Two decades ago the world's worst nuclear disaster sent radioactive waste from the Chernobyl power plant across large parts of the former Soviet Union. Survivors are still struggling to come to terms with the devastating affects of the accident. VOA's Lisa McAdams visited a village in Ukraine located in the so-called exclusion zone, parts of which remain forbidden for residence to this day.
It is a long and lonely three-hour drive from the bustling capital of Kiev, Ukraine, to the tiny village of Gornostipol. There, less than 100 people struggle to eke out a life forever changed on April 26, 1986.
That is the day a routine shutdown of Chernobyl's operating system resulted in a surge that sparked a chemical explosion. The force of the blast ripped open the power plant and hurled into the air nearly nine tons of radioactive material, reportedly hundreds of times more than the amount released by the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima. The radioactive fallout spread across large parts of the former Soviet Union, including the worst affected countries of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.
In the tiny village of Gornostipol, just 30 kilometers from the power plant, the resulting panic and chaos was immediately apparent, even if, as surviving villagers say, the hard, cold facts were not.
Alexei Fiyodorich, 74, is a pensioner from Chernobyl who not only survived the accident's initial fallout, but the resulting cancer he suffered, most likely from remaining in the zone for nine days after the explosion. During that time, he served as a first-responder, helping to pack sand bags that were eventually dropped over the burning reactor by helicopter.
Scientific research has since shown that eight to 16 days after such an explosion, during Alexei's service, radioactive toxins are at their highest and most dangerous levels.
Alexei reveals to VOA that he has had to receive treatment for thyroid cancer ever since. But he says it is not the cancer that haunts him these days, but the memories. They are still raw and fresh.
He laughs bitterly when he recalls being handed wine and iodine pills before going further into the zone to serve as a so-called liquidator. He was one of nearly 600,000 men eventually called to help in the cleanup and aftermath at Chernobyl.
Many of the liquidators died immediately, or in the first years that followed the disaster. Others, like Alexei, live haunted lives.
"Of course I still live with this stress," he says. "I re-live it every day. All the men lost. All the relatives lost."
But what does he remember most? He remembers the traffic. Alexei says the traffic leaving the zone in the first days after the explosion was unprecedented, jammed with dazed villagers fleeing the scene on one side, while hundreds of huge, concrete trucks, ambulances and fire trucks rumbled toward the disaster. Alongside the road, he adds, animals were seen fleeing. He suddenly stops to compose himself, saying simply, it is difficult to speak about it even now.
Amid the silence, I note to myself that he is the only man I have seen moving about the village in two hours.
A ramshackle truck appears and elderly women come scrambling out into the snow-strewn streets to shop for vegetables, milk, and eggs. Food delivery is still routine in villages lying within the so-called Chernobyl zone. Agricultural production was severely hampered after the accident and in many places has never fully recovered.
But every villager who spoke to VOA admitted to growing their own food out of necessity, villagers like Irina Ivanovo. She is 72 now and says she has long since given up on the hope of being rescued, or offered a way out of the zone.
"Besides, I have lost my husband and my health, where would I go now?" she asks.
Irina says she suffers from a severe nervous disorder and psychological depression. She says she needs hospital treatment every half year. For a time, she says, she will feel better. Then six months later, she explains that she will need treatment again.
But she tries to stay optimistic, adding that people get sick everywhere. Moments later, she is in tears, when I inquire about her husband. He was a forest worker at Chernobyl, she says, and he died in the first year after the accident.
A lady standing nearby tries to comfort Irina. She too became a widow in the first year after the accident. But her tale of trouble is quickly drowned out by another old woman who cries out, nobody ever comes here. We have been forgotten.
The other woman then asks a question of her own.
"Why do we even need nuclear energy after such a huge tragedy as this?" she asks, looking over her shoulder toward the ruin of a plant. So many people dead, so many lives lost, so many questions ... it is not possible to forget.
Then she visibly brightens and says, please ask the world to remember us, and help us if they can.