Glowing wasteland: One day in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

The silence is still deafening in the land where the clocks don’t tick

I was two years old when reactor number 4 exploded in the early hours of 26 April 1986, so the Chernobyl catastrophe is one of those historical events I can only vaguely recall, if at all, as it happened. 31 years and a Chernobyl visit later, I can confidently say that the memory of what I saw there will not leave me for a very long while, if ever.

 The Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in the early hours of 26 April 1986 leaving the area around an abandoned wasteland till now — Giorgia Cavicchia
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in the early hours of 26 April 1986 leaving the area around an abandoned wasteland till now — Giorgia Cavicchia

You can only visit Chernobyl as part of a guided tour. What you see is a portion of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, an area of approximately 2,600 square km around the nuclear plant, where radioactive contamination is still at its highest.

Its very heart includes an external area, with a radius of 30km from the reactor at the heart, and an internal zone, with a 10km radius, in the immediate vicinity of the reactor. The vehicle that drives you around follows a standard itinerary across the two areas.

My friend and I booked a one-day private tour: at 7.50 on a bright September morning, we found our car waiting for us outside our Kiev hostel

The road from Kiev to the Zone was scattered with tiny villages, lonesome bus stops, and the odd local waiting for a bus or car to pick them up. The rest was all blue sky, cornfields and a few wooden houses that made the connection with Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated even too immediate.

The Zone is divided into two parts. The wider one has the radius of  30 km and the inner part of 10 km —  Giorgia Cavicchia Chernobyl
The Exclusion Zone is divided into two parts. The wider part has a radius of 30km and the inner one of 10km — Giorgia Cavicchia

At the checkpoint by the main entrance, after the soldiers let us in through the turnpikes, we got back into the car and zoomed down the main road of the external zone.

We first reached a village called Zalissya, formerly a small collective farm. The footpath in the forest was surrounded by bushes, trees and the earthy ground. We stopped by a wooden, one-storey building and went in: it used to be a shop.

The room was empty but for the remains of the counter. The floor was half-covered with debris; the walls peeled out. It looked like it had been gutted by fire. In fact, as everything else, it had been gutted by time – which, clearly, could produce a very similar result.

Next came Chernobyl, which is situated very close to the reactor, but is not the city of the reactor. Before the catastrophe, around 14,000 people lived there. Now the city has a little more than 3,000 inhabitants, mostly those working to make the plant safe, and is home to the only standing Lenin statue in Ukraine.

Right next to it is the actual beating heart of the city: an earthy footpath through the grass. The path was lined on both sides with the street signs of over 160 villages, towns and cities directly impacted by the explosion. On one side of the sign the place name had a red slash across it. 

A footpath right next to the 'beating heart of the city' is marked by street signs of over 160 villages, towns and cities directly impacted by the explosion — Giorgia Cavicchia
A footpath right next to the beating heart of the city is marked by street signs of over 160 villages, towns and cities directly impacted by the explosion — Giorgia Cavicchia

Some of the signs were painted black, while others were white. Well, all the signs were initially supposed to be black, but soon they ran out of black paint, and had to leave the others white, as if they didn’t expect to have to paint so many of them.

Leaving Chernobyl meant entering the inner zone. It’s not that it looks or feels that different. It’s just something you know. The first stop was the secret town of Chernobyl-2; a military facility used in the Soviet era for espionage-related purposes.

That’s also where the notorious Duga is located. Duga (or Russian Woodpecker, as it’s also known) was a radar system employed by the Soviets as part of their anti-ballistic missile system.

It looks like a gigantic fence overlooking the pine forest. As I stood there, I wasn’t able to see the structure in its entirety; it’s too massive for the human eye to embrace the whole of it. I could only throw random glances upwards, and shudder at the clanking sounds it makes when the wind blows through the metal wires.

Eyeless dolls and cuddly toys with missing limbs are left in dorm rooms where little kids used to take their afternoon nap — Giorgia Cavicchia Chernobyl
Eyeless dolls and cuddly toys with missing limbs are left in dorm rooms where children used to take their afternoon naps — Giorgia Cavicchia

We soon reached Kopachi, a small village near Chernobyl, where we visited a kindergarten. Kopachi was heavily affected by the explosion. After the disaster, most of its buildings were bulldozed to the ground, and the debris buried in specially dug holes.

Radioactive materials were pushed deep underground, leaving the soil heavily contaminated. The kindergarten is one of the very few Kopachi buildings still standing. Its interiors are among the spookiest and saddest sights we came across throughout the tour.

We also entered the dorm rooms where little kids took their afternoon nap. Eyeless dolls and cuddly toys with missing limbs were sitting on some of the beds, which were otherwise bare. The iron structure made them vaguely similar to whitish skeletons.

As we left Kopachi, we drove along the cooling canal of the plant. Our driver pulled over, and we got out of the car. My gaze followed the canal bed into the distance, where it bent to the right, and… The nuclear plant was just there.

We could see the whole complex, including the ‘sarcophagus’, the steel-and-concrete cover that envelops the reactor like a bright silver shell. 

A pair of cupped hands and a bell that rings the alarm. The symbolism in the monuments is pretty striking — Giorgia Cavicchia
The symbolism of the monuments is striking — Giorgia Cavicchia

The complex has an extraordinarily evocative power, further emphasised by the monument erected outside the plant: a pair of cupped hands holding a miniature of the building and, above it, a bell that rings the alarm. The symbolism is striking.

The final stop of our tour was Pripyat. To get there, we drove through the Red Forest, as the area immediately surrounding the plant is known. As a result of the absorption of high levels of radiation, the pine trees turned reddish-brown, hence the name.

The site is one of the most highly contaminated in the Zone, but thanks to the low human impact in the area it is now a haven for the local flora and fauna.

Pripyat is a key spot of any Chernobyl visit. It was a model city of 50,000 people with elegant houses and fancy shops. You were a privileged if you lived there. Unlike Chernobyl, it is now a ghost city, empty and deserted as the evacuation left it.

What they say about nature taking over is astoundingly true. Bushes cover most of the road surface, and trees sprout out of the asphalt and on the rooftops. Nature has taken repossession of something people once though they had ownership of.

The rumours about the rule of nature are true.  Trees sprout out of the asphalt bushes cover most of the road surface — Giorgia Cavicchia Chernobyl
The rumours about the rule of nature are true. Trees sprout out of the asphalt and bushes cover most of the road surface — Giorgia Cavicchia

First, we headed to the Pripyat café. The building is in ruins, yet its shattered glass walls and empty space exude a melancholic sense of nostalgia of the old times. The stone staircase next to it takes you down to the remains of the river port. All that’s left is the railing, a wooden boardwalk disappearing into the water and, in the distance, a few cranes and a rusty shipwreck.

Similarly, the high street is now a narrow, half-paved alley leading up to a broad clearing: the main square. One side is half surrounded by dilapidated buildings: the former administrative office, the Polissya Hotel building, and the Palace of Culture. Elsewhere, there are only rusty street lamps and trees grown out of the asphalt.

The very final stop was the amusement park. Though scheduled to open on 1 May 1986, it was never officially inaugurated: Pripyat was evacuated on the afternoon of 27 April. The area, still one of the most radioactive in the Zone, displays a couple of swing rides, bumper cars, and the notorious carousel, where our tour officially came to an end. 

The abandoned amusement park that was never inaugurated remains a symbol of the Chernobyl wasteland — Giorgia Cavicchia
The abandoned amusement park that was never inaugurated remains a symbol of the Chernobyl wasteland — Giorgia Cavicchia

One thing I learned as I moved across the Zone is that what you do not see, because it has been swept away by decades of abandonment, is as visible as what is still there.

Around the Zone, over a hundred people have gone back to where they lived before 26 April. They call them returners or resettlers, but there’s too few of them for their presence to be heard. There are no children playing, trams trundling through the streets, or people working. The silence is still deafening all around.