Inside Chernobyl

Ivan and his wife were evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster but returned to their home inside the “zone.”
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Ivan Ivanovich, 76, still has his strength to split wood with his axe on a rural Russian farm. He also has his memory and a story to tell.

"I was here in this house. I remember that perfectly," said Ivanovich.

He remembers April 1986 when the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded sending a cloud of radiation into the air.

"I saw the smoke. I saw the cloud. I saw bright and shining over the reactor. It was there in that direction," said Ivanovich. "Neighbors told me something went wrong in the power plant. The information spread very fast. The government didn't give any official information. The local government gave our family iodine pills. We were waiting for the government to make a decision. I wasn't scared. I thought it was radioactive particles. Dust and smoke. I felt the danger but I was sure everything was alright. I believed the government," said Ivanovich.

Two Chernobyl workers died at the plant and 28 others died weeks later from acute radiation poisoning, according to a report from the World Nuclear Association that determined the accident "was the result of a flawed reactor design that was operated with inadequately trained personnel."

Ivan and his wife Maria evacuated their home a week after the explosion.

"I finished building this house one and a half years before the accident. Seven days after the meltdown, the government gave me an order to get my documents and money and we evacuated," said Ivanovich. "The government told me it was a temporary evacuation. We were told to leave this house for only three days to avoid panic."

Pripyat, the town closest to Chernobyl, took similar action. Pripyat has been a ghost town since 1986. At the time, there were 48,000 people who lived there. All of them evacuated within 36 hours of the Chernobyl meltdown. The people never got to ride the new Ferris wheel at the amusement park.

"It was like a gift for a new town, for new Soviet town. It was prepared for celebration for Labor Day, first of May," said our Chernobyl tour guide Nicholai. "In Soviet Union, it was quite famous holiday. So, they supposed to open this amusement park. Ferris wheel, bumper cars, merry-go-round and swing boats. It was like a gift. Official open was first of May. Four days before, all people left. All people evacuated so it was never used officially. It's like ironic."

Today, when you drive thru Pripyat every building is empty. No one lives here anymore. This village is uninhabitable because of the radiation.

"We can't live here because we can't use the water and the soil," said Nicholai. "We can't gather mushrooms and berries. We can't fish and hunt here."

Radiation signs are everywhere. They call it the invisible enemy.

"You can't feel it, you can't touch it, you can't taste it. You can measure it with one thing," said Nicholai.

Tour guides use hand held meters to reveal hot spots where levels are unsafe.

"It's not safe to live here but it's good be here for short periods of time. For visitors, for a one-day trip, two-day trip, that's nothing," said Nicholai. "We can spend time here but we can't live."

A visit to Chernobyl is eerie. Time stopped. Walk inside a kindergarten school and you will see a classroom filled with cribs where children used to sleep. There are dusty pictures and clothes on the floor.

"Within six days this place was completely evacuated. Children, adults, everyone," said Nicholai who claims some of the dolls left in the school have been re-positioned over the years by photographers taking pictures.

"Every year, 500 photographers maybe more (come through)," said Nicholai. "It was quite famous. They (photographers) need to do the creepy picture. That's why they move stuff. People want to show it as creepy place. So, that's why they put the dolls on the beds. The books and the toys and dolls here, they are staged. It's not like it was left here. Things moving all the time around this building. Every year, that dolls lies on a different bed. One year there, one year there."

We visited an apartment building in the Chernobyl zone. Families once lived here. But after the explosion, the people left and never returned.

"They evacuated all of it. It's like they just left it almost. Toys on the floor," said Nicholai.

Inside a different building in Pripyat is an abandoned, indoor swimming pool.

"It was a great sport for young people," said Nicholai. "It was a luxury for such a small town."

Inside another school, there is a chilling reminder from the Cold War. Gas masks. Hundreds of them. We were told Russian children might need them if the United States ever attacked. In another area, books cover the floor. In a different classroom, there are assignments still on the chalkboard and reminders of the Soviet era inside the Lenin room where children would learn the history of the community party and its leader Vladimir Lenin.

"It's compulsory part of every Soviet building, school or kindergarten or facility. So, every building had Lenin's room in the Soviet Union," said Nicholai.

The images are staggering for visitors, including one woman visiting from Norway.

"Actually I was hoping to see the places from 'Call of Duty'. I know they also used these places in a couple of movies. I didn't actually think you could see this place," she said. "I was ten when the disaster happened. Even in Norway, we were affected. Kind of scary. All the rain came and some meat from sheep was a little bit radioactive. We couldn't eat meat."

"I wanted to see time frozen," said a New York tourist. "It's hard to put in words. It's more emotional. I passed by a table, it looked like the family went out for a lunch and never came back. They expected to come back from lunch. I walked through classrooms and saw classrooms set up for children to come back to class the next day and they didn't. For me, it was a lesson of what was expected, it didn't come out. For me, that's the lesson. Treasure each moment because you don't know what's going to be the next moment."

The reactor that caught fire and exploded no longer operates. We saw workers in white suits on the reactor. A dome under construction will cover the reactor 4 in 2016.

Ivanovich and his wife moved back to the same home he evacuated two years after the explosion. He became a checkpoint guard at the plant for 15 years. Ivanovich said of his health problems are because of old age and not radiation.

"Just measure and think. If you measure (radiation) here, it's the same as in Kiev or Chernobyl. This place is completely good for life," said Ivanovich.

"We are not exposed to high doses. Our daily dose is the safety dose. It doesn't exceed the level of population. It's ok for humans to be here," said Nicholai who insists that most visitors have a pre-conceived notion of Chernobyl before touring.

"It sounds funny but at least half of people on our planet think Chernobyl is a deadly place with monsters, mutants, no people there, no nature, burned land, it's not true. Just look around. Fresh air, trees, vegetation, animals, birds, fruits on the tree. Everything is here like it should be in a natural condition. Wildlife, nature takes everything back slowly. But, it takes much stronger than human," said Nicholai. "From some sort of view, it's paradise. Not for everyone of course. But, for those people who enjoy nature, peaceful places, it's like a paradise."

Time may be frozen in Chernobyl, leaving debris and memories behind. But for Ivanovich, life goes on. There is wood to be cut on a farm, not far from history.

"This is my motherland. I was born here. I have to die here. It's my native house. I built this house with my own hands. I need to live here," said Ivanovich.