We were on the northern edge of the rather extra-terrestrially named ‘Zone of Alienation’, a title which for most people would probably conjure up images of rejection, zombies or death. In fact, this is the 30km exclusion zone around Chernobyl, the site of the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history. The catastrophe, which took place in April 1986, actually happened due to a fire after a failed safety test. Chernobyl itself is in northern Ukraine, but the northern edge of the ‘Zone of Alienation’ stretches into southern Belarus. It was here I met some people who were living on the edge.
A 77 year old babushka chatted to my colleague and me outside her izba, her little wooden home that was hiding modestly behind the undergrowth of twenty years of neglect. She wore a purple summer frock, and had a white scarf over her head. Although her appearance was neat and tidy, as though she was waiting for guests, her soiled finger nails offered a indication of the challenges of living off the land whilst having limited water supplies. “My old home,” she waved a hand up the road, “was no longer safe, so I moved to this abandoned home in Gubarevy, where it is safe”.
The previous owners had obviously not thought so. They had heeded the warnings of the government officials, who had estimated that, due to radiation, the area would not actually be safe to live in for 20,000 years. But still, maybe 5% of the houses were occupied in this village on the very edge of the dead zone. The old lady was happy to talk. We chatted easily about life in the village, off the beaten track, and with no shop, no school; in fact no amenities whatsoever. As we listened to her story, a car drove up, kicking up a cloud of dust from the track. It came to stop where we stood, and out jumped a well-dressed couple and their happy children. The babushka had indeed been waiting for guests. Her children and grandchildren had come to visit, from the city of Homel, two hours’ drive to the north.
I glanced across the road and noticed the twitching of a filthy net curtain in the window of what I had assumed was another abandoned home. Then out of the door a few moments later came a bedraggled teenage girl holding a tiny baby to her hip. The location might not have been ideal, but for some, free housing is a bonus too attractive to turn down. A middle aged woman slowly rode past on her aging velocipede, leaning laboriously into each downward turn of the peddles. Occasionally one or two other locals walked along the road. After twenty years, they hardly glanced at us. We were simply the latest group of disaster tourists who, with slightly guilty looks on their faces, were having a look round their allegedly abandoned village.
These days the forsaken houses of Gubarevy - some brick, some wooden - are merely shells. What had been the one local shop had fared no better. Roofs had collapsed, creepers had crept, and shrubs, bushes and whole trees grew through them. There were still signs of planted gardens, with the occasional ornamental pine tree and random cultivated clump of flowers still fighting for space among the brambles and undergrowth. We were warned to beware of the snakes, and to look out for wild boar and other wild animals that now increasingly populate the area. Later, we were to stop at a collective farm actually positioned in the dead zone, which still rears cattle and sells the meat locally and to Russia.
Tarmac roads and established dirt tracks were becoming narrower and narrower, with vegetation creeping from verges in a gradual takeover of the streets. Many could now only be accessed by foot. Down one such road we found Gubarevy’s war memorial, hidden in the undergrowth. We found a way to access it. Interestingly, it looked to me as though it had been painted fairly recently. It commemorated the devastating loss of around 200 villagers who had died in WW2. But surely the builders of the memorial could not have begun to imagine the impact of the disaster that would befall them all forty years later.
...has visited 108 countries and territories around the world, and always jumps at the chance of adding to that list.