Thursday 19 September 2019

Chernobyl, 32 years later: one man's life lived deep in the exclusion zone

A nuclear disaster saw Chernobyl evacuated but one man has remained there, writes Wayne O'Connor

Ivan Semenyuk remembers being evacuated from the Chernobyl area after the disaster. Photo: Wayne O’Connor
Ivan Semenyuk remembers being evacuated from the Chernobyl area after the disaster. Photo: Wayne O’Connor
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

It is 32 years since Ivan Semenyuk and his family were told to flee their home in Paryshev, just miles from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. For him, the move away was temporary because the 84-year-old refuses to live anywhere else.

"This is home," he says.

The area is abandoned now. It is one of a few towns and villages inside Chernobyl's 30km exclusion zone and he is among a handful of people still living in the no-go area.

"We heard it before we saw it," he says of the night the infamous nuclear reactor went up in flames.

"The glass in the windows was shaking.

"We were asking why but we were old and they just told us they were cleaning the chimneys."

The following morning, officials confirmed there was an explosion. Authorities reassured them "it was not scary", Ivan claims.

On May 6, 1986, some 10 days after the explosion, there was a knock on his front door. He was met by two soldiers in uniform brandishing machine guns and told the family and their neighbours were being evacuated.

They were calling to every house telling them a bus or lorry would come to collect them. Residents were told they had three days to prepare to leave and never return.

It was a serious escalation from how the event was handled in the immediate aftermath of the explosion.

Ivan said the first interaction they had with officials came as vodka was handed out to help locals combat radiation in the air.

"In the morning (after the catastrophe) we were told there had been an explosion but it was not that scary. It was not a big explosion.

"They were giving out alcohol and spirits to reduce the radiation."

He laughs: "Horilka," the local word for vodka.

Video footage taken in Pripyat, a now-abandoned city just a stone's throw from the reactor, taken the day after Reactor Four blew up, shows people going about their business as normal. At the time it was home to 50,000 residents and many of the workers caught up in the tragedy.

In the footage, children are going to school, policemen are directing traffic and others are walking their dogs. They seem oblivious.

However, among them are teams of scientists taking readings, measuring the radiation levels in the air and trying to get a handle on how serious the situation was.

Now the reel plays on a loop 160km away in a museum in Ukraine's capital, Kiev. It flickers from where the film was damaged that day by the radiation levels in the air.

Ivan insists he understood what was happening but was never worried.

"No not at all. I was a military chemist. I studied for three years to be a chemist, I knew what it was, the catastrophe (as locals call it).

"We didn't want to leave afterwards. The wind blew the other direction towards Belarus, not here. It blew the cloud much further from here.

"There was almost nothing here in terms of radiation, the village was clean."

Other Ukrainians from outside Chernobyl have very different accounts of what happened.

The break-up of the Soviet Union, poor record-keeping and an allegations of a cover- up mean it is hard to get a true reflection of how many people were affected but most authoritative voices agree thousands were killed because of the blast.

Serhii Uzlov, a guide who now runs tours of the zone, remembers the massive clean up operation afterwards that killed some of those involved and left many seriously ill.

He was in his mid-20s and wanted to volunteer.

"I wanted to save the world," he says, "but my wife stopped me. She saved my live."

Ivan and his family were eventually moved to Kiev but did not stay long.

All the relocated families were offered homes and jobs but Ivan never settled.

He moved back with his wife Maria soon after and has not left since. When asked, he insists he will never leave.

The ramshackle houses around his are abandoned and derelict. Visitors to the region are not allowed to enter them for fear they will collapse. They have all been empty since 1986.

The 84-year-old father of two lives alone since Maria died last year. One of his sons lives two hours away in Kiev and visits occasionally.

"One doesn't come at all," he explains through a local guide, Kateryna.

"There is a problem with 'horilka'. Any time he comes to visit it is because he is looking for 'horilka'."

Four others live in his village and they are all known to the armed guards who patrol the exclusion zone. However, the neighbours rarely see each other.

"When there is snow there is no way we can - forget it," he explains.

"The day before yesterday a neighbour who lives very close visited me. We ate here and she helped me to bring wood in to the house and then she left."

We visit in late February. Thick snow underfoot and temperatures of -17C make the roads near his home too treacherous to drive on, so we make the last leg of the journey on foot. As we arrive he is gathering more firewood from a shed.

He is hunched over and infirm but is in no way concerned about the radiation in the area that experts warn may take up to 25,000 years to decontaminate.

Because of the dangers associated with the area, the region is fenced with intimidating border posts and gates marking the road in. It is heavily patrolled by armed guards and passports are checked on entry.

Travellers like us go through airport security-style scanners when leaving to detect if they are carrying any radiation.

Yet Ivan insists he feels safe and healthy. "It was the right decision to move back. I just wanted to come here. I didn't like the noise or the city. I liked my village. Now I can go anywhere. I can go fishing, I go mushrooming."

"You eat the fish?" we ask.

"Since the day after the disaster we have been eating it.

"One day my friend ate the fish. The following day he was going to work but when he passed through radiation control he started alarming. They asked him what did he eat. He said: 'I was eating with Ivan'. Afterwards they were also checking me but I had no trouble. There was no radiation."

Sunday Independent

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