Chernobyl After 30 Years

In 2016, I embarked on a journey to Chernobyl for the first time. This year marks 30 years since the explosion of reactor number 4 in Chernobyl. Exactly on April 26, 1986, a great tragedy occurred, which affected us all. The radioactive cloud spread over the whole of Europe. Up to 145,000 km2 of land on the border of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia was contaminated. As a result of this contamination, between 100,000 to 350,000 people were resettled from the vicinity of Chernobyl.

Chernobyl is currently a closed zone. To enter, you need to apply for permission and justify your stay in the zone. You cannot move around alone; you must have a guide who will show you places accessible to “tourists”. In March of this year, I had the opportunity to participate in a photographic workshop in the “Chernobyl exclusion zone”. We spent three days in the closed zone. We had a hotel, food, and a guide named Marek provided. His task was to guide us through the zone and ensure that we did not separate from the group or enter prohibited areas.

The head of a doll abandoned in the forest in a colony center in the Chernobyl zone.
The head of a doll abandoned in the forest in a colony center in the Chernobyl zone.

Chernobyl is a town that gave its name to the power plant and then became synonymous with the disaster. It is located 13 km from the power plant buildings. Before the disaster, it was inhabited by about 15,000 people. Currently, about 2000 people, mainly scientists, guides, and people involved in the construction of the new dome, temporarily reside there. There are administrative offices, two shops, a post office, two hotels, and a church. Scientists can stay in the zone for 2 weeks, after which they must leave Chernobyl, and others take their place. Ukrainian regulations allow staying in the zone for 3 months a year.

Before the trip, I read the book “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” by Svetlana Alexievich. I also watched several documentaries about the disaster. I really wanted to go there and see this forbidden place with my own eyes.

When we arrived in Kyiv, a woman met us at the station and took us to a bus that would take us further. It turned out she was one of many cogs involved in transferring the group to the closed zone. Then came the inspection. A mysterious man with a black briefcase came, checked our documents, and probably required a certain amount of money related to entry into the zone. After checking the documents and passports, he wished us a pleasant stay in the zone. Then he left our bus. That’s when our journey to the zone began. To a place shrouded in mystery, inspiring fear, horror, and at the same time tremendous curiosity.

Abandoned piano, Chernobyl
Abandoned piano, Chernobyl

After nearly a 2-hour journey, we arrived at a place where the driver stopped so we could take a souvenir photo of the Chernobyl “welcomer”, then we reached the first checkpoint. There we were met by Marek – the guide who took over our group. Initially, we went to the hotel to leave our luggage and for the first trip nearby. We went to the Angel of Death monument. Along the alley, there are plaques with the names of displaced towns.

Nearby, there are rows of detached houses, abandoned and reclaimed by nature, looking like something out of a horror movie. Chills ran down my spine. For a photographer, it’s a mine of unique shots, especially since I managed to separate from the group and enter practically every house. People used to live in one of those houses, which was a big surprise to me.

School bench, Chernobyl
School bench, Chernobyl

The next place we visited was Chernobyl 2, where the over-the-horizon radar unit known as the “Russian Woodpecker” was located – a gigantic horizontal radar with the code name Duga-3. It has 17 towers about 150 meters high. We had the opportunity to climb a ladder to the 6th floor. Of course, for the willing and brave. I only made it to the second floor because I was afraid that if I went higher on rusty, moving ladders, someone would have to evacuate me. There, we had the opportunity to photograph the buildings where the qualified personnel of the former USSR military services worked. After almost 30 years, abandoned buildings are falling into ruin. To this day, scattered books with notes from those distant times lie there.

The next morning, we went to the colony of children’s cottages. It must have been beautiful, colorful, and fairy-tale-like here once. Now it’s as scary as a horror movie. Toys scattered here and there, destroyed cottages. You can still see colorful paint inside and outside the buildings, and motifs from fairy tales still adorn the facades of the cottages. It felt like you could hear the voices and laughter of children turning into crying in the distance. The next stop on the route was the kindergarten and nursery located in one building in the village of Kopachi. There are still children’s beds, terrifying toys, potties left there. The village of Kopachi was contaminated with radioactive fallout due to the disaster. All residents were evacuated, buildings demolished, and covered with a layer of soil. Only one building and the Liberation Soldier monument remain.

Hospital waiting room, Chernobyl
Hospital waiting room, Chernobyl

Then we arrived at the reactor itself. We saw the place where the disaster occurred. A new dome is currently being built to cover the old, cracking sarcophagus. It is made of steel. The construction costs amounted to 800 million euros. The construction was undertaken by a French company. It is unknown how long the construction of the new dome will take, but from what we saw, it is nearing completion. Then we went to Pripyat. A city built in 1970 that existed for 16 years. The city was built for young people, employees of the power plant, and their families. Allegedly, the average age of the residents of this city on the day of the disaster was 27 years. The day after the explosion of the power plant, the population of Pripyat was evacuated. People left their belongings and hastily left the city. After all, they were supposed to return there in a few days. They even left their pets with a few days’ supply of food. However, it never happened. People never returned to their homes.

Baby cot, Chernobyl
Baby cot, Chernobyl

The city emptied overnight. Supposedly, 1200 buses evacuated the contaminated Pripyat residents in just two and a half hours. Approximately 50,000 people lived in Pripyat alone, and up to 350,000 people were evacuated from the entire zone, from dozens of smaller towns. As we drove to Pripyat to visit various places, the anxiety was overwhelming. What will we see, what will we find?

Looking at pictures on the Internet earlier, I saw a snippet of this abandoned city. But seeing it with my own eyes and feeling this overwhelming emptiness is a very depressing experience. First, Marek took us to the Polesie Hotel, which was built in the mid-70s to accommodate guests visiting the nuclear power plant. From the hotel, you can see the central square and the Energetyk House of Culture, where we went next. There you can see famous posters prepared for the May Day parade, a vandalized auditorium, and a sports hall. We went to the amusement park, which was about to open soon. Unfortunately, it never happened.

Hospital bed, Chernobyl
Hospital bed, Chernobyl

The hospital makes a huge impression, where the effects of radiation on liquidators were treated. Even a hat of one of them remained. Marek applied a meter that almost ran out of scale. To this day, there are firefighters’ clothes in the hospital basements. The waiting room where chairs are placed against the wall and a dried flower is placed in front of them is particularly impressive. The paint peels off the ceiling, and in combination with water, it creates a slippery paste that is surely radioactive. Going further, we come across a room for newborns with rusty cribs, an operating room, and a delivery room.

Trees in Pripyat are everywhere. They grow on the streets, on buildings, and inside buildings. Nature takes back what was taken from it. It absorbs all the infrastructure created. What was supposed to be the realization of dreams for young people entering a new life turned out to be a coffin for some and trauma for others for the rest of their lives.

Many people buried their dreams of a wonderful, prosperous future there.

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