We left Kyiv behind us (The Most Dangerous Part of the Trip), and headed north in our repurposed German cleaning and building supplies van, now working as a minibus. Our destination: Narodychi. Officially the people of Narodychi were told to leave their homes three decades ago – but they never left. Their lives went on.
Because of the town’s peculiar status, it faces an uncertain future. As the rules stand, it is not possible to develop or cultivate the land, and the inhabitants best make do with the old infrastructure they have.
Before I met our Chernobyl travel companions, scientists Jim Smith, Mike Wood, and Gennady Laptev, I was very excited by the prospect of talking to them because of their accumulated wealth of information and experiences about the Exclusion Zone, the fate of radioactive contaminants in the environment, and the effects of ionising radiation. Now that we were headed for a town of 10,000 people in the area west of Chernobyl where people had been ordered to relocate, I heard more about their reasons for meeting with administration of the town Narodychi, and it made an impression on me regarding them as fellow human beings.
As Jim put it: for a long time he did his work as a scientist, published his articles, and expected that someone else somewhere would put that information to use so that it would contribute to society. He told me that he regrets he didn’t realize earlier that it was he himself who was in a position where he could and should do more to try to make sure that the people living in and around the Chernobyl Zone could also get the benefit of his research. Now he is trying to do just that.
In Narodychi Jim, Mike and Gennady were joined by two researchers, Yevgeniya Tomkiv and Nina Tverezovskaya, looking at risk perceptions from a sociological angle. Together the five of them were meeting with the townspeople to learn more about their experiences, concerns, and prospects for the future. After three decades of research, the evidence was there to support the lifting of the no-development restrictions and allowing the lands to be cultivated once more, if the people so wished.
In fact, some people had already done just that: they had taken the future in their own hands and began farming the land, tired of the official state of limbo which these lands have been locked into. I understand why they would want to move on – the regulations are what is holding these areas back, not the contamination which is minimal as exemplified by my Geiger meter – not once during our stay in the town did it show anything different than the same boring low background levels which I see every day back at home where I and my family members live in Switzerland, Finland, or Sweden.
After sitting in on a meeting in the townhouse, Gennady took us to a local restaurant where he had arranged for lunch – I saw no menus or signs, but on a yard a few blocks from the townhouse, a long table was set for us in a little tent, and soon after we sat down, they began bringing in food. It was simply delicious. The soup was amazing. Gennady tried to explain to me what it was – “made with weeds that you pick from the forest.” We figured the English name out afterward, namely sorrel, and the soup – is called green borscht, or sorrel soup.
The mashed potato was rich, the chicken was both crispy and soft and had great herbal notes, and the young cabbage salad made my coleslaw -loving husband ever so jealous when I got to boast to him about it. The cranberry spirits they served was way too drinkable, considering there was quite a lot of alcohol in there.
After lunch, we had a chat with a few passing schoolboys, who graciously showed us the way to our next stop: the town’s one large kindergarten. We were given a hearty welcome by the place’s exuberantly friendly and energetic manager, Tatiana Kravchenko.
Her and her staff gave us a tour of both large buildings with many small classes. Everywhere we looked, there were colorful and whimsical hand-painted benches, pictures, coat racks, walls, stairs, doors, fences, and playhouses and each class had their own part of the large playgrounds where they had their little gardens planted with flowers.
The abandoned buildings in the background put it all in a sobering context. If the regulations don’t change, the town is fated to die. Yet a new generation of over a hundred little children was growing up here, full of life.
Quite overwhelmed with the joyful surroundings and the warm hospitality, at the end of the tour we took a moment to talk to the matron about why we were here, and what she thought about it all. That I wanted to help people reconsider nuclear energy in the light of our best understanding, that we should learn from the terrible accident at Chernobyl, but without ignoring the lives continually lost to pollution from fossil fuels. The opportunity of protecting more lives and the environment with the help of nuclear power. I hoped that people could see a positive place for nuclear in our future. I wanted to hear what she thought about it, being someone intimately touched by the tragedy, whose home had been transformed by the restrictions put in place because of the fear of contamination.
She agreed that the environmental values were very important to her and at their kindergarten too, and they wanted the children to have the chance to develop a personal bond with the natural world from early on. Surprisingly, she expressed no strong feelings about nuclear power. As she elaborated about her outlook on the future, she said with a smile:
I am like the children. I see the future in bright colors.
Her words have stayed with me.
A year before, Gennady, Jim, and Mike took a BBC team to Narodychi and Chernobyl, and they also interviewed Tatiana. You can find their story and footage in the article, “Chernobyl: The end of a three-decade experiment” which is one the best one I’ve read about the Zone. Well worth a read. From there:
Most of the time, Tatiana says, she does not think of her community as being within the exclusion zone. “We forget that we are Chernobyl people; we have other issues to deal with,” she tells me. “It’s no secret that half of the parents [of these kids] are unemployed, because there is nowhere to work. I wish that we could build something here – that our community could start to bloom.”
After our day in Narodychi we headed to the heart of the Exclusion Zone where we would spend two nights in Hotel Pripyat in the town of Chornobyl, meeting scientists, observing the wildlife in the surrounding grasslands and the reed jungles in what used to be the plant’s cooling pond, and visiting the power plant itself. Next up: The Animals of Chernobyl.
The past year of the pandemic had me sidetracked from my blogging. I am happy I finally had time to finish describing my experiences. The whole series:
- Visiting Chernobyl, Day One, The Most Dangerous Part of the Trip: Kyiv
- The Town That Remained Despite the Chernobyl Accident
- The Animals of Chernobyl – Trip Report, Day Three
- Contaminated Concepts about Chernobyl
For further articles on Chernobyl, you can read my pieces: “What About Chernobyl?” World’s Deadliest Energy Accidents in Perspecive and “What About Radioactive Wastelands?” A Look at Chernobyl’s Effects on Nature, or on radiation: Radiation and Cancer Risk – What Do We Know? and Radiation Exposures at a Glance.
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