Photographer Raul Moreno recently visited areas near the site of the Chernobyl breakdown. The following are impressions he shared with In Sight; they have been lightly edited for clarity:
“It smells like a bonfire. Crows fly at ground level and snow covers everything in Orane, a small Ukrainian village located a few kilometers from Chernobyl. It is a very cold morning; at this latitude, it is easy for the mercury to descend from -20º C, causing even thoughts to freeze. You can still see the footprints in the snow of the wolves that have come here tonight. In winter, it is difficult for the wolves to hunt in the forest, and their hunger has overcome their fear of man. These animals come mostly from the Chernobyl exclusion zone, where they live quietly, expanding their population without the constant threat of human presence. The wolves now occupy the radioactive space that one day, suddenly, man had to abandon.
“For those who observed the accident count in the distance on the night of April 26, 1986, the sky was illuminated with beautiful colors, as if it was the Northern Lights, something of a macabre beauty that they could not understand at that precise moment but that would change their lives forever.
“The Chernobyl exclusion zone has a radius of 30 kilometers, or about 19 miles. In this area, the radiation is very high. It is estimated that it will not be habitable for hundreds of years. Workers can gain access to the area in shifts of two weeks. This area covers parts of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Here, there is a radioactive atmosphere that cannot be seen, only intuited. Land is contaminated here, and access to safe food is tough.
“There is a scarcity of economic resources in this area that makes it difficult for the people living there to leave. It is inevitable that the most-consumed products are those grown by them. The roots of food, causing radioactive isotopes to invade the body of those who consume them, absorb cesium 137 and strontium 90. Yet people still stay in the area. ‘These are our homes, these are our lives. … You have to die of something,’ some say with resignation and irony, knowing that the price of feeding in Chernobyl is a slow and silent death.
“When you enter the exclusion zone, you feel a kind of uncomfortable loneliness, a restlessness that stays with you. Infinite birch forests, kilometers and kilometers of nuclear devastation until you reach one of the bridges through which the railroad that transported materials and workers to the nuclear power plant passed. From here you can see the ‘red forest,’ in the distance, trees reddened by radiation from reactor No. 4.
“Thousands of people from the city of Pripyat and from towns adjacent to the reactor were evacuated after the accident. Over loudspeakers, they were told, ‘Go to the buses neatly, do not carry anything with you.’ Lifetimes were left behind.
“Many people were relocated to the periphery of Kiev, Ukraine, where they were called untouchables. No one approached them for fear of contamination. Unable to adapt to their new circumstances, some people decided to return to their homes. Others, like Praskovia Afanasievna and husband Alexander, never left. Alexander says, “Imagine. People left crying from their homes, the sirens of the ambulances, the noise of the buses while I kept working on my farm. … They said I was crazy.”
“Somehow, everyone is touched by radiation; they live with the constant memory of the accident and its consequences. Who has not lost a son, father or sister? The consequences of the nuclear accident shadow the lives of most of the inhabitants of Ivankiv district, to which Orane belongs. Many women continue to fear being mothers, afraid their children will be raised in a polluted place and doomed for life. The repercussions of the incident at Chernobyl could last for generations.”
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