PRIPYAT, Ukraine, April 25 – For residents of Chernobyl, a three-day evacuation turned into a thirty-year exile.
On the morning of April 26, 1986, no one could yet tell that a meltdown in reactor 4 of the nuclear plant in then-Soviet Ukraine was poisoning the air with so much deadly radioactivity that it would become the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Now, as some survivors returned to their hometown of Pripyat on the eve of the anniversary, memories of confusion and sacrifice abound.
“I barely found my apartment, I mean it’s a forest now – trees growing through the pavement, on the roofs. All the rooms are empty, the glass is gone from the windows and everything’s destroyed,” said Zoya Perevozchenko, 66.
She only realized something might be wrong that day 30 years before when her husband, Valeriy, didn’t come back from his night shift as a foreman at the stricken reactor.
She left her apartment in Pripyat, a model Soviet town built in the 1970s to house Chernobyl workers and their families, to look for him.
“I remember thinking ‘Goodness it’s hot’ and some people were in masks. But they didn’t explain things to us straight away, it was all secret. And the kids were running about barefoot in the puddles,” she said.
She found her husband in a local clinic. He had received a fatal dose of radiation that had burnt the skin on his face bright red.
He was airlifted to Moscow for treatment, but died 45 days later – one of the 31 to die of acute radiation sickness in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
Perevozchenko and her two young daughters ended up in Kiev, where they still live. Returning to Pripyat, she found it hard to reconcile the memories of her life there with the derelict ruins of a town abandoned for three decades.
Elena Kupriyanova, 42, was only 12 when she was evacuated from Pripyat, which lies in the 2,600 square km (1,000 square mile) ‘exclusion zone’ that has remained largely uninhabited by law since the disaster.
“It’s very painful that so many people’s (lives) were destroyed, that such a beautiful, new town was abandoned. It’s hard on the soul,” she said.
Her family and most of the town’s 50,000 other residents were transported out of the area in buses on April 27 and told to pack only the bare essentials because they would only be away for three days. They took their documents and a small suitcase.
“It was so hot, such beautiful weather. All the fruit trees were in bloom and I thought – what do they mean ‘radiation’? It’s so nice outside, you can’t see anything,” Kupriyanova said.
What irks Valentina Yermakova, 64, is that many of the belongings they left behind have disappeared. While it is forbidden to remove anything from the radioactive zone, a large amount of portable items have been smuggled out by illegal trophy-hunters and scrap-dealers.
“We locked our apartment when we left. The looters wouldn’t have been able to walk in, so they broke the door down,” she said.
“You go in and it’s not that you want to cry, it’s more that you get silent and numb from everything you see. The pain, it clenches inside you.”
But Yermakova, whose husband worked in the plant and died several years later from causes relating to radiation, said even though Pripyat is in ruins it still feels like home.
“Walking around, you recognize everything – here’s Lenin Street, there’s the shop “Rainbow” – it was a small town, we know the streets by heart.”