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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 September 2005, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Scars on the Chernobyl landscape

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Chernobyl

A recent United Nations report into the long-term consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986 has concluded that the death toll will be lower than previously estimated. But many commentators feel that much still needs to be done to help the survivors. Nick Thorpe visited Chernobyl and spoke to people living with the consequences of a disaster they feel is continuing today.

Chernobyl nuclear reactor block 4 in its sarcophagus
Chernobyl's number 4 reactor is now sealed in a concrete sarcophagus

We are approaching Chernobyl down a tunnel of light.

The early morning mist in the forests of northern Ukraine is suffused with sunlight.

Driving into the remains of the world's worst nuclear accident, you expect scenes of horror.

Instead, the first impression is of beauty: silver birches, their leaves just beginning to turn to gold, and rows of pines in what ought to be a mushroom picker's paradise, beneath a blue sky flecked with distant clouds.

Then you catch sight of little triangular red and yellow radiation signs in the undergrowth, like minefield markers in a war zone.

Then a village sign - Kopachi - but no village. Only overgrown mounds.

This is not a graveyard for people, explains our guide to the exclusion zone, but for houses.

All the buildings here had to be buried. They were too radioactive.

And now?

We can stand here for a couple of minutes, he says. But it would not be sensible to hang around.

'Cosmetic'

Near the power station, giant catfish, more than two metres long, glide like submarines through the yellow waters of a radioactive pond.

We watch, awestruck, from the bridge above as they nudge the half loaves we throw them, as if they were mere crumbs.

Map of Ukraine

In front of Reactor Block 4, the site of the disaster, there is a bed of brilliant orange flowers.

Everywhere in Chernobyl, there are people sweeping or mowing the lawn or trimming the hedges.

But it is strangely cosmetic.

There is no undoing the accident, no re-establishment of the community.

You have a sense they are making a body more presentable, before returning it to the relatives for burial.

Over the concrete sarcophagus which covers the site of the accident, the fading red and white chimney still rises, like a lighthouse with scaffolding but no light.

Ghost town

Down the road in Pripyat - the town where most of the workers from the nuclear plant once lived - we meet utter desolation.

Statue of Lenin in Pripyat town centre
A vandalised statue of Lenin in the deserted town of Pripyat
I have been in many villages ruined by war, but never an abandoned city.

The levels of radiation here are among the highest in the zone. You reach it through three separate checkpoints.

Poplars grow tall in the main square; the asphalt is cracked; the windows of 12-storey tenement buildings, hotels, and office blocks stand blind and empty.

Everywhere we go near Chernobyl, there are red apples.

Here too, in the centre of Pripyat, there is a crimson carpet of windfalls under one tree: fairy-tale apples, poisoned by the wicked stepmother of nuclear technology.

If you bit one of these, you might sleep for 30,000 years.

Near the Olympic-sized swimming pool, we wade not through blue water but through debris and broken glass.

Basket of apples from the Chernobyl area
Apples are plentiful near Chernobyl - but may be poisoned
There is still a giant clock on the wall, to measure split seconds not split atoms.

This is a Soviet Pompeii, abandoned in a matter of hours to the radiation.

Propaganda posters of stylised Soviet men and women still smile down through the ruins.

There is no wind but suddenly a metal door swings open.

Pripyat is a town of ghosts.

Returnees

Since the accident, more than 300 people have returned, illegally, to their homes in the zone. Not to Pripyat but to less radioactive villages.

The authorities tolerate them nowadays, even laying on buses to take them to market or to health centres outside.

Olga Mykhaylivna is 75.

The UN have been trying to encourage people to see themselves as survivors rather than victims

She has slices of red apples drying in the sun, chickens at the back as well as a dog and cats to keep her company since her husband died.

Her daughters visit her when they can get a permit.

Is she not afraid of radiation?

"It's never hurt me," she laughs, her eyes sparkling beneath a blue headscarf.

She meets the other "settlers" - as they are known here - at church on Sundays. But she misses the old neighbours.

In striking contrast to Olga, nearly everyone in villages on the edge of the zone says they are sick.
Abandoned school playground in the village of Kovalkiv
Some villages have lain empty since they were evacuated in 1986

One woman says three of her four children, all born since the accident, are invalids.

In Lystvyn, 80km downwind from Chernobyl, two-thirds of local boys are still rejected for military service because of their poor physical condition.

There are cancers, circulatory and heart disorders, and many handicapped children.

In Sukachi, to which thousands of people from Pripyat were evacuated, nine young people died in a single month earlier this year.

None will enter the statistics as casualties of the nuclear accident. But everyone blames it.

Solidarity

But there is also a dynamism in the air.

Local staff of the United Nations Development Project have been trying, with some success, to encourage people to see themselves as survivors rather than as victims.

"I realised long ago," explains Kovalenko Petro, the head of the village council in Sukachi, "that no-one would be able to deal with the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster on their own. We have learnt to co-operate with one another."

Funded in part by the UNDP, youth centres have sprung up, as well as better schools and village health centres.

Gas was piped into the region because the wood the people traditionally burn for heat is radioactive.

Each log we burned in the school heating plant, the headmistress in Kyrdany said, used to release a little Chernobyl.

In tiny Ukrainian villages, there is also a feeling of solidarity with survivors of global catastrophes.

Around Chernobyl, everyone is talking about New Orleans. Before that, it was the tsunami.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 September, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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