In the shadow of Chernobyl (Ukraine)

By Candice Marcus 

I’m standing in a lush forest which stretches for miles. The growth is starting to reclaim the manmade surroundings, and through the tangled braches and thick trees lie the hidden ruins of old, abandoned dwellings.

The green landscape all around me is clearly alive and flourishing, but it retains the invisible and sinister remnants of a heartbreaking disaster.

These leafy walls and spongy moss floors are radioactive, and this experience is not your typical tourist excursion.

A broken doll lies among the rubble of the disaster reminding visitors of the devastation that changed the lives of so many.
A broken doll lies among the rubble of the disaster reminding visitors of the devastation that changed the lives of so many.

I’m in Chernobyl, about 100 kilometres north of Kiev in the Ukraine. This was once a thriving metropolis home to tens of thousands of workers and their families. In April 1986, an explosion at Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant caused a radioactive cloud to spread across Europe. It is considered to be the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

The deadly disaster meant everyone who lived here had to be evacuated and would not be allowed to return, leaving behind the empty shells of their lives which tourists can now view. As our friendly English-speaking tour guide, Vita, explains to us, the forced relocations were devastating for the Ukrainians who called the main city and many surrounding villages their home. Many desperately wanted to return but couldn’t. And here we were, wandering through the ruins of their homes, taking photographs of the teddy bears, plates and old pictures that still scattered their looted dwellings.

Chernobyl power plant.
Chernobyl power plant.

A guided tour of Chernobyl, costing around $150US, is the only legal way to explore this area and pass through a series of police check points into the exclusion zones. Once inside the secured area our minibus makes numerous stops along the way, to see the ruins of old dwellings and a children’s nursery that haven’t been used for nearly three decades. Again our cameras click away in front of the dusty dolls and toys and old cots.

Those who hired Geiger counters are encouraged to hold them close to the mossy ground and observe the elevated readings. We’ve already been warned not to touch the plants or buildings, and at one point while visiting an old cottage we all gasp as Vita suddenly drops, having accidentally put her foot through a large hole in the floor. As she promptly lifts herself back up she assures us “It’s ok! Carry on!”

As we drive further along there’s another poignant and shocking reminder of the scale of this disaster. Vita points out the window to the welcoming sign to a village, but there’s only bare landscape beyond it. “You can’t see anything, right?” she asks us. “That’s because this whole town was buried.” She explains that houses not made of brick were too difficult to decontaminate so they were literally bulldozed and buried, along with large items of furniture from surrounding towns.

As we arrive at the nuclear power plant itself I’m struck by the contrast between the eerie deserted surroundings of the villages; this is a busy place. There are workers here who constantly monitor the infamous Reactor 4 and are working on building the new structure which will house the reactor and ensure no radiation can leak out. (The sarcophagus that currently covers the blown out roof of the reactor was bravely constructed by workers immediately after the disaster but now badly needs replacing.) The new structure being built next to the reactor, which will be slid across once complete, resembles a modern dome of any large stadium. Once in place Reactor 4 will be unrecognisable.

Comparing a haunting vision of Chenobyl, past and present.
Comparing a haunting vision of Chenobyl, past and present.

One of our major stops is Pripyat, the big city next to the Chernobyl power plant that housed nearly 50,000 of the plant’s workers and their families. Large apartment buildings, a hotel, a big school and a fairground are all on our list of things to see. As we drive in to the city I gaze into the trees and do a double take at the forest next to us, it’s hiding an entire apartment block.

The rusting fairground which is now overgrown with weeds is one of the most popular drawcards for tourists. The Ferris wheel casts a dominant and ghostly figure over the park. As we wander up to a failing structure that would once have been a carousel we notice a single child’s shoe sitting on the elevated walkway and I can’t help but wonder how it got there. Could a child have left it there on a trip to the fairground shortly before the disaster? Was it looters? Or, was it placed there for our benefit? A few others in my tour share the same scepticism and feel that some aspects of what we are seeing seem to be constructed for tourism – which is now the only source of income for the disaster region.

Once we start looking through the large old buildings it becomes even more evident that this once proud and wealthy city is now a decomposing shadow of its former self. No one is maintaining the structures and they are crumbling. Many are already too unsafe to venture into. As we stand outside the tall structures Vita shows us photographs of what they used to look like; some are now barely recognisable. It seems that between the looters, and the authorities who went through and took out large items of furniture, the insides of every building have been torn apart and destroyed. It’s another sad fact about this place.

We spend a lot of our time looking though the school. Although many rooms are completely destroyed some still contain tables and chairs and even have faded writing on blackboards. Its corridors are covered in dusty books and at one point we have to walk all over them to get into the classrooms. I feel uneasy about doing this; it seems disrespectful like walking over someone’s grave. You can still see the faded socialist propaganda on the walls, and if you take the time to inspect some of the classroom items you can see the writings and drawings of school children in their exercise books. In many respects it’s a fascinating insight, like standing in a faded snapshot of the Soviet-controlled era of the mid 80s.

After a full day of wandering through these remains and being educated by our guide along the way, we are given the chance to wash our hands and enjoy an authentic Ukrainian meal at the local cafeteria where all the workers eat. Finally, our radiation levels are checked on the way out of the exclusion zones. We all stand against the impressive-looking scanning machines with our hands placed against the sides and wait for the light to shine orange or red. Luckily we’re all clear, as expected, and the bus is also given the ok too.

Our strange day of sightseeing is now complete, and it’s something I’m never likely to forget.

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