The site of the disaster

Renáta Ježová

There are not many people who would not get caught up in the hype about a certain miniseries released by HBO in 2019. Everyone was talking about it, and the crucial question was, “Have you seen it?” Like many other people, I did. It was very strong and emotional and it provided some insight into a catastrophe that affected the lives of millions of people in Europe. And of course, I was not the only one with such thoughts and a kind of curiosity. When my colleagues and I were planning a trip, we voted on the destination. Engulfed by extensive publicity, the winner was Kiev and a day trip to Chernobyl. In this article, I would like to invite you on this day trip and share what it is like to visit the site of one of the greatest disasters.

The process of planning this trip requires work in advance. The only way to get (legally) into the exclusion zone is to book the trip through a licensed agency. You fill in some basic data about yourself (or members of the group) to get a permit with your name on it at the checkpoint upon arrival at the border of the zone. The trip starts early in the morning from Kiev, and the journey to Chernobyl takes more than two and a half hours. There are many places to be visited, including lunch in the canteen of the powerplant, but more on that later. Let me guide you through the trip chronologically. The trip started with the aforementioned ride to the border of the exclusion zone. Visitors are supposed to wear clothes that cover as much of their bodies as possible – so long sleeves and trousers were obligatory. Our group was well prepared; we were wearing single-use hazmat suits (little did we know that we would later become the main attraction thanks to this). Other safety rules were then described by our tour guide, Maxim. The essentials one has to obey are no drinking or eating in the zone, no touching anything (especially not the soil and the ground) and keeping only to the tracks chosen by the guide. After the ride, we got to the first checkpoint, which marks the beginning of the 30-kilometre exclusion zone. Equipped with dosimeters, we headed off to the first stop. It was a village with houses torn down and buried under the ground after the disaster. The only standing building that could be seen was a kindergarten surrounded by toys and a crumbling fence. The next stop on the trip was the entrance to the power plant and a memorial to the victims of the disaster, which happened in 1986. The place itself looks peaceful, just like an industrial hall. One would not say that this shining sarcophagus hides the gates of hell. The surroundings are clean and well maintained. From there, we moved on to a more disturbing place, although this was not apparent at first sight. A few kilometres from the powerplant, the Red Forest is one of the most contaminated places in the world, and the omnipresent signs of radiation and the intense beeping of the yellow dosimeter did not leave one calm. A quick stop there was more than enough before we progressed to the ghost town of Pripyat. We were led between crumbling buildings towards the iconic ferris wheel, through a stadium now covered with trees and back to the main square. It was there that we first encountered an animal, and that encounter was probably the most difficult part of the trip. The dog who was craving contact and just wagging her tail, looking directly at us. She was not in a bad state, neither gaunt nor suffering. It was just the terrible feeling that she was longing for a caress and you could not give it. (This is one of the safety rules to be obeyed, as animals roll around on the contaminated ground).

As it was already afternoon, we headed to the canteen of the powerplant right after the visit to the city of Pripyat. We went through a radiation control station and progressed to the eatery. Everyone got a tray and took a little of each meal on offer. Very well organized, the meals are prepared so that even vegetarians and vegans can get a wholesome meal. There were two stops left to visit after lunch. The first of these was the radar DUGA, a colossal steel construction in the middle of pine woods, within walking distance of the village built for the soldiers taking care of the operation and their families. At the time of its use, this place was a secret, and if seen it was marked as a TV signal-enhancing device. The road to the village was supervised, and civilians were told it led to a closed summer camp for children. The last stop was an outdoor museum of the equipment and apparatus used in the liquidation of the disaster and a memorial dedicated to the firefighters and liquidators, marked with the words: “To those who saved the world.” It is a place where you just stand with the sun setting behind your back and your long shadow crossing the statue, thinking about all the people who sacrificed themselves and prevented the disaster from being of larger dimensions. It is maybe expected of me that I write “I recommend that you visit this place,” but I am not sure about this. It was definitely a moving and impressive experience. It gave me a space to realize all the circumstances and impacts of the event and how a small error by a few people can cause such a disaster. But it is a sad place – a true memorial to human error – and it should be approached with humility and respect.