NS Special Report - The eternal winter

The fate of thousands was decided by a Soviet official with a pair of compasses. The renowned Ukrain

On 26 April 1986 I woke up in Odessa jail, where I was doing army service as a guard. Two days earlier, I had celebrated my 25th birthday. I was older than many officers in my detachment. Because of this and my university educa-tion in modern languages, my superiors often made use of me as a speechwriter and confidant. The previous night, like many others, I had spent writing, first a report for my commander to read at the next party meeting and then children's stories. I had gone to bed around 6am.

I was woken at 11. Towards evening, my commander called me into his office and said there had been a serious accident at the atomic power station near Kiev. He gave me permission to use his phone to call home. My mother was a doctor at the hospital of the ministry of the interior, and it was thanks to her and a grateful patient, one General C, that I had been posted to serve in Odessa. This general went to the conscription office and changed the instructions on my call-up papers so that I was sent to serve with the interior ministry forces in Odessa, instead of with the KGB in Kamchatka, a posting which, under Soviet security regulations, would have ruled out my travelling abroad for the next 25 years. It was not for that that I had earned a diploma in Japanese.

My mother sounded calm. I promised to phone regularly. The next day we began to have a clearer idea of the scale of the disaster. Serving with forces under the control of the interior ministry meant that my unit got first-hand information on the catastrophe and life in Kiev. It was tragedy on tragedy. On the evening of 26 April, General C was killed. He had been trying to get his family out of Kiev as fast as possible and had lost control of his Volga on a bend, crashing into a lamp-post. He was killed instantly. His wife and child were taken to hospital.

We watched the televised May Day workers' parade on Kiev's main street. All of Ukraine's top party bosses were on the podium, as if nothing had happened. Certainly, up to that moment, little or no official information had been released. It was as if the leadership had hushed up the scale of the disaster so as not to disturb the May Day celebrations. So 2 May was probably the first day of post-Chernobyl Ukraine. Over the phone my mother described how women and children were being taken out of Kiev, how everyone had been told to stay indoors and keep all the windows shut. At the ministry hospital, patients were given red wine because it was said to "wash radiation out of the system". "Radiation" - a word most people had never even heard before - was now the only topic of conversation.

Suddenly Kiev's population was almost exclusively male. A journalist friend, who had sent his wife and two daughters to Odessa to stay with relatives, told me that everyone in the city was drunk, including the police. The idea that red wine could lessen the effects of radiation had mutated to include alcohol in general, and many had gone on to vodka.

My friend's wife, Kira, would visit me with her little girls, and sometimes my commander released me for a day so that I could show them round the town. Odessa, which was always crowded with tourists from Kiev during July and August, was already full to bursting with them in late May. My mother told me that her hospital was now accepting only soldiers and officers from Chernobyl. They were brought there every day in busloads. Only once inside the hospital did they receive any de-radiation treatment. After a couple of days the staff had to remove all the carpets from the corridors: the hospital itself had become a source of radiation. Half of the doctors who treated the firemen and soldiers from Chernobyl have since died of radiation-related illnesses.

Several times I requested to be transferred back to Kiev so as to be nearer my parents and brother. In June 1986 my request was granted and I finished my army service as a military postman. I would go to the civilian post office every day to collect post for the officers and men of my garrison. A tiny room was assigned to me at the post office where I hid some civilian clothes. Sometimes I was able to change into them and roam about town for a few hours. I remember one occasion when I went to the Hydropark, a popular place for Kievites during summer, an island in the middle of the Dniepr River. But that day the beaches and cafés were empty except for drunken men. That summer there were no bathers or fishermen. The River Pripyat, into which radioactive water had leaked, flows into the Kiev Sea, a huge man-made reservoir 25 kilometres north-east of the city. From the Kiev Sea, the Dniepr flows down through Kiev and on out into the Black Sea.

Chernobyl now

Soviet statisticians had the same effect on Soviet life as the White Witch has on the land of Narnia: eternal winter and no Christmas. I remember how our teachers forced us to learn numbers: for instance, how many tonnes of coal were mined in the USSR per head. "This head doesn't need such stuff," I thought. Numbers were used to kill emotions and as a substitute for the truth. In a similar way, geometry can kill geography. When, in 1986, a Soviet official was handed a map and told to mark out the "Chernobyl Zone" he happened to have a pair of compasses to hand. So he stuck the needle in the power station and drew two circles around the station: one at ten kilometres and another at 30 kilometres. Thus the "Chernobyl Zone" was defined: a closed, heavily guarded and very dangerous area. In fact, the area affected by radiation has little in common with the circles on the map. The real "danger zone" is shaped more like a gigantic egg, half of which lies in Belarus. Well outside the official zone, there are areas with radiation levels higher than those generally found inside the circular, closed zones. The discrepancy is purely a result of the Moscow official's passion for geometry.

The 30-kilometre zone covers 2,600 square metres of land with a hundred villages or towns, including the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl. Before the accident 200,000 people lived there.

A few days ago I visited the area, a trip facilitated by a small, specialised tour agency, Solo East. As our minibus drove north out of Kiev, I was reminded of my first lesson in the highway code - if the road signs are black on white, the speed limit is 60 kilometres per hour; if they're black on blue, it's 90 kilometres. But suddenly, just 60 kilometres out of Kiev, the road signs were red on white. Any merriment I had felt at the prospect of a day of adventure suddenly evaporated.

The first thing we noticed at the Chernobyl Information Bureau was the black-framed, memorial photograph of a young woman who had worked there until a month earlier, when she died. It occurred to me that death must seem more natural here than outside the zone. Whatever the real cause of death, people will always assume it is "because of Chernobyl".

Our party was joined by a former journalist who came to live in the zone ten years ago, unhappy with job prospects and salaries elsewhere - inside the zone, he earns double what he would earn outside. "So, what would you like to see?" he asked without smiling. "Pripyat," we responded, adopting his melancholy tone.

Ghost town

In this town inhabited by 60,000 people until 1986, we meet sleet, snow and empty streets, with café, restaurant and shop signs hanging askew, and hundreds of multi-storey apartment blocks. A fairground with a Ferris wheel, which was to have been opened on 1 May 1986, stands rigid. It was never enjoyed by the people of Pripyat, who were all evacuated on 27 April, a day after the explosion. They were told they would be able to return in a couple of weeks and that there was no need to take anything with them, except documents. So they grabbed their passports and children, locked their apartment doors carefully behind them, and ran to the coaches waiting to carry them away, never to return.

"There's a grand piano in one of the flats on the fourth or fifth floor of that building," says our guide. I enter the block and climb the rubbish-strewn stairs to the fourth floor, but there is no piano there, or on the fifth floor. I see that, rather, every flat has been looted. A few broken bits of wood and hardboard are all that remains of the furniture. "Are there any flats which have not been looted?" I ask our guide. He shakes his head.

"The police and military sent here to guard the place after the explosion emptied every one of the town's 28,000 apartments. They 'distributed' what they found to the four corners of the Soviet Union: TVs, gas ovens, furniture, taps and even radiators." Our guide lets out a deep sigh.

On the anniversary of the accident, and on the memorial day in May, the authorities let anyone who lived here come back to visit, provided the person is over 18. I think the age limit is to do not so much with the possible danger from radiation as the psychological damage that seeing the place could cause.

Everywhere I go in the town, I notice strange, modern and quite cleverly executed graffiti. None of the current inhabitants of the zone can explain its origin. One day there wasn't any, and the next a police patrol noticed the brightly coloured art in the otherwise totally grey landscape. It seems that a group with spray cans managed to sneak into the zone unnoticed by the guards. Were the intruders simply attracted by the huge expanse of walls to work on, or were they driven by a desire to bring life, at least in the form of colour, to this dead place?

Indeed, there is evidence of other oddities in Pripyat. Some- one has moved a cabin from the Ferris wheel - a sturdy construction - to the top of one of the blocks of flats. As far as I can see, the only way the person could have achieved this was with the help of a helicopter.

The police patrol the town irregularly and, as far as possible, from inside their cars. The last thing they want to do is chase after anyone on foot through these streets. They are afraid of the radiation.

DIY villagers

We pop in to see them on our way to the Chernobyl power station. The village of Parishev has five inhabitants. Maria Adamovna and Mikhail Timofeivich Orupi went back just two months after the explosion. They wanted to return to their home, which they had built in the early 1970s. At first Maria and Mikhail were afraid of being caught and forced to leave once more. They would run and hide in the forest whenever they heard the patrol helicopters approaching.

They started to grow crops again. They had the pick of the land. They planted two hectares of potatoes and other vegetables. The tilled soil must have been visible from the helicopters. Soon the police came round, but there was no attempt to remove the DIY villagers. To date, more than 2,000 people have returned to live in the villages of the zone. The local authorities have decided to accept their presence and have set about organising some support for the resettlers. A postman and a paramedic visit once a month and once a week a mobile shop comes round. Maria and Mikhail produce their own vodka, which is a lot smoother than most. They keep two cows, purchased in Belarus and brought into the village through the forest. There are also two turkeys, called Sarah and Stepan, and some chickens. Nobody has heard of bird flu.

Today, just over 300 villagers remain in the zone. Some have died; others have left again of their own accord. But Maria Adamovna and Mikhail Timofeivich have no intention of leav-ing, although their son lives near Kiev and has often asked them to join him. They have everything they want, including a military telephone with which they can call to Chernobyl town or to Kiev. True, the line is terrible, but if you shout loud enough you can be sure that the person at the other end will get the message.

The Chernobyl atomic power station

Before I begin my walking tour of the ghost town, I get given a Geiger counter, and I set off with it in the direction of the power station. Just in front of the complex, along one four-metre strip of road, my Geiger counter goes mad, but right at the wall of the protective sarcophagus the radiation level is only 40 times over the recommended level.

"You can photograph the sarcophagus, but not the other buildings or that barbed wire on top of the wall," warns the guide. "We're being watched, and every now and then the guards decide to show who's boss and make trouble for those who don't follow their instructions." I am surprised. My experience so far today indicates that living amid tragedy has made all the zone's inhabitants sullen, but kind and friendly. None the less, like a good "Soviet citizen", I obey the instructions.

There is a lot of "Sovietness" in the place. The streets still bear their old Soviet names and, at the House of Culture in Pripyat, the portraits of the Politburo members lie piled up on the floor. True, the zone is soon to become a closed nature reserve. No hunting is allowed and the numbers of wild animals inhabiting the area have been rising steadily. Eagles and pumas have been spotted and wild boar roam the streets. They are not afraid of people, and can be quite aggressive when hungry.

Once, there was a regular passenger ferry route between Chernobyl and Kiev. Since 1986 the ferries have been rusting in the river port. There are three small boats that navigate the waters within the zone, but they are forbidden to approach Kiev. The only other form of local transport is the single electric train that carries the power-station workers from the town of Slavutich to work and back again in the evening.

The sarcophagus covering the explosion-torn reactor is literally a tomb. Inside it lies the helicopter that fell into the reactor the day after the explosion, together with its crew of four men and a fireman who missed his step and fell from the roof on 26 April.

I returned to Kiev in the evening. All night my head ached. Was it the radiation, or my inability to come to terms with the many sad things I had seen in a territory so close and yet so far from our everyday lives? A microstate with its own rules, created by an official in Moscow who happened to have compasses to hand.