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My Chernobyl

by Valentinas Mite

Healing in the Shadow of Chernobyl

Parishev, 20 kilometers east of Chernobyl, was once a bustling village of several hundred people. Today, only a dozen or so still live here.

Galina Yavchenko outside her home in Parishev

Police checkpoints surround the village. Permission to enter Parishev must first be obtained from officials in the exclusion zone's administration.

Galina Yavchenko cooks dinner on an old stove outside her small cottage in Parishev. She is dressed in a blue print skirt. A white kerchief covers her head and is tied under her chin. Smoke from the stove wafts around her yard as she talks about life in the exclusion zone.

Yavchenko says the number of villagers in Parishev is shrinking, that people are dying one after the other. She herself complains of strong headaches and high blood pressure.

But she says she's not afraid to live in an abandoned village in the middle of a radioactive zone. If only the wild animals would leave her garden alone.

"We are used to living here. But we are like wolves here. Last year, boars ate everything they could find [from my garden]," Yavchenko says.

Yavchenko dismisses talk of the dangers of radiation. "Radiation, who has seen it?" she says. "I am feeling bad because I am old, not because of radiation."

She cares for several chickens, a pig, a goat, and two dogs. She says that caring for her animals takes her mind off of death. She says life is difficult, but at least she is living in her native village.

Olena Shylo lives nearby. She wears a plaid kerchief tied around her head. Her face is deeply lined, and her cheeks are tanned dark brown from working in the sun. She proudly shows off her colorful handmade pillows and says she has no desire to leave Parishev.

"I am at home, at home. How do I feel? I am already 76. How can I feel?! My life is already finished," Shylo says.

She says her sons worked at the Chernobyl nuclear plant during the disaster. Both of them died several years ago. They are buried in the village. Many former residents of the exclusion zone who are now scattered across Ukraine return to these villages to bury their dead on native soil.

Several hundred people still choose to live in the contaminated villages that dot the 30-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine. Despite the health risks still posed by radioactivity, 20 years after the world's worst civilian nuclear accident, the elderly villagers say the connection to their native land is too strong.

Ukrainian ethnographer Oleksiy Dolia has visited the exclusion zone many times. Nowhere else in Ukraine, he says, do people feel such a strong attachment to the land.

"I have never seen this kind of love for a native land. For them, the main thing is their native land. They say they cannot leave their rivers, their forests," Dolia says.

Dolia says the majority of those who remain behind are elderly women. He cannot explain why, but believes men may die sooner due to the effects of alcohol, hard work, and the psychological difficulties of adapting to life in the zone.

Dolia says the old people who remain behind are in desperate need of basic medical care, decent food, and a little attention from the outside world.

He says life in the exclusion zone eventually becomes unbearable even for the strongest. Bushes and trees now cover what once were open fields. Wild animals threaten meager crops. Criminals roam the countryside.

"Vagrants and criminals who have escaped from somewhere are living in these dead villages. For instance, in the village of Lubyanka, vagrants or criminals came and killed an old woman. So, such are the conditions, and it is really difficult for them to live here psychologically because of this isolation," Dolia says.

Dolia says he traveled to one village last year to collect ethnographic information and was forced to take armed guards because it was known that a criminal gang was operating in the area.

Despite checkpoints on every road, Dolia says it is easy for the zone's criminal underground to come and go at will.

"Imagine the life of an 80-year-old woman in this situation," Dolia says, "when your closest neighbor is several kilometers away."

Over $1 Billion Needed To Contain Ghosts Of Chernobyl

Another abandoned town is Pripyat, whose residents were hastily evacuated in the days following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The town, located 20 kilometers from the plant, was once home to Chernobyl workers and popularly known as the "city of roses." Now, nearly 20 years after the world's worst nuclear accident, Pripyat's only residents are dogs and wild animals -- a silent, empty place haunted by Chernobyl's nuclear legacy.

Rusting bumper cars at Pripyat's old amusement park

It is raining heavily as our driver parks his old Zhiguli in what used to be a children's amusement park. "It's good," he says, looking at the rain. "It will wash away some of the radioactivity."

Our guide is Serhiy Chernov, a local journalist. He lived in Pripyat as a student, and says he had hoped to make it his permanent home.

"There were flowers everywhere. Of all the cities I've seen in Ukraine -- of course, I haven't seen all of them -- it was the best. My wife and I celebrated our wedding here, and I wanted very much to be sent to work here after I graduated from Kiev University. But half a year before I graduated, the catastrophe took place," Serhiy says.

Nearly two decades later, Pripyat is a ghost town. A gloomy atmosphere hangs over the abandoned amusement park. Grass grows through cracks in the asphalt. Raindrops splash on empty park rides.

A large Ferris wheel remains a vivid shade of yellow, as though it had been painted yesterday. Erected just days before the April 26, 1986 disaster, it has never carried a single passenger.

We get back in the car and drive through the rain to what Serhiy says was once the heart of Pripyat.

"This is the main square of the city. The regional headquarters of the [Communist] Party was based here. Look at the building over there. There was a restaurant and a hotel. It was the center of town. In the past, roses were growing everywhere. Now you see only bushes. On the top of some houses you can see birch trees growing," Serhiy says.

We walk into the Communist Party building. Portraits of once-prominent Politburo members lie scattered on the floor. There are empty chairs, books by Lenin, and posters bearing Communist slogans.

In the local Communist Party building, portraits of once-prominent Politburo members lie scattered on the floor. There are empty chairs, books by Lenin, and posters bearing Communist slogans, all too radioactive to be taken away as souvenirs

"No souvenirs," Serhiy warns -- everything is radioactive. He says contamination levels vary from place to place. But it will be hundreds of years before Pripyat is safe to live in.

In the rush to evacuate the city, few residents had time to take more than a few small possessions with them. But over the years, the town has been picked clean by thieves who took whatever they could and sold it.

Oleksiy Dolia, an ethnographer, says people throughout Ukraine may be unwittingly living with contaminated furniture and other property stolen from Pripyat.

"There's nothing left there. The houses are empty. Nearly everything was left in these houses -- furniture, [audio and video] equipment. Everything was there. But now there's nothing left," Dolia says.

Once a year, on April 26, onetime Pripyat residents return to the town. Serhiy says it is a chance for many to remember what their lives were like before the accident.

"Some of them haven't been here for 10 or 15 years. Some more, some less. They meet here. Sometimes they set up a table with food, they kiss one another, they take pictures, remembering what their lives were like in this town. They think back on the times they went to a certain restaurant, or to the swimming pool. There was a wonderful pool here, a wonderful stadium," Serhiy says.

Like Parishev, Pripyat has a sole policeman manning the checkpoint on the road leading in and out of the town. But after a wrong turn, we find ourselves once again in the main square, with no police to stop us. Anyone, it seems, can join the ghosts in the radioactive zone.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Photos by Valentinas Mite

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Albion Monitor July 14, 2005 (

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