Chornobyl: Visiting the site of a disaster

The mystery around the Chornobyl disaster is fascinating.

The number of deaths linked to the April 26, 1986 explosion varies between sources. So does who's responsible.

Thirty-one people died from the explosion itself, but thousands of deaths are linked to its radiation.

Six of us went to the Chornobyl exclusion zone on Oct. 1. It's a controversial site to see — the reason we're going on a day trip there is because of a terrible disaster that claimed lives.

At the same time, it's a learning opportunity. I went to learn about the people who lived there, and who still live there, and to honour and remember them. I went to learn about the history of the area and the secrecy of the Soviet Union. I wasn't there just to say I went to a ghost town, to snap a couple of pics, and that's it.

There were a dozen of us total, plus a guide to show us around. We went by bus and stopped at a couple points in the exclusion zone for guards to check our passports.

Inside the 30 km exclusion zone is the city Chornobyl. To my surprise, 4,000 people still live here. They work as guards, firefighters, and servers in the restaurants. Others have reclaimed their homes after being forced to move 31 years ago.

We visited the site of the Duga radar, a system that our guide said was secret during the Soviet Union, or at least its size was. People said it was used for a radio station, yet it was actually supposed to monitor missiles. (When its size came out in the news, people even said it controlled human behaviour.) The Duga, also known as the Russian Woodpecker because of the sound of the signals it sent out, stopped operating in 1989.

There is so much info out there about the Duga, and so much of the info is varied that I still don't really know all that much about it. But that just makes it all the more interesting. (I started watching the documentary The Russian Woodpecker, after someone recommended it to me to learn a bit more, at least more from this particular filmmaker's view.)

In the 30 km zone, we went inside a kindergarten building. You could tell many items were staged here, or strategically placed — a doll sitting upright on the deteriorating beds, books flipped open to specific pages about family. And of course, this could be how they were actually left but to me it seemed like someone put them like that for a photo, which reminded me to think about why I was there — which was definitely not for the perfect photo op.

Within the 10 km exclusion zone (meaning 10 km from the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, where the explosion occurred) is the ghost-town Pripyat. Many workers of the plant lived in Pripyat. It was a lively city, even described as a "fairy tale" city in the documentary The Russian Woodpecker.

Pripyat today is unlike anywhere I've ever been, which is expected seeing as it's a completely abandoned city (besides the laundromat, which Chornobyl workers use to make sure radiation doesn't leave the area).

There's an old amusement park that never even saw opening day. The disaster occurred right before it was set to open. There's a grocery store that was open one day. And there are apartment buildings after apartment buildings, which from a distant look like any other city's buildings but up close you see the dark squares are not windows but instead holes they left behind.

We walked up nine floors to the roof of one of the apartment buildings to get a view of the city. It just showed again how overgrown everything is. How unused it is.

Going to Chornobyl isn't a day I will soon forget. Nor is it a day I will soon comprehend.

This whole post is just an overview of what I learned and what our day touched on, and I encourage you to learn more about the history of the area. I know I will.

And if you're wondering, yes, radiation levels are low enough in Chornobyl that it is a safe place to go see. (Though make sure you don't sit on the ground because there could be a hot spot.)

You can flip through some more of my photos from the day at the bottom of this page.

P.S. Sorry for the delay of the post! I've had a busy couple weeks, including hosting 30+ people for Thanksgiving. We have only two weeks left here now so we're squeezing in as much as we can before we move onto Lviv, our next home.

Note: When I wrote this post, I used the Russian transliteration of Chornobyl, which is “Chernobyl.” After realizing the error, I have since edited this post to use the Ukrainian spelling, though the URL has the Russian spelling so that the link still works from when I originally shared it.