On Friday, little girls played with their dolls, laughing in the preschool’s front yard sometime between morning snack and afternoon nap. Their big brothers sat slumped at their desks, their eyes drifting toward the taunting springtime weather just beyond the classroom window while their teacher droned on about long division.
At home, their mothers swept the floors before running to the market for some tomatoes. And fathers tackled the last of the week’s work — stamping and signing — eager to collect their paychecks before heading home for a day of rest.
This Friday was like every other Friday. Except, it wasn’t. This was the very last “normal” day anyone would ever have in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine.
Thousands of people lived in Pripyat, many of whom worked at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Little did these people know that, while they went about their daily lives on Saturday, April 26, 1986, the worst-case scenario — a catastrophic nuclear accident at reactor no. 4 — was happening in their backyard.
Though the government didn’t inform people in Pripyat and other nearby towns of the accident or evacuate them until 36 hours later, many residents fell ill. When they did evacuate, government officials told citizens they’d only be gone for three days. “It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings, and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you,” read the official evacuation notice.
So people left everything behind, assuming life would return to normal the following week: The little girls would, once again, play with their stuffed toys while their brothers flipped through textbooks. Their mothers would cook in their kitchens again while their fathers wrote up business notes.
But they never returned.
Today, Pripyat is a ghost town. In fact, an impressive 1,000 square miles surrounding the nuclear power plant called the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has essentially no inhabitants. A handful of people work in the exclusion zone, and a few old women returned to live in their homes there, but for the most part, it’s a vast, isolated, overgrown area in Ukraine, one of Europe’s largest countries.
We visited Chernobyl last October, and a whole host of things have derailed my efforts to write about the experience. But waiting to write about it has also given me time to think about the trip and watch a couple documentaries to learn more about what happened there.
A few answers to common questions:
No, I wasn’t scared.
No, I wasn’t afraid of the radiation. In fact, I didn’t care about the radiation. We didn’t rent a Geiger counter because it honestly didn’t interest us all that much.
No, you can’t touch anything, sit on anything, or take anything out of the exclusion zone.
Yes, the catfish are as big as whales.
Yes, the trip made me more aware of the disaster, but I still felt very removed from it. Even as I stood in front of the reactor, which has a new sarcophagus to help contain radiation, I struggled to fully comprehend the enormity of what happened in Chernobyl and what the ongoing consequences are.
Yes, it is eerie to see lives abandoned at a moment’s notice. Buildings are mere shells and detritus spread everywhere because nothing can be touched or discarded.
Yes, it is tragic that thousands of people’s lives were forever changed because of a careless error. And, yes, the ripple effects are still felt in Ukraine and other countries where radiation drifted aimlessly in the atmosphere.
But this is perhaps what I feel strangest about admitting: I found it all eerily beautiful.
It’s as if a soft filter has fallen over the whole area, shrouding the buildings vehicles, sidewalks, street signs, and play equipment with a kind of serene, protective covering.
Tree branches overrun roofing. Grasses cover sidewalks. Vines snake through broken windows. A nuclear meltdown killed people and destroyed city life, but nature moved in without any concern about radiation.
I fully acknowledge the enormity of the Chernobyl disaster, but my lingering thoughts don’t rest on the disaster itself.
Instead, I find myself thinking about how quickly everything can change. How vulnerable people are without realizing it. How naive we are to think we’re safe.
How powerful nature is. How beautiful life can still be in the wake of tragedy.