Close To Chernobyl
Today we are going close to Chernobyl to visit towns and villages that have been, or are about to be, evacuated as a result of the disaster. We shall not be entering the thirty-mile exclusion zone but will be in contaminated areas and Volodya, Irena and the rest of our Russian team will not be coming with us. Mirabel too has decided not to risk it. Roger has been in contact with the National Radiological Protection Board at Harwell, whose advice offered mixed comfort.
They said radiation levels would be the same, if not less, than at the Poles, with their concentration of magnetic forces. However, the knowledge that there is still confusion and debate over the effects of the disaster, and the advice from scientists that we wear shoes and clothing we could throw away afterwards, add a frisson of danger to the journey and there is some nervous joking over the slivers of cheese at breakfast.
We head north and west from Kiev, making for the town of Narodichi. It’s forty-two miles due west of Chernobyl, two of whose reactors, Vadim reminds us, are still operational. The Ukrainian Parliament has voted unanimously to close them down. The Soviet government has refused. The Ukrainians claim that 8000 died as a result of the accident. The official Soviet figure is thirty-two.
We are passing through woodlands of pine and oak scrub interspersed with harvested fields and cherry and almond orchards. An army convoy of forty trucks passes, heading south. After a while the woodland gives way to a wide and fertile agricultural plain. The first indication that this abundance is tainted comes as quite a shock. It’s a sign, set in brambles and long grass, which reads, ‘Warning: It is forbidden for cattle to graze, and to gather mushrooms, strawberries and medicinal herbs’.
We stop here and put on our yellow TLD badges, which register radiation levels, and which will be sent back to Harwell for analysis after our three-hour visit. Armed with these and a radiation detector, we enter Narodichi where people have lived with radiation for over five years. It’s a neat, proud little town with a chestnut-lined main street and a silver-painted Lenin in front of the party headquarters. In a year’s time there will be no one here.
In the municipal gardens the grass is uncut but a fountain still plays. There are several memorials. One is a scorched tree with a cross on it – local people think that the forest protected them from the worst of the blast. Beside the tree are three large boulders, one of which commemorates four villages and 548 people evacuated in 1986, another fifteen villages and 3264 people evacuated in 1990. Twenty-two more villages and a further 11,000 people will be going in 1991. An inscription reads: ‘In memory of the villages and human destinies of the Narodichi region burnt down by radiation’.
One of the most polluted areas is the children’s playground, with thirteen to seventeen times normal gamma radiation levels. The red metal chairs hang down from the roundabout and blue steel boats swing gently in the breeze, but no one is allowed to play here any more.
Michael, the local schoolmaster, is short and podgy and his face is an unhealthy grey. There were 10,000 children in the region, he tells me; now there are 3000. Two of his pupils pass by on bicycles and he grabs them and introduces us. The boys, just back from a Pioneer camp in Poland, look bored, and reply in monosyllables, which Michael translates thus: ‘The children send fraternal greetings to children throughout the United Kingdom’. He smiles proudly and a little desperately. I ask if the children’s work has been affected by their proximity to Chernobyl. He sighs and nods.
‘There is not a single healthy child here.’
As we drive out of Narodichi, Michael talks with pride of the history of his town, interspersing this with casually chilling present-day observations.
‘This is the bridge over the Oush river. It is area of highest pollution.’
We come to the village of Nozdrishche, which was evacuated last year. There are no ruins, there is no devastation or destruction. Wooden cottages with painted window-frames stand in their orderly rows. Flowers are in bloom and grasshoppers dart around in lush overgrown gardens. It is a hot, soft, gentle summer’s day. Yet scientists who have visited the area say it could be 700 years before this place comes back to life. It is hard to know what to believe, for whatever curse lies over these villages is the more frightening for being invisible. It is how one has heard the countryside would be after a nuclear war – benign, smiling, deadly.
A year’s exposure to the weather has not yet dissipated a faint smell of disinfectant in a small, deserted maternity hospital. A poster on the wall depicts the American space shuttle spinning round the earth, with the single word ‘Nyet!’ beneath. There is a book on breastfeeding, its leaves nibbled by mice, an examination chair, medical records still in files, and a portrait of Lenin which has fallen out of its frame and lies in a corner beneath a scattering of glass slides and syringes. Conscious of the limited time we have been advised to spend here, we move on through the village.
I catch sight of two figures down a lane to one side of the main street. One is a very old lady whose name is Heema, and the other her nephew. Heema is ninety years old and has refused to be moved from the village. She says she has been moved five times since the disaster and now she is too old and ill. Her one wish is to die in the house in which she was born, but that is now cordoned off with barbed wire, so she will remain here with her daughter. They are the only inhabitants of Nozdrishche.
Further along the road, at the village of Novoye Sharno, the radiation detector bleeps for the first time.
‘Pay attention, please,’ says Michael, ‘the radiation is very high here.’
This is one of the villages evacuated in 1986, immediately after the explosion and fire, and the village shop is now almost submerged in the undergrowth. Inside it is a mess of broken shelves, abandoned goods, smashed bottles.
‘There was a panic here,’ Vadim explains, unnecessarily.
We drive back through Narodichi, where, as in Novoye Sharno, Nozdrishche and over forty villages in this region alone, the grass will soon grow around doors that will never be opened again, and anyone who comes here will be informed of the dangers and the risks which those who lived here were not told about until it was too late.
Back in Kiev, two and a half hours later, I’m struck once again by the spruceness of the city compared with Leningrad or Novgorod. A Russian, writing in the Insight Guide, relates even this to Chernobyl. ‘The terrible effects of the tragedy made many people, in Kiev and other towns, take another look at themselves. Kiev is cleaner, and not merely because the streets are watered twice a day now; once the people were shown the frailty of human existence, they changed.’
We end the day in a brick-vaulted cellar in the Andreevsky Spusk, a Montmartre-like street full of cafés and shops and predominantly student meeting-places. The food is the best we’ve had in the Soviet Union – Armenian-Georgian cooking – kebabs, rabbit stew, aubergine and onion salad. An excellent jazz trio of bass, fiddle and piano plays local music and well-served-up classics like ‘Take the A-Train’. Vodka flows freely. It is one of the best evenings, and in a sense, the only way of dealing with what we have seen today.