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20th Anniversary of Chernobyl Disaster Reminds Locals of Lost Homes

On April 26, 1986, a massive explosion tore through Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It was the most devastating nuclear accident in history. Twenty years on, the debate continues on how many people were affected by the catastrophe. The number of deaths attributed to the accident varies widely, from 4,000 to 90,000 deaths.

But what is certain is that the area around the reactor, which was home to hundreds of thousands of people, will never be the same. Anya Ardayeva visited the 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl … and spoke to some of those affected by the tragedy.

Driving into the town of Pripyat, two kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear plant, is just like driving into any other town in Ukraine. Asphalt road, poplar trees, and apartment buildings.

But once you are there, you discover that something is missing: the people.

Pripyat was abandoned exactly 20 years ago, days after the explosion at the nuclear plant's Reactor Number Four sent tons of highly radioactive particles into the atmosphere. Time has been frozen ever since.

Anatoli Zakharov and his family were among those who used to live in Pripyat. A firefighting brigade commander, he was on shift on the night of the accident, and arrived at the plant minutes after the explosion. He says his colleagues were unaware of the scale of the catastrophe -- all they knew was that fire needed to be put out.

“I could feel high radiation. Metal taste in my mouth, my skin was aching as if it was burned by the sun, I was sweating, feeling dizzy,” he recalls. “That night, we were waiting. Waiting to see what happens to us later -- tomorrow, the day after -- what news was to come. And it was in May we learned that the first two fire fighters died and then the other four.”

Only 16 of that night's shift of 28 men are still alive. Anatoli was lucky -- he received less radiation than his colleagues and survived. He ran away from the hospital to tell his wife and children about the accident at the plant. They were evacuated two days later, after officials acknowledged the catastrophe had occurred.

“They later said that they didn't tell the truth because they wanted to avoid panic,” says Anatoli. “But I think it would have been better if they told the truth, people would have left earlier and they would have been exposed to (less) radiation. Kids, everyone, they were there for two to three days, exposed to it. My family too.”

Over 336,000 people have been relocated from the 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl Plant to cleaner areas.

Some villages were so contaminated they had to be flattened and buried. A move also designed to ensure that no one could ever occupy them again.

But there are people still living in the Zone for whom the walls of their home matter more than any nuclear accident. Eighty two-year-old Mikhailo Radkevich was evacuated from his village a week after the accident and moved into a new home a few months later. But he didn't like the new house and decided to go back.

“If I was 20, I would have probably gone away from here. But I am 81, where can I go? Where? I have two sons and a daughter in Kiev, and they are asking me to come live with them, but I don't want to. My home is here,” says Mikhailo.

He and his wife eat home-grown vegetables and meat and seem to worry little about radioactive contamination.

“When the explosion happened, everyone started talking about radiation. But it was here before. The wind blew it all to Belarus. Here, its clean,” he says.

And strangely enough, 20 years after the accident, wildlife is booming in the Zone. Some scientists say this is further proof that the biggest danger to nature is not radiation but the activities of human beings.

Trees and bushes are slowly taking over the once-flourishing Pripyat. Built from scratch in 1970, this was a model town housing the staff of the nuclear plant. It was regarded as one of the finest places to live in the Soviet Union -- filled with roses and children, the average age of the town's population was 26.

On the day of the deadly explosion, 16 weddings took place in Pripyat. The town was fully evacuated only four days later. Some 50,000 people were told that there was a fire at the plant and that they would be back in a few days.

None of them will ever return.