Visiting Chernobyl Excerpt: Chapter One

1 KINDERGARTEN

1

The fence fell over itself, a cascade of wooden slats. It was hard to tell with everything covered by snow, but probably the trees between here and the building grew up since the accident. Down the road radiation signs stuck out of long earthen mounds.

This was Kopachi village, not far inside the ten kilometer inner zone around Chernobyl. They buried Kopachi, almost the whole village. Maybe that was a good idea in desperate days, but burying things forced radioactive material toward the water table. So once they thought twice they stopped burying to think things through.

At first they’d bury villages whole, especially across the border in Belarus. They’d dig pits, push entire houses in and cover them up. Special trucks, who knows where they came from, sprayed water up and down the streets all the time, because all the dust that burying kicked up was radioactive.

Belarus buried more than a hundred villages. Conscripts sent down here by Minsk did it. They filled up all the wells they could find with concrete trying to protect ground water.

It’s only ten miles (16 kilometers) from reactor 4 to Belarus, and on April 26th, 1986 the wind blew straight to the border. That meant between half and two thirds of all the radiation fell on Belarusian farmers who lived on whatever produce they coaxed from the soil, and on the family livestock.

Authorities moved over a hundred thousand Belarusians in a hurry, to places with no housing and little employment. Twenty per cent of Belarus’s agricultural land was rendered useless.

Ten years on, farmers could breed horses and cattle for beef but not for milk, and 32,000 square miles, the area of South Carolina, remained too radioactive to use. That’s nearly a quarter of the country.

•••••

They commissioned studies and they anguished and eventually they worked out how to bury things more safely. They’d dig a pit and before they pushed anything in they’d line the bottom and sides with four feet of clay. Then they’d bury the bad stuff, seal up the top with clay and add soil and grass.

It was better than that mad bulldozing they did at first. One thing though, still today they have to keep trees off the mounds. Roots make the crypts leak.

2

They left two buildings in Kopachi, I don’t know why. Ice lurked up under the snow, you knew it, so you crept along step by step. Bum place to slip and get hauled out to Kyiv in the militia’s ambulance up at the checkpoint. You had to bat away tree branches to get up the walk to the kindergarten. Nobody here to chop them down. Rose bushes intruded as prickly hazards up the walk. There were no foot prints, so nobody had been here since the newly fallen snow, a day or two. Icicles hung from the window frames. No glass.

Igor held his dosimeter to the ground. 6.04 microSieverts per hour.

The kindergarten in Kopachi was a solid old thing, a brick building with four columns, fading blue paint around the wood of the windows. All over the floor papers were scattered about, workbooks with activities, kid stuff like coloring and matching similar objects.

Somebody had brought a little metal tricycle with a metal seat inside, its rubber tires gone. A spoon sat on a low table and a green poster board, I think a science project, was propped up against the wall behind it. You had to skirt a charred spot in the floor where somebody once set a fire.

A cabinet, a tea cup, a grown-up’s coffee mug. A stuffed bear leaned back, propped against a chalkboard on the little tray where the chalk would be.

3

Three narrow wooden doors hung crooked, kind of defiant, open and upright. Cabinets listed down at the end of the hall. Somebody had spilled their insides out all over the floor, a pretty pointless thing to do. A bottle of glue sat alone on a shelf. A tree poked right through the window. Down the corridor bunk beds filled up a whole room, cloth safety nets around the top bunks. The original 1986 covers and pillows. They must have been. Who’d smuggle in soiled blankets?

Paint peeled in palm-of-your-hand sized slices. A children’s book was titled Barvinok. In Ukrainian that’s ‘periwinkle.’

4

Two girl dolls, one in long johns, the other barefoot in a pinafore, lay on one bed’s lower frame. Snow piled up on the trees. One window still had glass. People had posed things for pictures: a book opened to a particular page on a window sill, gas masks on the floor. After 27 years this wasn’t April 1986. People had been here. Workers brought in for the clean-up effort for example (they called them ‘liquidators’), took whatever they needed wherever they found it. Families came back now and again to salvage what they could of their own things. And Kyiv let contracts to salvage scrap metal, resulting in ripped out window frames and pipes.

And the looting. Igor lamented “bad people,” and he was so innocent, such a wide eyed academic, that you thought along with him, “Yeah, those bad, bad people.” Igor had no guile. He always called it “OUR government” like a boy scout. He was utterly unaffected and you had to love him.

The government cracked down hard on the looting. You didn’t want radioactive teddy bears finding their way to Kyiv after all, or hot batteries driving around in cars. The kindergarten wasn’t exactly a freeze frame of April 26th, 1986, but little girls’ dolls, 80s style tricycles and rusted cribs in the school? They’ll still get to you, 27 years on.

•••••

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