A former Chernobyl evacuee forced by war to leave his homeland for Japan

Maria Gudzii, right, poses with her daughter Kateryna in Tokyo on April 26, 2022. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Maria Gudzii still remembers her sadness when she was forced to evacuate with her family after a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine exploded in April 1986 in what became one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.

Thirty-six years later, Gudzii had to flee his home again – but this time, leaving his country, now in the third month of the Russian invasion, to take refuge halfway around the world in Japan.

Gudzii, 68, lived alone in kyiv after losing her husband Myhailo, 62, in 2012 to cancer caused by radiation from the accident at the Chernobyl power plant, about 2.5 kilometers from the city of Pripyat . He was involved in cleaning factory employees’ uniforms at the time of the accident and continued in that position for several years thereafter.

She initially didn’t think of evacuating when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, but as the conflict escalated it increasingly did so, along with a girl already living in Japan , fearing for his life.

At a rally in Tokyo on April 26 to commemorate the 36th anniversary of Chernobyl, Gudzii recounted how, 18 years ago, she came to Japan with her husband Myhailo to talk about the nuclear disaster. Now she takes on this role on her own.

“Chernobyl has become a symbol of sadness. And the many Chernobyl evacuees have also become such symbols,” she said, adding that to this day the aftermath of the accident continues with people still suffering. thyroid problems.

The Chernobyl disaster displaced around 330,000 people, but the United Nations says more than 5 million people have so far fled Ukraine since the war, which has killed or injured more than 4,000 civilians in the country and shows no signs of slowing down.

Gudzii said she never felt the kind of fear she felt after the outbreak of the current conflict. At the start of the war, Russian forces temporarily seized the Chernobyl power plant and she shuddered at the thought of another nuclear accident.

When she evacuated in 1986, she had her husband and four daughters by her side. They eventually started a new life in the capital kyiv, living in temporary accommodation for those fleeing the Chernobyl disaster.

But when war broke out earlier this year, Gudzii was living alone. She was no longer as agile as before and had given up her job as a flower arranger months earlier due to poor health.

Maria Gudzii speaks at an event in Tokyo marking the 36th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident on April 26, 2022. (Kyodo)

Sometimes in tears, sometimes in a quavering voice, Gudzii recounted the grueling journey of fleeing Ukraine which included an 11-hour train ride to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine near the border with neighboring Poland.

She had to stand inside the crowded train and after getting off, had to walk 4 km towards the border. It would have been impossible without the help of a young couple she met along the way.

“I couldn’t feel my feet. As the people around me were rushing to get to the border, it was hard to walk. I actually told the couple to go ahead and leave me but they didn’t,” she said. To cross the border, they had to wait in long lines.

What got him going was the idea of ​​reuniting with his 36-year-old daughter, Kateryna, in Japan.

When she finally crossed into Poland, she felt relieved by the welcome people gave her. She remained in two evacuation centers. But harrowing memories of the conflict came back to her every time she heard the sound of a plane, helicopter or ambulance.

It hurt Gudzii to leave everything in Ukraine without looking back, including two of her daughters who still live in the country with their families. She struggled with doubts about whether it was right for her to flee the country.

In Poland, she was picked up by Kateryna’s Japanese husband, who is now based in Japan and makes a living playing the bandura, a traditional Ukrainian string instrument. The mother arrived in Japan on March 21 via Britain.

When she finally met Kateryna at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, Gudzii recalled how she simply felt relieved and at peace. She received a one-year visa for designated activities.

Maria Gudzii shows a photo of her husband in Tokyo on April 26, 2022. (Kyodo)

But challenges abound, as there is uncertainty about how Gudzii will be able to live in Japan in the future as she does not understand Japanese and is not eligible for financial aid from Japan as she is not considered as an evacuee from Ukraine as defined by the government.

For now, she lives in an office that her daughter rents for her musical activities in Yokohama near Tokyo and accompanies Kateryna on performances all over the country. She also plans to sing on her daughter’s album next month.

On the Chernobyl anniversary in Tokyo, she courageously answered calls for an encore after her daughter gave a bandura performance and sang not a sad song about the war, but a catchy Ukrainian song. She sang with the hope that the war in her homeland would end and there would always be peace in Japan, a country she calls her “second home”.