Through the radioactive lands of Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone.
Words from Ostrovskiy Yuriy, Adapted by Masa Jamaludeen.
I am Ostrovskiy Yuriy and I come from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. I have dedicated my life to exploring the Chernobyl Exclusion zone, an incredible place where tragedy and human destinies are intertwined. Being an illegal visitor, or a stalker, as the government of Ukraine calls me, has unlocked incomparable experiences for me. I have made it my challenge to visit all the one hundred villages that were abandoned after the disaster in 1986. So far, I’ve visited 95.
Dark tourism is something I love to venture into, however, the reason behind my journey through Chernobyl is deeper than that. I aim to research and understand how nature has reclaimed an area abandoned by humanity. The only way I could freely witness how this place has moulded to fit nature’s desires is by taking illegal trips to the zone. The reason why people had to immediately leave their homes was that short-term heavy fallout exposure would have led to radiation sickness, cataracts, cancers and birth defects. A meltdown in the radioactive core of a power station in 1986 resulted in a burst of power during a drill, a large quantity or radioactive matter was released into the atmosphere as a result of an accident in a residential area. This incident occurred behind the Iron Curtain, and under Soviet control at the time. The Ukrainian government only permits official tours because they don’t want travellers to also be exposed to radiation. However, travelling alone has allowed me to go wherever I want and stay as long as I need to see the major changes that have come about, something that could never be done on an official tour.
The thing that stands out the most when going to the zone is how void it is of human life: no sounds of machinery, no thick fogs of pollution hovering in the air, no petrol smells. Instead, it’s eerily quiet, with just the sounds of nature for company. It is common to come across highly radioactive corpses of dead animals. I can tell they are radioactive as I test them with my radiation dosimeter to be cautious, the corpses aren’t something you see in our densely populated cities let alone anywhere else.
The main radioactive elements that have been emitted into the environment are Caesium-137, Strontium-90, Plutonium isotopes, and Americium-241. The Plutonium isotopes and Americium-241 will remain over the longer term (hundred to thousands of years). This harmful radiation has had long-term health effects on those exposed to it. Radiation exposure has created complications for babies that have been born after the explosion. It is common for children born within the radiation-exposed zones to have leukaemia, thyroid disease, other types of cancer, birth defects, and congenital deformities.
During my time here I have been very cautious about the level of radiation that I am exposed to, I make sure that the levels of radiation are safe by testing with a radiation dosimeter. This tool measures dose uptake of external ionizing radiation, recording the dose of radiation received. Among travellers to the area, it’s well-known which areas have extremely high levels of radiation and we don’t recklessly try to enter those territories. However, plant and animal life freely move beyond those borders.
I visit the Chernobyl Exclusion zone filled with curiosity and every time; I feel as though I have grown as an explorer.
During my illegal trips, I have found many places that have not been visited for a long time, such as abandoned forests, former military checkpoints, remains of engineering structures and abandoned liquidator cars. It intrigues me how people had to forsake their lives so abruptly, because of a disaster that was out of their control. It reminds me just how unpredictable life really is.
The Exclusion zone is around 2,600 km2. Ecologists have found that radiation levels have dropped noticeably in the last 34 years, allowing some territories to be excluded from the zone and used for agriculture. But other territories may still be contaminated with radionuclides for several thousand years. After humans left the zone, much began to change for the better. Wild animals that were on the verge of extinction and had not been seen there for a long time began to return to the zone. I saw brown bears, bison, and lynx that had previously been falling in numbers.
Here, it’s clear who’s in control. Nature has provided a free realm for animals to roam the grasslands without fear of poachers. When I watch animals pass by, I wonder to myself: do they know what has happened here?
I mustn’t glorify the adventure, as I do believe exploring Chernobyl isn’t for the weak-hearted. I’ve come across many disturbing remains in my time here. As I travel alone, I follow the stories of those who lived here. Passing through each village you see the abandoned belongings. It’s like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. But what happened here is very real. Real people lost their lives and were suddenly evacuated from their homes.
Those who returned here are called Samosely, which in Ukrainian translates to “self-settlers”. They have chosen not to abandon this place just because past governments ruined it. They believe there’s a future here. They want to share how human scientific interference did more harm than good. This place teaches us that nature should always be in control, it’s more peaceful this way. The city of Pripyat has now become a tourist attraction where visitors explore the area, appreciating how it has managed to flourish in the absence of harmful human actions. Though a tourist attraction, many victims have fallen as collateral damage due to its radiation.
Ostrovskiy Yuriy aka OST