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Two Trips to Chornobyl
In the early hour of April 26 1986, Reactor Unit Four of the Chornobyl nuclear power station exploded, spilling out a great amount of radioactive materials. In 2000, the station was shut down. Now, 25 years after the accident, life has not returned to normal in and around Chornobyl but tourist trips have officially begun to be organized to the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. Romko MALKO, a journalist, tells a story of his visits to the Zone in 2002 and recently.
When Reactor Unit Four of the Chornobyl nuclear power station exploded, I was ten years old. My mother let me go to school but made me put on a hat, and told me not to take it off until I actually walked into the school building. I was also made to solemnly promise that during the breaks between classes I would not go out to play in the yard, and that after classes I would go straight home — and on the double.
I resented these instructions but I promised I would do what I was told. There were all sorts of rumors circulating around Ukraine (the soviet authorities did their usual best to virtually withhold any informative reports for over two weeks after the accident about what had happened and what the people should expect or do). Some said that the radiation released was so bad that it would kill you, sooner or later; others said there was nothing to worry about. Still others did not say anything but fled from Kyiv and neighboring areas.
I did as I was told to do, living in happy ignorance of the real or imaginary dangers resulting from the accident. It was many years later when I went to the Chornobyl “exclusion zone” that I began to comprehend the full scale of the disaster.
Back in 2002, I joined a couple of my journalist friends to spend a weekend hitchhiking through the places none of us had ever been to. The starting point was the town of Ovruch to which we traveled from Kyiv by a regular bus. After taking a look at an ancient church which survived from the Mongolian invasion of the thirteenth century, we hitchhiked on in any direction that luck would take us. The first car that stopped to pick us up was on its way to Narodychi, a small town within the 80-kilometer Chornobyl “exclusion zone” — the tougher restriction was imposed within the thirty-kilometer radius around Chornobyl.
The first impression we got when we got out of the car at the outskirts of the town was that of complete wilderness — tall weeds and impenetrable bushes concealed from view anything that was further away.
As we walked on, we spotted peasant houses in the advanced stages of dilapidation, a rusting skeleton of an automobile. The eerie quiet was ominous.
As we continued to walk through the town, there appeared signs of normalcy — a bicycle rider passed us; two elderly men, sitting on a bench and smoking; passers-by hurrying on their errands. But the feeling that something was badly wrong did not release its grip.
When we walked into a run-down sleazy pub, several sickly-looking men sitting at tables stared at us — there were glasses and a bottle of horilka (vodka) in front of them.
We bought beer, a pint each, and sandwiches, and as we sat down we were almost immediately engaged in a conversation — “Where are you from? What are you doing here?”
The men of indeterminate age complained that they were jobless, that the town “was dying,” that those who remained living in it were either too old to move elsewhere or those who had nowhere to go with their families, and that there was nothing left for the likes of them to do but drink, from morning till night. I wanted to ask where they got the money from for buying drinks but did not.
Strangely enough, we did not see any wobbly drunks in the streets as we walked on.
Studying the map we had with us we discovered that another human habitation, nearest to Narodychi, was about ten kilometers away.
We chose it to be our next destination and had to walk all the way through the woods — there was no hope there would be any cars running in that direction.
The forest was of a fairy-tale kind — huge oaks, sunny and grassy glades, studded with wild flowers, forest fragrances — there was a persistent feeling of walking through an enchanted place.
The forest gave way to fields overgrown with weeds.
The peasant houses at the outskirts of the village were abandoned — and evidently quite a long time ago. We walked into one of them — rotting pieces of furniture, broken glass and old photographs on the floor — smiling faces in the photos. A couple of other houses that we dared to walk into without fearing they might collapse on our heads revealed the same sight of abandoned devastation — shards of broken pitchers, jars, broken spindles — a veritable museum of the old times and of a great disaster.
It turned out the whole village was abandoned — apparently the villagers had been evacuated soon after the nuclear jinni had been inadvertently released.
The dead, silent village was a very depressing and melancholy rather than a scary sight. Though it was a warm day, I felt cold, disconcerted and chagrined.
Close to the road there stood a monument, typical of the soviet times — a stone woman waiting for her sons to come back from the war. The village will soon be obliterated by the advancing weeds and forest, the houses will collapse but the woman will still be waiting for her sons who will never come back.
Living with radiation
However we did meet the living human beings, not only wild animals.
Two old women were sitting on a bench near one of the houses. Inevitable questions followed immediately — “Where are you from? What are you doing here?” We got invited to have some fried potatoes and sour milk. We politely turned down the invitation. “If you are afraid of radiation — don’t be. No radiation here.” But we declined.
We were told that there were five villagers still living in the village — four old women and one old man. They continued to grow vegetables in their vegetable gardens, they kept several cows — and they took these vegetables, milk, butter and cheese to the peasant markets in Kyiv to be sold there. They said that there used to be quite a few of their fellow villagers who would go to visit their native places on a holiday from wherever they had been evacuated to, but the number of such visitors had dwindled to just a handful. “They seem to be dying out so fast out there.”
The two old women we talked to did not seem to be worried at all about the radiation and its ill effects. “Our native land keeps us in good health.” As we were taking our leave, they made us take from them some cooked potatoes, sour milk and salo — hard pork fat, the staple food of the Ukrainian countryside.
As we walked away, again through the forest but in a different direction, I could not help noticing that many of the trees were actually dead. So, there was a lot radioactive contamination after all.
I had a medical checkup in Kyiv after I returned home — the number of erythrocytes in my blood was considerably but not catastrophically depleted. I could not help thinking of those old people in that village who did not seem to be any worse for it — radiation or no radiation.
In 2010 I met a fellow journalist who told me he had been visiting Narodychi from time to time — the situation there was definitely improving, there were about three thousands inhabitants living there and their numbers were growing; the radioactive situation was almost back to normal; some businesses had revived: farms, timber, a factory, so there were jobs to employ the people — all of that thanks to some foreign investments which help with the revival. Rape was sown and harvested — it was processed into bio-fuel of some sort. Scientists said that rape absorbed radiation well from the soil.
However Narodychi seems to be an exception rather than the rule.
Though I did not plan to pay another visit to the Chornobyl Zone, but when a chance presented itself to go there I went.
I learnt that there was a congress of some kind held in Kyiv and participants would go on a guided tour to what is known as the 30-km Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. They needed a photo journalist and I offered my services.
As we approached Chornobyl and entered the “exclusion zone”, we went through check points.
Chornobyl is a small town. There were many signs of life there though the number of people living there is not large. Among these people are those who are taking care of the dead nuclear power station which continues to need a close attention; there are some people who returned after having been evacuated, and there are some who had stayed put after the accident.
The bus stopped close to the local church which boasts an icon of St Mykola — the icon is believed to be working miracles. For people living in Chornobyl the church is a kind of a place that unites them.
In the crowd I spotted a girl, about twelve years old, and wanted to talk to her. The girl was too timid to talk but her mother said the girl seemed to be the only one born in Chronobyl after the accident.
From the town we proceeded to the nuclear power station itself. The bus, after passing through the gate in the barbed-wire fence, stopped near Reactor Four, the one that had exploded. The ruined section is hidden under a protective reinforced concrete structure popularly known as “The Sarcophagus.”
The tour guide, who was among those who had been involved in the cleanup operation back in 1986, told the tourists a long story of the accident, the fire, the evacuation, the backbreaking efforts to deal with the aftermath, but I could not concentrate on what he was saying — I kept staring at The Sarcophagus, this pile of metal and concrete, the result of a tremendous effort, suffering and disease and death that struck later.
After taking pictures, we moved on to Prypyat. We were told we could walk around and take a good look. But I did not feel like it.
Prypyat is a dead town, scary and sinister. Decaying houses, rusty poles of street lamps, half-ruined telephone booths, weeds everywhere, gaping windows and doors. I did go into one of the apartment houses to have a look — peeling walls, litter on the floor, broken, rotting furniture, bottles that used to contain yogurt, wine or vodka; torn, yellowed newspapers here and there. I was tempted to read whatever was still readable but changed my mind and climbing to the top floor began taking pictures of the ghost town and of the dense woods that surround it.
In the center of the town I saw a sickly apple tree that was growing in bold defiance of the massive radiation that once had hit the place. There were a lot of small red apples strewn around. I was very saddened by the thought that this tree produced fruit that no human would eat — a senseless effort.
On the way back, there was a lot of red wine drinking in the bus.
They say that red wine helps cleanse the human organism from the radiation absorbed by the body. I don’t believe it but an idiotic thought came to my head — if it were true and red wine did help against radiation, why not flood the Chornobyl Zone with it, The Sarcophagus in particular? A sea of red wine! And when there was no radioactive fallout left, people would return, they would rebuild their houses, they would glaze the windows, they would plant fruit trees — didn’t that apple tree in the center of Chornobyl survive the worst of it?
But will they ever come back?
The accident, which took place on April 26 1986, was the worst nuclear power accident in history, resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of roughly 200,000 people.
The accident which was a result of human error and poor judgment rather than technical faults in the Unit occurred on April 25– 26, when technicians at Reactor Unit 4 attempted a poorly designed experiment.
These mistakes were compounded by others, and at 1:23 AM on April 26 the chain reaction in the core went out of control. Several explosions produced a large fireball and blew off the heavy steel and concrete lid of the reactor. This and the ensuing fire in the graphite reactor core released large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, where it was carried great distances by air currents. A partial meltdown of the core also occurred.
The Chornobyl nuclear power station was one of the largest in the Soviet Union. It was located just outside of the town of Prypyat, about 18 km (11 mi) northwest of the town of Chornobyl and roughly 110 km (70 mi) north of Kyiv, the capital and largest city of Ukraine.
The principal environmental effect of the Chornobyl accident was the accumulation of radioactive fallout in the upper layers of soil, where it destroyed important farmland. The second most important impact was the threat to surface water and groundwater. The cleanup in some of the most heavily contaminated areas within the evacuation zone involved the stripping and burying of topsoil and vegetation, the sealing of wells, and the building of structures designed to prevent surface water from entering streams and rivers that drain into the Dnipro River system.
Effects on public health have been more difficult to determine and are subject to considerable controversy. These issues surrounded the debate over the causes of higher death rates among more than half a million workers who participated in the Chornobyl cleanup.
The group of tourists take photographs of The Sarcophagus
The eighteenth-century Svyato-Illinska Church
Roman Malko’s friends during Malko’s first trip
The two old women who defied the order for evacuation