It’s 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 13, and I’m sitting in a white minivan at Kiev, Ukraine’s central train station waiting to visit Chernobyl, where the world’s most catastrophic nuclear incident took place in 1986. I’ve been visiting Kiev every three months since 2008, but I’ve never been to Chernobyl, just two hours north of the capital city. My Ukrainian friends think I’m nuts for going.
“You’re a very brave man,” I’d hear repeatedly.
“Very brave man,” of course, is a euphemism for “crazy.” My friend Julia told me she was 9 months old and living in Kiev when the Chernobyl outbreak took place. Her father feared that the fallout would reach the capital (as did the Soviet authorities), so he moved the family to the Luhansk Oblast, in eastern Ukraine.
“That is my memory of Chernobyl,” Julia had told me over drinks a week earlier. “I have not been there and do not want to go there.”
Making up our group are three men from Lebanon, another dude from Slovakia and our driver. Our tour guide is Elena, a nice Ukrainian woman who has the driest humor in the fuckin’ world.
“OK, guys. We will be gone all day and will not return until 7 p.m.,” she said. “So keep this in mind as you prepare your business meetings, travel itineraries and Tinder dates. OK? Cool. Let’s go.”
We’re also reminded that we cannot drink alcohol during the trip; nor can we be intoxicated at any point, as is stated on the contract we signed to participate in the trip (more on this later). About safety, we’re told that as long as we follow the rules, we should not leave the exclusion zone with any more radiation exposure than we’d get from taking an international flight. (Yeah, apparently, flying exposes you to radiation.)
For foreigners like me, Chernobyl is an adventure. For Ukrainians and those inside Russia and Belarus, which were also affected by the incident, Chernobyl is a memorial. On April 26, 1986, a sudden power surge caused an explosion at reactor No. 4 after workers tried to conduct a test. A huge fireball erupted into the atmosphere. Radioactive rain fell from the sky onto the area as fires from the incident continued for days.
Two people died instantly after the explosion, and 28 people died as a result of acute radiation sickness in the following weeks and months. Thyroid-cancer rates skyrocked following the accident. Deaths as a result of exposure are impossible to quantify, but the figures tally from the tens of thousands to millions, depending on whose data you use.
In the middle of all this, the 40,000 residents of Pripyat, located 30 minutes north of Chernobyl, weren’t evacuated until some 36 hours after the explosion. The Soviets waited weeks to tell the nation’s citizens of the accident, drawing harsh criticism.
The explosion wasn’t the only issue. A pool of water underneath the reactor had filled with radioactive material that could cause a mass steam explosion that would hit the rest of Europe, causing even more damage. The only way to release it was to dive into the water and drain it. Three brave men volunteered. Millions of gallons of water were released, saving millions of lives. One of the divers died of a heart attack years later, another is still in the industry and information on the third man is unknown. None died in connection with their dangerous dive, as had been initially reported (The video below tells their story.)
The exclusion zone consists of an area the size of Rhode Island. Hundreds of thousands of people lived there. Now there are roughly 1,000, who refuse to leave, against the wishes of the government. It is estimated that it will take more than 20,000 years before the area in the exclusion zone is habitable again.
The radiation levels released that day in 1986 are still considered the highest released ever.
Around 10 a.m., we arrive at the first checkpoint. Our passports are already checked, so we breeze through without a problem. The first thing you hear is silence. Lots of it. The snow crunches underneath our feet as we walk, and our voices are the only sounds we hear throughout the day.
As we step out of the van, several dogs run toward us. I fear being bitten, but Elena calms my anxiety. “They’re friendly,” she tells us.
We’re warned not to touch or drop anything on the ground, as everything in the zone is pretty much contaminated. (Of course, some of us dropped our phones. Pray for me.) Neither food nor other agricultural products can grow in the exclusion zone because of soil contamination.
It’s the middle of winter, so the trees are leafless, but they will fully bloom come spring. However, the soil in many parts is so contaminated that the lower halves of some trees are charcoal black. Train tracks and a warning from Elena are the only things that keep us from venturing off to investigate them further. No fences partition some of the highly radioactive areas off from visitors. Just a stern warning from our guide and an occasional warning sign.
One of the first buildings we enter is a school. The floorboards either rotted through or were stripped away, exposing the ground beneath it. Old toys scattered on the floors remind you of the innocent children who once played with them.
Where are they?
Do they have cancer?
What are they doing?
Have they returned to this very spot I paid $125 to tour?
Or have they chosen to move on, intent on never returning?
People aren’t supposed to enter the buildings, since they have not been maintained since 1986. We do tour some smaller homes. In one, we see sheet music strewn across the floor. A small black shoe lies on top of debris. On a windowsill, perhaps one that the young owner of the shoe once looked through, sits a book, a small black shoe and a dingy, stuffed toy lion.
Less than an hour into the trip, the morbidity of what I am experiencing sets in. I wanted to visit Chernobyl because I sought adventure. I feel bad about it the more I stare at the little shoes of children who were whisked out of their homes, never to return again. I’m standing in a memorial, and as the day moved forward, I try to respect it as such.
Elena, our guide, keeps our spirits up with interesting stories along the way. She even warns us of danger approaching. “There are wolves over there, so be careful,” she says casually, pointing to a wooded area. “I’m just joking,” she would say soon after her warning.
We don’t get a chance to speak with folks who still live here, but Elena tells us some interesting facts. Like curfew is 8 p.m. If you do not have permission to be here, you risk detention if law enforcement catches you. There have been reports of people sneaking into the exclusion zone over the years. Given that none of them know where the hot spots for radiation are, it’s pretty dangerous. Last year, tourists sneaked into Pripyat and started an old Ferris wheel. To this day, officials marvel at how the intruders managed the feat.
By midday, we reach reactor No. 4, ground zero for the Chernobyl disaster. It’s enclosed in a huge shelter to prevent radiation leaks. At 531 feet in length and 354 feet in height, it is considered the “largest land-based movable object ever constructed,” according to The Guardian. The reactor isn’t in operation, but there are workers at the plant conducting experiments, along with cleanup projects, etc. There are plans to turn the site into a renewable-energy farm.
These workers do not work there on a consistent basis. They live outside the zone, many of them in Slavutych, to avoid dangerous contamination levels. Workers in the zone often work two weeks in the zone and take a two-week break outside it.
Our next stop after reactor No. 4 is the Duga radar (known in the west as the Russian Woodpecker), a Soviet ballistic missile defense warning system. It was designed to warn the Soviets of incoming ballistic missiles that would likely be tipped with nuclear warheads designed to wipe the Soviet Union off the map.
I’m an ’80s baby, too young to have any real memories of the Cold War. But standing underneath the Duga reminds me of how much humans invested and continue to invest in killing one another. The Duga is no longer operational and now stands as a relic of the Cold War era.
It is around 4 p.m., and there’s still a lot to see, but we’re cold. Like, really cold. The sky is dimming, and only interesting stories seem to keep our interests as we brave the chilling air. As we walk past a wooded area, Elena tells us not to go near it because the radiation in the soil is very high. Again, there are no fences or anything to keep folks from wandering into it. I begin to wonder how many intruders make it inside the exclusion zone and play in the forests. It’s impossible to know for sure.
Elena tells us about a Russian guy named Ivan who participated in the tour in 2011. He was loaded the morning of the trip and even required assistance by the police at one checkpoint in the exclusion zone because he was so drunk. We’re all told to keep up with our guide at all times, lest we get lost and left in the zone after curfew. Ivan, as Elena tells us, got lost in the town of Pripyat. A few hours later, local cops saw smoke rising from one of the buildings. It was October and Ivan had started a fire to keep warm. The cops took him to a dormitory in Chernobyl, where some workers live.
That was a big mistake. Ivan started a small revolution, convincing them that the curfew was bullshit. They searched the streets for vodka and had to be collected by the police again. Ivan was taken back to Kiev the following morning and forced to pay a big fine.
Besides the Ivans of the world, there are looters who come to the exclusion zone looking for things to steal: wiring, linoleum panels, steel, anything of value. It’s appalling. Why would anyone desecrate this place?
It’s getting darker. I’ve seen what I wanted to see. I’m cold and want to leave. And so does the rest of our group. But I’m also equally sad. For every shoe on the ground, there was once a foot in it, worn by someone whose life was altered by a mistake beyond their control. I looked at photos and statues memorializing people who died trying to contain the fallout of reactor No. 4. I wonder where their surviving families are.
As we make our way through the various checkpoints leaving Chernobyl, we walk through radiation scanners. We’re all safe. At the final checkpoint, we are able to buy souvenirs. Again, a dog runs toward our van, but this one was more cautious than the ones that greeted us at the beginning of our journey. Each step I take toward the dog, it takes several back. Then it would sit and stare at me. We repeat this dance several times until I realize that the dog has no interest in being touched.
We finish buying our souvenirs, pack into the van and drive off. It is not lost on me that I left Chernobyl of my own accord. That wasn’t the case in 1986 for the folks who lived here. There are 1,000 residents who still call this place home. They were forced to leave but eventually returned. They’re mostly elderly people. Many of them survived World War II. A nuclear-fallout disaster wasn’t going to push them out of their homes.
“If you leave you die. ... Those who left are worse off now,” an old woman who lives in the exclusion zone told a documentarian in the 2015 film Babushkas of Chernobyl. “They are all dying of sadness. ... Motherland is motherland. I will never leave.”
I cannot pretend to understand their resolve. But after seeing so many memories during my day in Chernobyl, I could see how someone could not bear to leave them behind as I so easily did that Saturday evening.