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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 April 2006, 13:47 GMT 14:47 UK
Chernobyl's unsettling legacy
By Bridget Kendall
BBC News, Chernobyl, Ukraine

Bridget Kendall returns to Chernobyl 20 years after the nuclear disaster to find an eerie and unsettling view.

I well remember the spring of 1986, the year the Chernobyl disaster happened.

The abandoned city of Pripyat stretches out in front of the Chernobyl plant
The abandoned city of Pripyat - a frozen reminder

I was in Moscow shortly afterwards and the city was awash with rumours.

These were still Soviet times and Mikhail Gorbachev had only been in power just over a year, General Secretary of a Communist Party determined to keep its grip on power.

No-one was yet expecting bold reforms that would turn the country upside down.

So in quiet conversations around kitchen tables, there was scepticism and anger about official pronouncements.

Mr Gorbachev had gone on television to admit the situation was serious, though he said the worst had been avoided.

Few at the time realised he was referring to the danger of a thermo-nuclear explosion.

In Moscow the suspicion was of a cover-up to hide the extent of contamination: were Muscovites now travelling on buses used to transport irradiated Chernobyl emergency workers to hospital? Were the strawberries and mushrooms in the market from areas where radioactive rain had fallen?

Those in Kiev at the time tell the same story.

In 1986 Ukraine was only a Soviet republic with limited local powers, not yet a separate country.

Unofficial panic

Any serious emergency, especially one involving the centralised and highly secretive nuclear industry, was reported straight to Moscow.

Even at radio Kiev, part of state propaganda apparatus, journalists had little information.

Behind an officially proclaimed calm there was unofficial panic.

You couldn't find petrol anywhere.

The joke was you were more likely to die of exaggerated information in Kiev than radiation
At the main train station there was chaos, as everyone tried to procure tickets for mothers and children to get them well away from the area.

Kiev became a ghost town of inebriated males, drunk on the red wine that rumour had it could strengthen your immune system.

They fed each other's alarm with nightmarish speculation.

The joke was you were more likely to die of exaggerated information in Kiev than radiation.

Closer to Chernobyl and to the moment of the accident itself, the reminiscences are even more sobering.

One woman who worked at the nuclear plant told me she had been due to start an early shift on 26 April, but at 0200 she got a call from her boss at the reactor telling her not to come in.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (file photo, 1999)
Gorbachev said 'it was serious' but few knew he meant Chernobyl

"I can't tell you over the phone what's happened," he said. "Just keep the children back from school and close the windows."

Pripyat, the workers' town, is only a few kilometres away from the plant.

From one side, high up, the reactor would have been visible on the horizon, the damaged core smouldering red, and the black cloud billowing skywards.

All day she sat at home, while other folk, in festive mood, strolled in the April sunshine.

Children played in the dusty streets and splashed in the frothy water that was sprayed periodically.

We were grieving for the loss of our beautiful plant we'd been so proud of
Chernobyl engineer

Neighbours invited her onto the roof for a better view of the drama at the reactor. In vain she urged them to stay indoors.

"I'd heard the fear in my boss's voice," she said. "And I was an engineer. I knew the potential consequences of a nuclear accident."

Later she and many other workers went back to the plant.

"We wanted to help," she said. "We were grieving for the loss of our beautiful plant we'd been so proud of. But above all we felt responsible."

Pets knew better

Not everyone in Pripyat was proud of the plant.

In the summer of 1986 I tracked down the editor of the local Pripyat paper, a feisty independent-minded journalist called Lyubov Kovalevskaya.

At the start of 1986, Mr Gorbachev launched a new policy proclaiming no-one was above criticism.

Reactor number four is still an eyesore, a dark grey hulk, encased in armour plated coating of concrete and metal

She took him at his word and published a devastating critique of Chernobyl's nuclear power station, describing corners being cut and procedures ignored, with potentially serious consequences.

Her warning was of course prophetic: the accident took place a couple of months later.

But she received no commendation from the party authorities.

They saw her then as a troublemaker. And when I met her in August 1986, like everyone else in Pripyat, she'd been evacuated to Kiev where she was camping in temporary accommodation and worrying about the health consequences.

It was she who told me about the pets that had been left behind, the dogs who bayed through the apartment windows as they watched their owners line up to get on buses, taking at face value official advice that they'd be back in a day or two.

Some animals seemed to know better.

Tatiana is now 24, so she was four when her family left Chernobyl.

She remembers her granny decided not to take the family cat.

But as they boarded the bus, the cat threw itself at the folding doors - the last glimpse they ever had of it.

Perfect view

It seemed appropriate, for a trip into the Chernobyl zone 20 years on, to ask Tatiana if she'd like to come with us to revisit Pripyat, the place of her birth.

All she had, she said, was a vague memory of a gleaming white town, surrounded by woodland.

Now, like the damaged reactor, the town is at the heart of the 30-km contamination zone that has been fenced off, to keep out most human habitation.

A few old souls have returned to their former villages.

And the wild life is abundant.

Past the first checkpoint, past the irradiated villages buried in cement that still cause the Geiger counter to click furiously, we came across a herd of Przhelvalsky horses, brought in to crop the grasses in the dry summer marshlands - to reduce fire hazards.

Reactor number four is still an eyesore, a dark grey hulk, encased in armour plated coating of concrete and metal.

But more weird still are the enormous cranes that 20 years ago were busy constructing two more reactors.

Now they are frozen in mid-lift against the skyline, stuck in history.

Map of the zone around Chernobyl
Like other metallic hardware that litters the site, they're too contaminated to be shifted.

We arrive in Pripyat, and Tatiana shivers in anticipation.

The town is still white, still surrounded by woodlands, but it too is frozen in a bygone age.

A massive coat of arms - a red and gold hammer and sickle - hangs from the roof of one 16-storey building - a reminder that 20 years ago this was the now defunct Soviet Union.

Broken glass crunching underfoot, up 16 flights of concrete steps, we reach the top floor.

This is Tatiana's building.

The wind whistles through the glassless windows.

Faded pale blue wallpaper flaps. In one room there is a rusty children's chair.

We open the door onto the balcony.

In the distance, the grey slumbering reactor is like a dragon, biding its time.

I remember the view. And it's still just as perfect
Down below, trees that have sprouted through the paving stones mark two untended decades.

And beyond them is the unmistakable silhouette of a big wheel - the centrepiece of an unused funfair.

By 1 May 1986 when it should have opened, the inhabitants had left for good.

Unsettling images that prompt uneasy thoughts.

But not for Tatiana.

For her this is not bittersweet. It's a precious restoration of a childhood memory she feared to lose.

"This is it," she says, "I remember the view. And it's still just as perfect."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 22 April, 2006 at 1030 GMT / 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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