At the time that the Chernobyl incident happened my sister was in hospital in Minsk, so I was spending almost all of my time with her there. It just so happened that on one of those days a Swedish friend of mine called me and told me about a serious accident at a nuclear power station. We hadn’t been told anything about it.

In the first days, no one imagined the danger of what had happened, even the scientists who were flown into the area around Chernobyl. They went there without so much as a shaving kit. They had been told that there had been an accident at the nuclear power station, so they decided to go and see, give their opinion, and quickly fly out again. We were utterly naive. People were sunbathing, fishing. Human life is cheap here.

Around three months after the incident I met with the writer and academic Ales Adamovich, who knew all about it. After that I travelled to the zone. I planned to write a book about Chernobyl almost immediately after the catastrophe, but I gave up. I saw that I had no way of dealing with the subject: there was something missing in my world outlook, in my culture, to grasp what was going on. I saw that a nuclear physicist, an old woman from the countryside, a soldier – all of them were equally powerless. To use old concepts or an old frame of reference to describe it would be impossible. What war? We were sitting in Minsk, peacefully sipping coffee while World War Three – Chernobyl – had already begun. The radiation hovered over us. It was killing us all, but we couldn’t see or hear it. I remember how the people were evacuated. I saw old women with icons, kneeling, begging not to be taken away. The sun was shining, gardens growing – why should they leave? Trees continued to blossom, everything grew, the birds flew, but people felt the presence of death everywhere. Unseen, unheard. Death in a new guise.

When I first visited the zone, everyone had bewildered, almost crazed faces. They looked on while they sheared the upper, infected layer of earth and buried it in special pits. They buried earth in earth. They buried eggs and milk, and infected animals they had shot. They just kept burying and burying. The information about Chernobyl in the papers was straight out of a military report: an explosion, an evacuation, heroes, soldiers… The system was reacting as usual when faced with extreme conditions, but a soldier with an assault rifle in this new world cut a tragic figure. All he could do was amass an enormous dose of radiation and then die when he returned home.

It was enough to see the look of deep shock on the people’s faces for it to become immediately clear that we had been catapulted into a new reality. But the protective cultural layer that usually helped us had been reduced to nothing in the blink of an eye. We were naked people on the naked earth, forced to start from scratch. And so I set out on a quest; this is what was expected of me. I tried to comprehend what had happened, but it was beyond the limits of our comprehension and imagination. The past was powerless to help us in any way.

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A problem we encountered straight away was that there was no sense of scale of the incident. The first feeling you have out there, in the zone of death, is that our biological mechanism is ill equipped. Our eyes can’t see the radiation, our nose can’t smell it, our hands can’t feel it. Our biological mechanism can’t meet these needs. Our vocabulary is just as ill-equipped as our senses and our ability to comprehend it. You go into the infected zone and meet the people who remained there, people who refused to be evacuated. They cut the grass with a scythe, plough the land, fell trees with an axe, spend evenings by the light of a kerosene lamp. And all the while physicists are trying to solve unfathomable problems of incredible complexity that Chernobyl has set them. Chernobyl is a totally new reality, commensurable not with us ourselves, nor with our culture, nor with our biological capacity.

Among the stories that stand out for me are those of the firemen who, on the night after the explosion, found themselves on the roof of the reactor and were exposed to radiation 1,000 times exceeding a lethal dose. When they were taken to the hospital, even the doctors, auxiliary medical staff and their relatives had to wear protective clothing just to be around them. They were no longer human beings, but objects to be decontaminated. Scientists, doctors, family and loved ones – all were afraid of them, of going near them. The irradiated lay on the other side of a boundary, posing us new moral questions.

But then, for the first time, I understood that love was the only thing that could save us. One woman had been forbidden to see her husband. Despite this she climbed the fire escape into his ward so that she could be near him. And this man lived longest of all. The remaining 16 liquidators in that hospital had already died, but he, although far from the strongest among them, survived them by several days thanks to the love of his wife.

I saw a terrible sight that I’ll never forget when they evacuated people from the infected villages. All around the buses gathered the pet cats and dogs that had been left behind. People were afraid to look them in the eye, and turned away; only the children cried. Soldiers went into the villages and shot the animals... Man saved only himself. An old bee-keeper told me that his bees refused to leave their hives for a week. Fishermen recalled that they couldn’t dig up a single worm – they had gone deep into the earth. The bees, the worms and the beetles knew something that people didn’t.

The government did everything in its power to keep the people as ignorant as possible. That’s because, if the people had known more, they would have demanded checks on food products, dosimeters [radiation detectors], and medicines to cleanse the body – and the government had no intention of providing these things. That’s why they lied. At one point they promised to give everyone dosimeters; they did give them to some, but people began to panic so they quickly changed tack.

The state couldn’t permit itself to bury meat that was infected but also in short supply, so they added it to expensive sausage meat, surmising that people wouldn’t buy a lot of expensive sausage. Even now, in times of ‘little radiation’ – when in little doses we drink the radiation, eat it, breathe it – the government has stopped mentioning it altogether. So there’s the official version, and then there are people’s memories, their stories. I think that if we understood Chernobyl there would be a lot more written about it. The knowledge of our ignorance paralyses us.

Chernobyl altered our conception of time. Many radioactive particles will live on for 100, 200, 1,000 years. After a few days the radioactive clouds were already over Africa. Concepts such as ‘our’ and ‘other’ became null and void. Radiation knows no borders. Chernobyl wasn’t just a catastrophe – it was a border between one world and another: a new philosophy, a new orientation. A new knowledge. The plague killed perhaps half of Europe, but not everyone. With Chernobyl, man took a swipe at all living things. If he doesn’t give up ruling over nature, warring with it, looking down on insects, he is doomed.

Svetlana Alexievich is a journalist and author who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her books include Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future (first published 1997; updated version Penguin Classics, 2016).

This article was taken from issue 1 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in December 2016