Memories of Chernobyl and the Start of My AIDS Journey

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Alina Oswald

Alina Oswald commentary.

It’s almost April 26th, World Pinhole Photography Day, Chernobyl Day–April 26th, 1986. The recent Japan disaster reminded some of us of the Chernobyl disaster and the days, weeks and years that followed. In a strange way and, for me, on a very personal note, Chernobyl Day marked the beginning of my AIDS journey. I guess that, in the wake of Japan’s natural and nuclear disasters, today’s youth will get to learn about Chernobyl and all its implications, on every aspect of our lives.

I attended my first AIDS conference in Eastern Europe as my mother’s  guest—she is a physician specializing in infectious diseases. It was  April 1986 and I was on my spring break. At the time I felt pressured to  decide what I wanted to do in life, but I wasn’t planning to follow in  my parents’ footsteps and study medicine. By then all I knew about AIDS  was the Rock Hudson story and his “before” and “after” AIDS diagnosis  pictures splashed all over glossy magazines.

I remember sitting  on the couch in my room, in my parents’ apartment, flipping through the  glossy pages of Paris Match (a French publication), opening it right in  the middle. On the left page, a young and handsome Rock Hudson displayed  the star-like smile everybody knew. The right page displayed the face of the aged, almost unrecognizable actor—with his eyes  ghostly, his appearance somber, like a much older version of the  handsome actor on the opposite page.

Out In Jersey Health columnist Alina Oswald travels regularly.What kind of disease could do this to a person, seemingly in no time at all?

That  particular April afternoon I entered the building of the university of  medicine—an old building with prestige, in an architectural style of its  time, with a personality of its own—and sat next to my mother in a  tall, dim-lit spacious room with no idea of what I was getting myself  into.

“What do you think?” Mom asked several hours later, when the conference was over.

I looked at her and all I could say was, “Interesting.”

I  didn’t know, then, that at the time I was attending the AIDS  conference, a Los Angeles man was being diagnosed with AIDS and given  only months to live. His name is Joel Rothschild and I was to meet him almost two decades later.

Several  days after attending the AIDS conference, Chernobyl happened and plagued most of Europe, disturbing many people’s lives in the worst possible ways. We found out about the explosion while listening to a radio station from Western Europe—I believe it was one of the  Scandinavian countries that was first to announce the disaster. It all happened in the week before Orthodox Easter, when most people clean, cook, bake and work from dawn to sometimes dusk to get ready for the spring holidays.

In the middle of it all, water was turned off for several days. Fresh market products became unusable; therefore freshly bought milk, vegetables and fruits found their way into the trashcans. Picnic plans were canceled, although some individuals still went through with their already scheduled outdoor activities.

TV and radio news, media in general, did not offer much information about the explosion, about what had really happened to  those working at the nuclear plant or how many of them were dead or how we could stay safe. While at school, teachers would tell students to “lie flat on the street, by a sidewalk, and the wave of radiation [would]  pass right above [your] body”! With the media forced to present the effects of the explosion as “nothing to worry about,” many people had to learn more practical information through word of mouth and people who had some knowledge about the reality and implications of the disaster.

Shortly  after the Chernobyl accident, oncology centers, especially those at the border with the (then) Soviet Union, filled with patients. Cancer survivors were getting sick again, especially children and the elderly.

Meanwhile scientists kept busy measuring the levels of radiation in the grass, food, and people. Apparently in no time at all, every layperson became  an “expert” in reading and interpreting the radiation tests. In addition, every individuals had their own version of the truth, insisting that theirs was the right one, the true story of whatever had happened at the Chernobyl plant.

Stories started to spread like a plague, while the few and selected individuals who knew the grim reality and its implications, and the toll we were to pay in the decades to come were forced to keep quiet, silenced by an administration of terror and oppression, by a government that would accept nothing else but pure  perfection, utopia, even if it was all fake.

In the midst of  these events, the AIDS conference became kind of a blur. Little did I know then that the impact of that conference was going to follow me across an ocean and two continents, and guide me along both my  professional—and personal—life

Author Alina Oswald is a freelance writer and photographer and the author of Journeys Through Darkness and Vampire Fantasies. Visit her at www.alina-arts.com 

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Alina Oswald commentary.

It’s almost April 26th, World Pinhole Photography Day, Chernobyl Day–April 26th, 1986. The recent Japan disaster reminded some of us of the Chernobyl disaster and the days, weeks and years that followed. In a strange way and, for me, on a very personal note, Chernobyl Day marked the beginning of my AIDS journey. I guess that, in the wake of Japan’s natural and nuclear disasters, today’s youth will get to learn about Chernobyl and all its implications, on every aspect of our lives.