My Journey to Chernobyl:
20 Years After the Disaster
All words and images © Mark Resnicoff
In the early morning of April 26, 1986, several explosions destroyed Reactor 4 at the V.I. Lenin Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station in Ukraine. Over 100 radioactive elements including Iodine, Cesium, Strontium, and Plutonium were released into the atmosphere. During the ensuing days, rescue and cleanup workers (liquidators) were exposed to massive doses of radiation. Due to the enormous release of radiation, the Soviet government evacuated over 100,000 people from a large area surrounding the plant. To this day and through the foreseeable future, the area is considered too dangerous for human habitation, though normal radiation levels have returned to some locales.
After the disaster and subsequent decontamination efforts, the Soviet government established boundaries for the newly created Chernobyl Exclusion Zone encompassing portions of Ukraine and Belarus. The Zone is located within 30 km of the station and access is strictly controlled by the Ukrainian and Belarusian governments and militaries. What follows are my impressions of the Ukrainian sector of the Zone as it existed in June 2006, 20 years after the disaster.
Why Did I Go There?
Many people have wondered why I would travel from Michigan to, of all places, Chernobyl. I became interested in the accident and its aftermath several years ago after seeing pictures of the area on the internet. After reviewing many websites on the subject, I found one created by Washington State University English professor Paul Brians entitled "The Chernobyl Poems of Lyubov Sirota". At the time of the accident, Lyubov lived in Pripyat, a city near the Chernobyl nuclear station. Reacting to the tragedy, she turned her emotions into poetry and authored a small book entitled "Burden". While seeking more information about the disaster, I wrote a letter to Lyubov, never expecting a response. To my surprise, I received a reply approximately two weeks later, which was the beginning of a friendship that continues to this day.
While corresponding with Lyubov, I also befriended her son Sasha, who was nine years old at the time of the accident. Sasha is currently the editor-in-chief of Pripyat.com, an informational website created by former Pripyat residents. The site includes a forum which former inhabitants of the area can use to contact each other, after being separated all these years.
With a strong interest in the disaster and now having friends that used to live in Pripyat, I felt it was important to see the area for myself. As with many things in this world, a picture can speak a thousand words, but it is not the same as experiencing it in person.
How Did I Get There?
Once I committed to the trip in early 2006, I contacted Sasha and his friend Maxim for assistance in making the necessary arrangements. It takes approximately one week to obtain the requisite permissions from the Ukrainian governmental agency Chernobyl InterInform (CII) to gain entrance to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Partially due to the unexpected death of a senior CII guide in March, it took almost three weeks to obtain my permission for a two day trip into the Zone including an overnight stay in CII's hotel in the town of Chornobyl.
On the evening of Tuesday, May 30, I boarded Northwest Airlines flight 54 for an eight hour direct flight from Detroit to Amsterdam followed by a three hour KLM flight to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. I finally arrived in Kyiv late Wednesday afternoon after being subjected to over 11 hours of leg-numbing flight and a four hour layover in Amsterdam. At Kyiv's Boryspil International Airport I met my hotel driver, who did not speak a word of English, for a quiet yet interesting 30 minute drive into central Kyiv.
After arriving at the hotel, I called Sasha and only then found out that he barely speaks English. Maxim, who does speak English, joined us on a conference call and we decided to meet in the hotel lobby that evening. Sasha and Maxim came to the hotel with Yana Vernaya, a reporter with a radio station in Stavropol, Russia, who would be joining us on our trip. Maxim works for CII and said he would be unable to join us because he had just completed two weeks working in the Zone. People are only allowed to work in the Zone for two weeks at a time and then must stay outside the Zone for the following two weeks. After discussing the general plans for our trip, Sasha suggested going somewhere for drinks, but I was so tired from my travels that I had to decline and say goodnight.