Pripyat Ghost Town - Ukraine
I had lived in Prypiat right from the beginning. My father was a construction worker on the nuclear power plant and my mother had a job in newly opened infant school in the town. Later, when it was time for me to leave school, I accepted the offer of an apprenticeship as an engineer in the power station. In total nearly 8,000 of us worked the shifts to ensure that the power stations operated every minute of every day. The government realised that there weren’t enough workers near the proposed site and invited people to work on the project with an offer of a home in Prypiat.
I had been working on the day shift in reactor number 3 but through my team I knew that tests were due to be carried out on reactor 4 that day. When I was about to leave for home I met Vladimir from reactor 4 as I owed him a packet of cigarettes I had borrowed the day before. He told me that due to a small problem, the test had not been carried out yet and that he was handing over his duties in the test to the evening shift.
I don’t sleep soundly and was sure I felt the room jolt and heard a distant thud but then again I often dream and thought nothing more of it until I woke up that morning to the tinny chatter of a loudspeaker outside my window. I opened the window to listen more carefully as it slowly rolled past below the apartment block where I lived. My parents were now both retired and we shared the same apartment we had when we first moved here in the early 1970s. I listened carefully to the message which said that there’d been some minor damage to the power station but not to be alarmed because it was all under control. I went to my parents’ room to look out at the power station some 10kms away and could see it still there in the misty springtime air although a faint grey plume spiralled into the air above one reactor. All seemed to be calm, although I could hear a helicopter in the distance. I wasn’t due to work until the next day so I turned on the television to find the same story repeated on the news. Later I went to the park with my daughter Sasha.
That evening there was a knock on the door and Vladimir burst in as I opened it. He was out of breath and, offering him a seat, I asked what he was running from. He then reminded me that he was able to receive the BBC World Service and there was an article from Swedish scientists who said they’d picked up substantial readings of radioactivity on a north westerly air stream that had come from Russia. They said that Russia had denied knowledge of this and said that radioactivity levels in the country were normal. He said he’d been told by his supervisor that he was needed at the power station early that day. He’d gone, hopeful of some overtime, when on approaching the gates he encountered a scene of chaos. Reactor 4 was more or less destroyed, a fire was burning and a wall of sludge had slid down from the reactor across the yard. Men were running back and forth dressed in radiation suits and helicopters were dropping tonnes of clay and cement into the now roofless reactor.
“It’s not minor damage, it’s a major catastrophe. Put it together with what they said on the radio and can’t you see? We’re in grave danger!” he pleaded.
He told me he’d driven straight back, collected his family and called here before he began driving south to get away from the radioactivity.
I thanked him for taking the trouble and he left, eager to get away.
I sat back in the armchair and looked out of the window. The van had long gone but everything seemed normal. Later that evening there was another knock at the door and when I opened it, a soldier told us to pack some basic clothes and our documents and to be on the street in five minutes. He said we were being moved as a precaution but we were not to worry as we would be home in a few days at the most. I roused my parents who had both dozed off in their chairs, woke Sasha and began to collect what we needed. The soldier has given us an information sheet and I gave it to my father so he could explain what was going on to my mother.
When we got down to the street there were several coaches there with their engines running. What worried me was that the drivers were wearing radiation suits and masks. We boarded as quickly as we could and, when the coach was full, it raced off down the road that led south and out of the town. That night we were taken to an army barracks and slept in a big dormitory in sleeping bags. Slowly rumour spread amongst the group that a meltdown had occurred in Reactor 4, causing it to explode and release tonnes of radioactive material across the town and surrounding countryside.
We were to find out many years later that not a single scrap of Western Europe was unaffected. Days turned into weeks and weeks to months. We began to realise that we weren’t going to return to Prypiat. In that time many people seemed to become ill but they weren’t treated among us. Their whole families left with them and many weren’t seen again. My father died later that year and my mother three months after him. Vladimir returned to Prypiat to find some things he’d left behind but the roads to the town were guarded and signs warned of the danger of death from radiation.
Many years later, as people stopped trying to return to their homes, the government let the signs do the guarding and Vladimir and I once more tried to visit our homes. We found them much as we had left them except that now the parks were overgrown, wild animals fearlessly roamed the streets and in Vladimir’s apartment the roof had collapsed and the rain had ruined much of his belongings. We laughed though when we saw that a young tree had sent tentative roots out across an old, now sodden rug. Since the fall of the Soviet Union we have found out more about those days. It is said that Prypiat won’t be habitable for hundreds of years and it is still inside an exclusion zone although much reduced from the 30km zone introduced days after the disaster. This hasn’t stopped looters taking anything of value and spraying graffiti, some of it poignant, such as the silhouettes of children and adults painted on the walls and pavements showing what the inhabitants might be doing if they could still live there. I feel sad about the town, it wasn’t pretty but it was home. Neither I nor Sasha will ever live there again. Prypiat may one day lose its title of ghost town but not for many generations to come.
British Airways fly to Kiev from £235. From there it’s a short journey north to Prypiat and Chernobyl. Check with the local embassy for necessary precautions.
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