but they weren’t able to fulfill their responsibilities. They were irresponsible toward ‘the ordinary people.’"
Alexievich was also told the story of a dairy farmer who committed suicide. A close friend of the farmer took her to the place where he died.
"He left a note saying, ‘I wish there'd been no nuclear power plants here,'" Hasegawa said.
Alexievich has spent years focusing on the suffering of ordinary people and making their voices heard. Visiting the 2 disaster-stricken regions has renewed her sense of determination.
"No one completely understands the horror of nuclear power. Literature should communicate it, and so should philosophers. It’s not a job for politicians alone," Alexievich said. "In other words, we need to look at what happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima and put them together, to form new knowledge.... I saw the future, not the past, and we need to work on that future."
It has been 30 years since the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, and 5 years since the one in Fukushima. The future depends on never letting the voices of “the ordinary people” go unheard -- that’s the message from Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.