ELENA WRITES - IV

I remember

In Ukrainian language, Chernobyl is the name of a herb, wormwood (absinth). This word scares the holy bejesus out of people here. Maybe part of the reason for that among religious people is because the Bible mentions Wormwood in the book of the revelations - which foretells the end of the world...

REV 8:10 And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;

REV 8:11 And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.

Also, in our language, if you break the name up, "chorno" means "black" and "byl" means "pain." If I tell someone that I am heading to Chernie... the best case response is; "Are you nuts?"

My dad used to say that people are afraid of a deadly thing which they can not see, can not feel and can not smell. Maybe that is because those words are a good description of death itself.

Dad is a nuclear physicist, and he has educated me about many things. He is much more worried about the speed my bike travels than about the direction I point it.

My trips to Chernobyl are not like a walk in the park, but the risk can be managed. Sometimes I go for rides alone, sometimes with a pillion passenger, but never in company with any other vehicle, because I do not want anyone to raise dust in front of me.

I was a schoolgirl back in 1986 and as soon as radiation level began to rise in Kiev, dad put all of us on the train to grandma's house. Granny lives 800 kms from here and dad wasn't sure if it was far enough away to keep us out of reach of the big bad wolf of a nuclear meltdown.

The Communist government that was in power then kept silent about this accident. In Kiev, they forced people to take part in their preciously stupid labour day parade and it was then that ordinary people began hearing the news of the accident from foreign radio stations and relatives of those who died. The real panic began 7-10 days after accident. Those who were exposed to the exceedingly high levels of nuclear radiation in the first 10 days when it was still a state secret, including unsuspecting visitors to the area, were either dead or had serious health problems.


Heading north.

Time to go for a ride. This is our road. There won't be many cars on these roads. This place has ill fame and people try not to settle here. The farther we go, the cheaper the land, the less the people and the more beautiful is nature, quite the reverse of everywhere else in the world - and a forecast of things to come.

As we pass the 86th kilometre mark, we encounter a giant egg - which marks the point where civilisation as we know it ends - and the Chernobyl ride begins.

Someone brought the egg from Germany. It represents LIFE breaking through the hard shell of the unknown. I am not sure if this symbolism is encouraging or not. Either way, it makes people think, and for us this is our last chance to stock up on edible food, drinkable water and uncontaminated fuel. Our journey from here is a gradually darkening picture of deserted towns, empty villages and dead farms..

Radiation fall out is uneven, as on a chess-board, leaving some places alive and others dead. It's hard to say where the fairyland begins.

To me it begins behind this bridge. This is a dead village located some 50 kms West of the reactor. Roads that lead into places where no one lives are blocked.

The roads are blocked for cars, but not for motorcycles. Good girls go to heaven. Bad ones go to hell. And girls on fast bikes go anywhere they want.

This is what is left of a fertile village with a population of 4,500. It lies 50 kms south of ground zero - the reactor.

This old man lives in the Chernobyl area. He is one of 3.500 people that either refused to leave or returned to their villages after the meltdown in 1986. I admire those people, because each of them is a philosopher in their own way. When you ask if they are afraid, they say that they would rather die at home from radiation, than die in an unfamiliar place from home-sickness. They eat food from their own gardens, drink the milk of their cows and claim that they are healthy...but the old man is one of only 400 that have survived this long. He may soon join his 3,100 neighbours that rest eternally in the earth of their beloved homes. It appears that the people with the most courage were the first to die here. Maybe that is true everywhere.

Checkpoint.

Here, we are entering the area of Chernobyl. I check the fuel reserve and tyre repair kit. I don't want to be marooned in the middle of nuclear desert.

Tank must be full, all gas/petrol stations in the area, look like this one.

This is one of the credential control points, that lead into the dead zone. Special permission is required to enter the zone of exclusion.

This is where they used to give careless or unlucky visitors a chemical shower.

Each time I pass into the zone, I feel that I have entered an unreal world. In the dead zone, the silence of the villages, roads, and woods seem to tell something to me... something that I strain to hear... something that attracts and repels me both at the same time. It is divinely eerie - like stepping into a Salvador Dali painting with the melting clocks.

CHERNOBYL: SPRING 2007

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