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Among the ghosts of Chernobyl



The foliage has taken over at the village of Pripyat, deep inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It swallows whole buildings, invades open doorways and windows, encloses playgrounds in a strangling mesh.

Gas mask in ChernobylThe branches of the apple trees bow to the ground, heavy with radioactive fruit. Vines and trees grow lush and uncontrolled. Ants scurry across hot cement paths, while bumblebees suck nectar from the bright yellow daisies squeezing from their cracks. Out in the forest, foxes and boars, deers and wild cats are said to have mutated into giant beings.

Such is the irony of the abandonment of this area following the world's largest nuclear accident on 26 April 1986: while the man-made edifices have gradually crumbled, nature is re-claiming their poisoned remains.

You must book early to get a seat on one of the shuttle bus tours to the exclusion zone, around 130km north of Kiev in Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union. They've become increasingly popular since 2016; it was then that the crumbling concrete sarcophagus built after the disaster to contain the spewing core of the Number Four Reactor was sealed with a highly engineered, stainless steel dome.

Known as the 'Arch' and built with the help of multiple donor countries at a cost of around US$800 million, the structure has been designed to last 100 years. Within its shell, robots will begin to extract and securely store radioactive waste from beneath the old sarcophagus. But 100 years is a mere blink of time's eye. What will happen when this structure decays?

The Geiger counter is behaving itself as we pull up beside the dome and check out the memorial to the first responders who came to fight the initial inferno and ended up dying weeks later of radiation sickness, their skin melting, their innards liquefying.

It barely registers any radiation, unlike the flaring measurements we'd recorded at one of the burial mounds earlier in the day, a place where earth (ravaged trees, soil, the insects that inhabit it) had been buried within earth in an effort to limit the contagion.


"We find them haunting its hastily-fled streets, lurking in the corners of looted shops and schools strewn with gas masks and stripped of their innocence and dignity."


The earthworms and the bees were the first to know, writes Nobel laureate and Belarusian native Svetlana Alexievich in her stunning book Chernobyl Prayer. The bees stayed in their hives; the earthworms buried themselves deep in the soil so that fishermen digging for bait on the banks of the Pripyat River were perplexed that they couldn't find any.

The humans were slower to learn: civilians took their time packing for an evacuation they were told would last just three days; they left food and water out for their pets, thinking they'd be returning the day after tomorrow.

Soldiers and volunteers streamed into the zone to launder it of its contaminants and shoot the hapless animals left behind; they had no idea what the consequences would be, neither physical nor psychological.

Though the reactor was located in modern-day Ukraine, the radiation clouds spread northwards, reaching as far away as Sweden; Belarusians suffered more than anyone else, with the rates of cancer there rising almost 74-fold in the first 20 years after the accident.

Some people returned soon after the evacuation. Others never left at all. They hid with their cows in the forest and crept back into their deserted villages to live a life of loneliness in the ruins of their homes.

Today, thin streams of people are seeping back in: groups of government workers charged with maintaining the exclusion zone; hermits living out in the forest, returnees who've stubbornly remained; tourists like me searching for the ghosts of a once-vibrant city.

We find them haunting its hastily-fled streets, lurking in the corners of looted shops and schools strewn with gas masks and stripped of their innocence and dignity. This place is a sepia-tinted hologram, a metaphor for the Soviet Union's demise, hastened by the disaster.

'There are lizards, the frogs croaking. Worms wriggling,' a returnee tells Alexievich in her book. 'It's good in the spring. I love it when the lilacs are in flower. The smell of the cherry blossom.'

Inside the zone is a tiny world that has ended catastrophically, but where nature is rising triumphant.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Chernobyl, nuclear waste, Soviet Union



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Existing comments

I stared reading and as I scrolled down I was so pleased to see mention of "Chernobyl Prayer". This is not so much by Svetlana Alexievich as her transcription of so many conversations with those who were there at the time and those affected subsequently. What those people say, from the simplest peasants to the highly educated scientists, is so eloquent. I've never been comfortable with the thought of nuclear power and this book sealed it for me. "No one" can give a 100% ironclad guarantee that there will not be "accidents" in any existing or future reactors. However good a man made structure might be, all it takes is a bit of an earthquake, a flash of lightning in the wrong spot ... inadequate on-going maintenance..... Uranium's half-life doesn't bear thinking about. This book should be compulsory reading. It's gripping in its awfulness, sadness, ignorance and heroism.

MargaretMC | 15 August 2018  

Chernobyl is a testament to the arrogance of humankind; a shocking reminder of what can go wrong when technology fails us due to human error. Civilization is faced with an even greater disaster for our children and grandchildren if we don't curb our use of coal and other non renewable energy sources as the Earth's climate warms to the point that some regions become uninhabitable. The biggest lesson from Chernobyl is that Nuclear Power is not the answer to our quest for unlimited energy .The consequences, as Margaret has written, will last for centuries . What is remarkable is the return of the area to its prehuman status.

Gavin O'Brien | 16 August 2018  

Please give me a reference to the source of the claim "Belarusians suffered more than anyone else, with the rates of cancer there rising almost 74-fold in the first 20 years after the accident."

Graham Day | 16 August 2018  

Yes Gavin “What is remarkable is the return of the area to its prehumen status” This astute observation of renewal is relative to the spiritual plane (Environment of the heart) also … Will the phoenix rise again will a new dawn break?...In dank glen deep in wooded dell, sits The dinking, tinker ling, sweet blue bell Moist rock and sodden moss, Decaying leaf and soft acorn This is my bed in cool May morn The morning mist conceals not my form As my small head rings in the dawn The church bells ring, high above the Glen Echoing on mountain side, rolling as the morning tide Bringing all that’s fresh and new Again we have the spray and morning dew Hurriedly we make our way some to sing and some to pray The ground clad mist coat of the morn Recedes in flight the coming of the morning light The trees stand tall in the great wooded hall Holding back the dawning light The gentle breeze, flutters the leaves Showers of quivering light Flickering foliage of every sight We feel the touch of the morning bell And again we dwell in the wooded dell The high roof cannot hide the view As we sing and contemplate anew The birds, greet the morning in Can you feel the blue bell sing It is not a tinkling sound or shouting bell But can you hear me deep in the dell The choir sings in sweet accord As we feel the touch of the risen Lord… . kevin your brother In Christ

Kevin Walters | 16 August 2018  

Wormwood Forest, Mary Mycio, 1986 is a fascinating account of the effects on wildlife in the exclusion zone and of the return, and successful breeding, of species locally extinct for many years. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the worst nuclear accident has had a less harmful impact on that ecosystem than the presence of humans.

Susan Macdonald | 14 November 2018