Action and Reaction, the art of politics and political art in Ukraine. Part Four
A week ago I met a theatre maker, a Chernobyl Child sent to Paris as part of a charitable programme to support children from the affected area, and now teaching French through theatre in the suburbs of Kiev. During my time here I have heard stories of other Chernobyl Children dispersed throughout Europe and met many artists responding to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster through their work. This catastrophic event and national tragedy touched all Ukrainians and many people in surrounding countries, it precipitated the break up of the Soviet Union and shaped a generation’s relationship with authority.
Yet it was with some trepidation that I agreed to go on the Chernobyl Tour.
As the sun broke through the morning mist, 15 of us set off in a mini van heading north out of Kiev. Our tour guide checked our passports and let us know that the government does not allow tourists to visit Chernobyl and this tour was for educational purposes. The journey would take us two hours across a flat and icy landscape. The bus was full of friends and colleagues I’d met during this British Council secondment to Ukraine.
As we settled in for the 2 hour journey a film took us through the dreadful events of the 26th of April 1986 and the subsequent actions and reactions. We learnt that the catastrophic explosion in Reactor Number Four was caused by a disastrous attempt to test the systems in the event of a loss of power.
We heard stories from the heroes who went in in the early days to stem the damage: The first firemen on the scene; the 600 pilots who flew over the site to drop sand (all dead); the 100,000 soldiers who could only shovel debris for 1 minute at a time, but of whom a third are already dead and the others are still suffering. We heard about abandoned towns, children with birth defects and Hospital Number 6 in Moscow, the Soviet Union’s specialist hospital for treatment of radiation sickness.
We heard former president Mikail Gorbachev explain the Soviet government’s response and heard what international experts did and thought. We heard of prominent suicides.
But mostly what we heard was the lie. The lie that down played the disaster. The lie that took 2 days to start the evacuation of Pripyat, built just off site to house the 50,000 workers and their families in 1970; the lie that allowed the Kiev May Day parade to go ahead as the cloud hovered over the capital; and the lie that means no accurate figures exist (to this day) of the actual number of victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
After passing several check points and showing our passports to the unsmiling guards, the bus pulled up on the side of the road. We were inside the Exclusion Zone. The sky is a deep blue and picturesque wooden houses peep through the sun touched autumnal trees. We get off the bus and follow our guide, brushing aside branches, but sticking to the path. We are told not to pick anything up.
In this abandoned village of Cherevach the houses, stripped of belongings and useful building materials, now cling to the trees around them. We tiptoe over broken bottles and threadbare floor boards in eerie silence, occasionally coming across a dusty doll or newspaper placed for atmospheric effect.
It felt wrong. We shouldn’t be there. What right did we have to enter the homes of those who could no longer be there, to see the lives that the living can no longer have? It was ghoulish and voyeuristic. It was disaster tourism. I returned to the bus and looked back at the village almost subsumed by the undergrowth. Nature was reclaiming these signs of human life, and in a few years there would be little to see. Yet deep under my feet the very earth itself was toxic.
We reboarded the bus and continued the tour. First the town of Chernobyl where 96 residents had returned to live alongside the liquidators still working on the clean-up, but where no one under the age of 18 was allowed. Then on to the inner zone, to the nuclear plant itself and the abandoned town of Pripyat.
The Zone was busier than I’d imagined and a number of tours crisscrossed each other. We stop for lunch at the workers’ canteen and are reminded to wash our hands. Workers here on the site are regualarly measured for radiation levels and their working hours are strictly monitored. The effect of radiation is cumulative.
Back on the bus we drive past the damaged Reactor Number Four, and the new containment sarcophagus being built by a French consortium at a cost of €2.5bn. The guide’s Geiger counter quadrupled its reading and the driver picked up speed.
We had been in the Zone for 6 hours and our tour was now over. Back at the check point we were tested for radiation levels and with a reading of just 0.002 millisieverts we were good to go.
We were handed our certificates to say we had completed the tour and we headed back to Kiev for a hot shower.
This history is so recent and the Fukushima disaster even more so. I came away thinking about our UK government’s rush to build new nuclear power stations and the politicians’ arrogance for believing that a disaster could never happen to us. It’s incomprehensible. We are sentient, intelligent beings who can come together to form a Universal Declaration on Human Rights, but can’t do the same to protect our planet.
Would I recommend this tour to anyone else? Yes, probably now I would, because only by going can you truly understand the scale of damage to the people, their lives and to our planet. The tours are the only way you can go, so whether you like it or not, that is the route you have to take.
It will take hundreds of thousands of years, for nature to repair this poisoned land and that reality should not be forgotten.