Our group, young and eager to visit Chernobyl, rode in a gigantic van plastered with a photo of an innocent child wearing a gas mask. Our journey from Kiev to Chernobyl was a sleepy one that dragged on for roughly 2 hours. In between naps, we watched various Chernobyl documentaries from the early late 90’s. The documentaries described the horror that followed the disaster of Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor #4. They described how Nuclear Reactor #4 threatened to set off another reactor, and if it had, all of Europe would have been uninhabitable. We watched interviews of people who were forced out of their homes to never return again. We watched the defense fighters and scientists go through hell to try and fix the un-fixable.
At our first check point, we were ordered to put away all cameras. No pictures could be taken at the checkpoint. This first checkpoint is where I gasped at my last ounce of clean air. It’s also where one of our fellow tourists dipped out. Our guide refused to tell us why he decided to leave and where he was going. This left a very uneasy feeling in my stomach. Afterwards we were ushered onto our bus, and traveled further into the exclusion zone.
We’d pass through two more check points. All bringing us closer and closer to our main goal. Chernobyl. Our guide introduced the Dosimeter. This yellow device echoed a siren every time it detected high levels of radiation. Every time it screamed, my gut would ache and my throat would instantly dry.
Our first eerie stop was a run-down neighborhood. We were able to tour it’s crippled kindergarten classroom. The white walls were painted with mold and the windows no longer housed glass. You were forced to side step debris such as unrecognizable wood furniture, glass bottles from intruders, and nature. The school’s tiny hooks reminded me too much of my own elementary school. The little cubbies that were made for children too innocent to experience such a tragedy. Right before we left, we found a lone shoe. This haunting discovery brought the realness of the situation to life. it influenced me to lose my breath. We were in Chernobyl , an entire region of Ukraine, that was forced to be abandon for life.
Now it was our time to see reactor number 6 up and close. Our meter hissed it’s warnings at us. The radiation growing higher and higher with every step that we took towards the reactor. We chatted about the sarcophagus slowly being built to contain the beast. I gawked at Chernobyl’s workers. I was that people still lived and worked in the exclusion zone. Despite being home to such a tragic accident, their was still a community that lived and worked here. Side note: there are restrictions with how long you can stay in the exclusion zone for a period of time…
Afterwards, we’d enter into the most gut wrenching areas of the tour.
Pripyat was once an extremely young and wealthy community of workers from Chernobyl. The city had been alive and growing for a few years leading up to the accident. Several days after the accident, the town was evacuated. It’s inhabitants were to take what they could fit on their back and nothing else. They were told they’d be returning within a few days. Overtime, no one returned except people stealing contents from the abandoned buildings.
Our first taste of Pripyat was it’s famous abandoned amusement park. It’s gigantic ferris wheel gave us it’s ghostly welcome, followed by it’s rusted bumper cars and other dead rides. Something that was supposed to provide it’s attendees with such spirit and energy, just laid there, slowly becoming it’s demise. I had read that the amusement park was open for one day to distract it’s inhabitants from the disaster, but our guide confirmed that yes, it was open, but no one used it because they were being evacuated that same day.
Next was the community center. Since Pripyat was a community of great wealth, it had many luxuries compared to the nearby cities. Their community center was home to a giant basketball court and a large pool.
As if I wasn’t uneasy enough, we toured the elementary school next. The most haunting room of them all, was the large classroom filled with child-size gas-masks. They were just lying their, hundreds of gasmasks for itty bitty children with innocence. What made it worse, was that people had moved them to make even more haunting. In the school, we were free to enter in and out of rooms. Books were strewn about, student’s assignments lye on the teacher desk- never be graded, and the schools foundations, rotting away, ever so slowly.
Our last stop was to a large apartment complex. We climbed onto the roof and took in Pripyat. Although human life ceast to exist in Pripyat, it’s nature did not. The wildlife surrounding Pripyat was vibrant and beautiful. Trees, weeds, and roots overtook the pavements and buildings. I was relieved to be done with our tour. I was overwhelmed with anguish and unease. I couldn’t ever imagine being evacuated from my home- for forever. The terror, hurt, and grief it’s people experienced was too much for me. The hissing of the meter still freaks me out. Now try to imagine that people are still living and working there.
During our tour, I experienced many emotions from excitement, nausea, to gratitude. I can confidently say that I’m happy to have visited the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. My experience there and knowledge gained helps me have a greater awareness for the world around me. Now too, I have empathy for the people that were effected by the trauma of losing their life in a matter of days.