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Saturday July 2, 2022

Notes from a Disaster Zone: Part I

Chernobyl
Visiting Chernobyl was a long-standing wish

Are any of you a dark traveller? Do you fancy visiting somber places? 

In essence, I am not one of them. But then there are exceptional circumstances. There are phases in life, however temporary, when visiting places filled with horrors of modern life makes sense. Travelling is not always an escape from what I do. Sometimes it helps me delve deeper into myself and my existence. 

I have never been fond of Christmas. Trust me, London is as murky as it can get during that period. Dark clouds cover the sun in the skies and the constant drizzle makes you freeze. And the bright neon lights in every street corner, the gaudy decorations on every shop window paints a blasphemous contrast. 

I was stuck with some work in London, and for reasons best known to me, I was without a home, living in a weekly rental place, befriending strangers. My best friend was Tom, a bricklayer who often struggled to make ends meet. I would often step in to buy food and beer for him. Sometimes I paid the rent too. A self-righteous proud man from Belfast, Tom was hesitant. But every time this happened, I reminded him, “It’s not charity, Tom, it’s a loan. You are going to pay me back!”. And he did, every penny of it. 

It was Christmas, 2018! A time for families to shut the door to the outside world and gather around the Christmas trees decorated with colourful balls and stars. Outside, the days were grey, and the nights were dark. I escaped from this dark Christmassy London, for something even more sinister. 

I chose to visit a country that follows the orthodox church, Ukraine. Flew to Kyiv on a cold Christmas eve. Christmas was still ten days away there. There was knee-deep snow outside the airport as I boarded a crowded minibus that took me to the center of the town. I had booked a hostel till the 31st. I had only two goals— to get a laid back getaway from the gloomy London Christmas and visit Chernobyl. 

Kyiv Ukraine
On the streets of Kyiv

The days spent in Kyiv were lazy. Apart from walking around the city center and aimlessly hopping between metro stations with a day pass, I didn’t do much. No touristy places visited. Although I did call upon a couple of churches, the Christmas fair, an art gallery. That is not much for five days. Those do not count anyway, because I am here to tell the story about the day I left on a minibus tour to the exclusion zone. But roaming in the bustling streets of Kyiv (which looks like a little brother of Moscow in terms of the architecture and fabric of the city) actually gives a context to the tour of the evacuation zone. 

deserted village near Chernobyl
Deserted apartment blocks near Chernobyl

It was a long-standing wish of mine, visiting the radioactive zone. After seeing pictures, videos, movies for years, the day had come to set my foot on the cursed soil. On 26th December, 2018, I found the minibus waiting near the designated pickup point, close to the railway station. I was told it would have a bright yellow radiation hazard sign so that no one can miss it. There was a group of about 10 tourists, mostly from China and Korea along with a handful of Ukrainians.  It takes about two hours on the highway to reach the gates of the outer periphery of the exclusion zone.

Our guide used the time to talk us through the events of 1986 that led to the evacuation. Then there was a documentary on the disaster. By the time we reached the gates, we more or less knew about the history of the creation of the exclusion zone. Spread across Ukraine and Belarus, the 2600 sq km of uninhabited land lies almost devoid of civilization now. To be precise, it is devoid of a living civilization. There are murky remains of our society all over. 

village near chernobyl

The checkpoint to enter the zone had a few dogs running around. I was told not to pet or touch them, as they are radioactive. It is a hard thing for me to do. Not pet dogs when I see them. But on this tour, I had to comply. Three basic rules to follow.
Don’t touch anything.
Don’t sit anywhere.
Don’t pick anything up as memorabilia.

After the mandatory passport/visa check at the gates, we entered the exclusion zone. We waded through thick vegetation. “This is winter so everything is covered in snow and the trees are bare. But if you come in summer, this place looks like paradise.” – our guide told us. At the moment it was grey and white. But the plus point is that radiation is low in snowy times, as the ground is not exposed. It is a safer time to be here. 

Remains of the DUGA-2 RADAR
Remains of the DUGA-2 RADAR

Our first stop was a village. Abandoned more than 30 years back. Tree branches have torn the huts apart. A post office lay vacant, its roof crumbling down after decades of decay. Unsent letters still lying around. An empty grocery store, the merchandise still lying around. It looked like a photograph of that fateful day, lying in an album and decaying away. 

We visited a soviet army barrack next. Decayed sofas in multi-storied apartments. We could enter, unobstructed, into the homes that people dreamt in. Pots and pans are still lying around in the kitchen. As we climbed up the stairs, I could see the old electrical items falling apart. The plasters of the walls falling off. The concrete stairs are rotting away. A first-hand account of what happens to our beloved homes when people disappear.

abandoned classroom
Abandoned classroom in Chernobyl

We walked a few hundred meters to the secretive site of the world’s largest radar system, the ill-fated Duga-2. It was being built to monitor the InterContinental Ballistic Missiles of the USA during the cold war era. The base was evacuated even before it could be finished. Now the gigantic metallic structure lies rusting in the dense forest. Abandoned and eerie. Nothing short of a scene from a Sci-Fi movie. Actually, the entire place looked like the set of a Sci-Fi horror movie.

The difference was that I was in it, walking through the debris of our proud civilization. I have been to many dangerous places before – the arctic, high mountains, glaciers, deserts, but this was entirely different. With lush green surroundings, crisp air, chirping birds, it is hard to imagine this place is uninhabitable for human beings. The enemy is invisible, the decaying radioactive particles are everywhere. 

Images courtesy: Yubanaswa Chakraborty

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