The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone - Dax Ward

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation covers an area of 2,600 sq. km in Ukraine immediately surrounding the defunct reactors .  The area was established by the Soviet Armed Forces soon after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, outlining a zone where radioactive contamination from nuclear fallout was highest and public access and inhabitation are restricted.  Now, more than 30 years after the disaster, much of the area is safe for visitation, though access is still highly restricted.  

These images are intended to provide a glimpse into the 3 days I spent in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, each series is separated by location.  The main attraction of the Zone  is the city of Pripyat once hosted almost 50,000 residents, but is now a ghost town. If you stop moving and talking and just listen, you could hear a pin drop. It’s eerie. I kept thinking that there should be a city full of people, driving cars, walking along sidewalks, children playing in the parks, people riding the ferris wheel…but it’s completely empty and unnervingly quiet. The silence is deafening.

I spent 3 days on an illegal trek into the zone in order to try and document as much as I could in that time.  My guides and I trekked an average of 30km per day, slept in abandoned buildings, and moved mostly at night as we had to be watchful for security personnel patrolling the zone.  We had to be especially cautious near roads and in the city of Pripyat there are regular security patrols in those areas.  Unfortunately, the legal 'day' tours are not allowed to enter any of the buildings in Pripyat as the structural integrity of some buildings is questionable.  Basically, during the legal tours, visitors don't see much.   The only way to be able to see the beauty of the zone in full is to enter the zone by night, illegally, and trek through the area on foot.  Our trek was supposed to last 4 days, but an accidental injury in the group hastened the visit, as one member had to be evacuated by police to seek medical attention.

My guides, and those like them who regularly enter the zone illegally to guide foreign travellers, call themselves 'stalkers'.  They are so named after the 1979 Soviet-era sci-fi cult film, 'Stalker', by legendary auteur Andrei Tarkovsky.   The film follows the exploits of a guide who leads people into an post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of the fulfilment of man's deepest desires.

However, there are numerous villages (around 80) in the area that were evacuated, many of them having existed for hundreds of years before the accident. People had to evacuate ancestral homes in a couple of weeks after the accident. This region was also a focal point for Soviet-era secret military operations and bases, including nuclear-safe bunkers and a runway, training facilities, missile guidance systems, a one-of-a-kind missile defence radar system, and numerous other military sites. We ran across one such place by accident that the guides had never seen before, a tank training facility. All of these places had to either be relocated after the accident or completely. These losses, combined with the loss of the reactor and Pripyat city, as well as compensation and relocation expenses for hundreds of thousands, proved to be an enormous financial expense for the USSR. The combination of these expenses and the decade-long war in Afghanistan proved to be significant contributing factors in the fall of the USSR and end of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe a few years later.

At sunset on final day, a herd of endangered & wild Przewalski's Horses ran through a field next to us, a magnificent sight. A few of them were dumped in the zone 20+ years ago as an experiment. Now there are hundreds. One day, mankind will be gone after our many selfish mistakes have destroyed the Earth that we take for granted, but nature will find a way to survive, adapt, and ultimately thrive. This place is a clear window into that future.  ☠️

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