The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Between 1991 and 1998, the artist-poet raised millions of dollars in medicines and medical equipment for Belarussian orphanages and hospitalsvictims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Ironically, his great uncle, Jacob Jodko-Narkiewicz, was an early pioneer Russian scientist in the early days of the discovery of radiation and X-rays.  His research and collaboration with the German scientist, Wilhelm Röntgen, led to the discovery of the X-Ray machine.

Between 1991-1998, the poet-artist headed several humanitarian missions to personally deliver desperately needed drugs and medical equipment directly to hospitals in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. 

For his humanitarian effort, in 1997, he was awarded with the Humanitarian Prize by The David K.Hardin Generativity Trust, and he donated back the cash prize of $50,000 for medical equipment to the Chernobyl initiative for hospital and orphanages.

In 1996, he chronicled this visit to the deadly Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Belarus.

Our team left the capital city of Belarus, Minsk, around 5:00 AM and traveled in a white Volvo 850 van southward toward the Chernobyl Zone.  It was September, but already cold, damp, and foggy in the Belarussian countryside.  After several series of police enforced traffic check points, which reminded me of full border crossings, and each half hour thereafter, we turned on the Soviet-made PKCB-104 Geiger counters to measure the amount of radiation in the air and watched the needle register readings of 15 microroentgen per hour outside of Minsk.  Ten, I was told, was an acceptable level worldwide from natural radiation and sun exposure. 

Alekse Jodko, from the Museum of Natural History and Ecology, who organized this journey, said that he had heard of readings of 18 in some schools in Minsk as if to remind us that more than half, if not all, of Belarus was somehow contaminated by the same fate.  We each had our own, individual Geiger counter.  Within an hour and a half, the Geiger counters all registered 25.  We were edging closer to the Apocalypse.

On April 26, 1986, our modern age of political innocence regarding the environment and the dangers of nuclear power came to a halt.  Because of Chernobyl, consciously or subconsciously, the dangers associated with nuclear power plants, radioactive waste, burial or transport, polluted environments have now become a part of our international consciousness.  After Chernobyl, we, as private citizens, are very different about the decisions we make; more aware of the long-term consequences of our reckless industrial actions and decisions.  We have come to live in a world that understands the limitations of ourselves and our fragile environment.  We are more thoroughly and politically conscious about the precious clean and pure universe.  Only our irresponsible politicians and the powerful international nuclear industrial lobby remain in denial of any threat or catastrophic consequence—even after Chernobyl..

Fifteen years later, I did not know that I would be there to witness the world’s worst environmental and ecological disaster ever recorded in human history.  I distinctly remember the photographs of the Chernobyl plant when the catastrophe was initially reported in the press and media.   The snarl of concrete and steel; the tons of ignited graphite that became an instant death cloud; the chaos of workers trying to contain the disaster; and the immediate death of the workers and liquidators who were first sprayed with the radionuclides.  I also remember the world outrage when it was first learned—days after the event.  It was the first nice day of spring in 1986.  All of Europe was enjoying the first, beautiful spring day of the year—from the Italian Alps to the Scandinavian countryside. For children in Poland and Lithuania, it was too late to take iodine.  It was in Sweden where the radiation was first detected in the air—the first public awareness that something in the world was wrong.

And then, the denials, the excuses, and the weak apologies.  The explosion became a State Secret.  It wasn’t until days later that the Soviet government first hinted to the bleakness and devastation that was to come.  By that time, millions of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians already had been exposed to lethal and toxic levels of radiation, which floated by lethal cloud—a funnel that started at Chernobyl and widened northward through Poland, widening still to cover all of Lithuania, then Sweden, Finland, and west to Russia.  I remember the cloud encircling the earth when it eventually came to Chicago and the surreal quality of photographs on the television and newspapers of the Soviet men and women sealing off the reactor, trying to contain and shut off the leakage.  Some died immediately; others years later.  The firemen who were sent to put out the reactor fire were fried on the spot by gamma radiation.  Those were the lucky ones who received the radiation instantly—they died quickly.  Hundreds more were not so fortunate, dying agonizing deaths in miserable Soviet hospitals that were ill-equipped and ill-prepared to deal with this environmental catastrophe.  Then years later, the demonstrations by the soldiers and “liquidators,” fighting for some kind of rights, sick and unemployed and unemployable.

The cause of this fateful accident is described as a combination of human error and primitive technology at Chernobyl-4 reactor.  It started out as a dangerous test at 12 Midnight, Friday, April 25, 1986 to see how long the turbines would keep spinning and producing power if the electrical supply went off line.  As part of the test, the crew had to turn off all the automatic shutdown safety mechanisms.  Shortly at 1:00AM, the flow of coolant water dropped and the power began to increase. Within minutes, the operators moved to shut down the reactor, but a sharp power surge developed, triggering a tremendous steam explosion that blew the 1,000-ton cap on the nuclear containment vessel to non-existence.  About 211 control rods melted down and a second explosion took place, which threw out fragments of the burning radioactive fuel core and allowed air to rush in to ignite several tons of graphite insulating blocks.  The burning graphite became a cloud of instant death spewing from the reactor.

Once graphite starts to burn, it is virtually impossible to extinguish.  For nine days, the Soviet army tried to contain it with about 5,000 tons of sand, dolomite, boron, and clay dropped from helicopters.  The radiation cloud was so intense that many of the brave pilots died days later.  Next came over 800,000 “liquidators,” young Soviet soldiers recruited from all over the USSR, who were forced to clean-up the accident and build a sarcophagus over the reactor.  No one told them what they were really dealing with.  They were sent in wearing no protection, sometimes, only a cotton mask and rubber gloves.

Forests surrounding the site were illuminated in a red light, bathed in a flood of deadly x-rays emanating directly from the glowing nuclear core.

In the true Soviet fashion for “justice,” the entire crew and all operators who worked on that shift were imprisoned—regardless of their “guilt.”  The man who tried to stop the chain reaction was sentenced to 14 years in prison.  He died 3 weeks later from radiation poisoning.

Chernobyl took place under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership.  Not him nor anyone from the former Soviet bureaucracy was punished for this crime.  He still thrives on the international lecture circuit applauded for his peristroika and the break-up of the Soviet Empire.  With no clean water or uncontaminated food, what does a Ukrainian farmer living in the Chernobyl Zone 15 years later care about Gorbachev’s peristroika?  But then again, our civilization still has not come to terms with the reality that pollution is a crime against humanity.  We don’t think of the deaths of thousands of inhabitants of Chernobyl and the 800,000 liquidators that were sent from parts throughout the Soviet Union as “murder.” We still equate Chernobyl to a human “mistake”—no matter the consequences, and excuse the error for the sake of cheap energy.  But then again, what is the solution for our energy needs and is Chernobyl or future Chernobyls the sacrifice we will continue to pay for cheap energy.  And, what about the decision to take the radiated food from Ukraine and Belarus and spread it throughout the former Soviet Union so everyone would get an equal dose?  For Western corporations and oil companies that dump waste into environments that destroy entire habitats and water areas, a fine is imposed.  Money hurts, but does not deter. 

And still, there is not an official count of the dead from the radiation by the Russian Government; not by Yeltsen and not by Putin.  Some casualty statistics report as many as 300,000.  Other sources put the figure at almost half a million and climbing.  For certain, the final toll will not be known in our lifetime.

Now nearly two decades after the Chernobyl accident not much has changed.  The whole area remains polluted, no less so than the three months after the explosion when the most harmful of radionuclides first descended on the land of Eastern Europe.  Thousands of people continue to be saturated with radioactivity.  International relief for the victims of Chernobyl, the thousands of people relocated or needed to be relocated has shamefully never taken place.  And, the Chernobyl plant still operates despite the promise of the G8 to close the facility and to replace it with a new atomic reactor in the Ukraine that meets Western standards.  In fact, the cement casing used to hurriedly “contain” the Chernobyl-4 reactor after its explosion is cracking, releasing more and more harmful radioactivity into the atmosphere.  There are also recent reports that the “containment” roof at number 4 is about to collapse and implode.

The first stop that day was the city of Babruysk to stock up on food and bottled water.  Nothing could be consumed any closer to the Zone with any degree of safety.  We went into the city bakery and store and stood in line.  Even though 10 years had passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, a Western foreigner in a former Soviet city was viewed as a surreal curiosity.  As I passed, people checked out my haircut, my clothes, my shoes.  Although I am blonde and look Belarussian, my coat, which immediately signaled alternatives, variety, and choice, was an immediate give-away.  One old woman asked Irene, our interpreter where we were heading.  Irene said the “C” word.  The old lady gasped.

The word “Chernobyl” scares the crap out of the local people.  In Russian, it means “grass, wormwood, or absinthe.”  Despite many years of Soviet Communism, the rural poor Belarussians are religious people and “Chernobyl” or “Wormwood” is mentioned in the Book of Revelations to signal the end the world.  In Revelations 8:10-11: “And the third angel sounded, and there feel a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters.  And the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.”

Our crew stocked up on sausages, breads, canned items, and cheese. Of course, vodka.  On the store shelves, nothing was imported.  I had reservations about the homemade cheese, but I was told that the cows in this area were led to pastures with taller grasses—over four inches—so their mouths would not touch the ground or come into physical contact with any radioactive materials.  Everyone agreed that the cheese was O.K.  This precautionary note made me even less at ease, and I decided against eating any of the cheese, no matter how intrigued I was by a local, homemade variety.

Forget the cheese, I became more concerned if we had a tire repair kit and a full tank of gas.  I became overwhelmed with concern about becoming marooned in a nuclear desert.

I started to think that radiation on the ground must be spreading simply by people trekking it around.  The animals that came out of the forest with radionuclides on their hoofs, which then deposited the material on the road and then some truck or vehicle got it on their tires, and so on.  Fifteen years of endless possibilities for spread and contact.  If someone enters the Zone or comes into unknowing contact with a reservoir of radiation outside the Zone, they must be leaving traces of the radiation around, particularly in such high density places as Babrujsk or the bakery we were just in.  The trace was then carried by another, unsuspecting traveler to another location.  The radiation must be passing around like an invisible virus. Certainly, it was not contained.  There was no escape, but a matter of variety of radioactive material and its massiveness and the degree of its toxicity.

As we continued to move southward, past collective farms still bearing the hammer and sickle emblem at their entrances, and the occasional Lenin statue in the countryside, the Geiger counter was registering higher amounts of radiation in the air reminding us that we were approaching our destination of danger.  Signs started to appear everywhere in Russian.  “Do Not Enter.”  “Do Not Pick the Mushrooms.”  Signs of impending disaster in front of what looked like pristine, innocent lines of lush forest trees.

Suddenly, we approached a very strange sight.  Giant mounds of earth, which looked more like hills, but were clearly man-made and artificial.  First a few, one, two, ten, 50, then many—hundreds of strange outcroppings, eerie, measuring approximately 20 meters high.  In minutes, we were surrounded by them.  The road heavily enclosed on all sides.  A forest of hills—like something from a nightmare. Alekse explained that these phenomena were part of the Soviet Union’s emergency plan in case of a reactor accident.  The plan was to scrape the earth “clean.”  Thousands of tractors and trucks brought contaminated earth to this burial dump—one of many in Belarus—ineffectually scrapping the affected thin layer of earth from the radioactive areas and transporting to sites such as these.  And then what?  Transport them to the moon?  “What a useless endeavor,” I remarked.  The giant mounds remain now for almost two decades.  With each and every rain, the radioactivity seeps further and further away creeping back into the landscape, rain after rain.  At the end of aberration was another shocking sight:  a barbed-wire enclosed cemetery of the transport vehicles and tractors—thousands of them lined up as far as the eye could see.  Many of the trucks had brought Red Army soldiers to Chernobyl for the cleanup.  And also the now abandoned helicopters—like giant dead birds laying on their sides.  No one dares to go near these objects.  They are so heavily contaminated.

As soon as we left the mounds, we came across “Emergency Plan B:”  Move the population into new housing away from the reactor area.  Hastily, the Soviet Government built this sudden “city” of huge apartment blocks in the middle of nowhere to relocate people from cities and villages.  These complexes were 8-10 story mega-structures, which, in a staggering way, stretched further than the eye could see.  Miles and miles of them, lined up, one after the other.  The familiar ghetto-styled housing projects of Chicago built in the 1960s to house the poor paled in comparison.  And, there was one enormous, glaring difference here.  There was no one here.  Empty.  Empty streets, empty buildings.  Void of any life.  Totally empty.  Not one person ever lived in these complexes.  After they were built, the same Moscow bureaucracy that erected this futile city for refugees determined that the buildings were made with radioactive materials and built in areas that were so vastly contaminated with radioactivity that they were no better or any different than the same locations inside the Chernobyl Zone.  An Apocalypse that just got more Apocalyptic.

And all this was just on the fringe of the “Exclusion Zone.”

We had to stop in the city of Rahachow to get a permit to enter into the Zone.  In addition to personal safety, the Government is also concerned about spreading the contaminants even further.  A sudden fire igniting a forest, for example, could again spread toxins into the “unpolluted” areas of the country as a reenactment of April 26—decades later.  An out-of-control forest fire could again send another lethal cloud bearing the same radioactivity into the upper atmosphere, raining down once more on Europe and the rest of the world.

It was the usual Soviet-style bureaucracy.  There was an older man, dignified, but in shabby clothing, designated by the Belarussian Government to hand out the paper permit that would allow us entry into the Zone.  Bored with all the formalities, I decided to have a look at the little town.  In the center of the empty city was the typical bronze Lenin statue—a now curious survivor of the USSR and an equally sinister survivor of Chernobyl.  Just for fun, I decided to take a reading of old man Lenin.  I raised the Geiger Counter in the air.  Lenin registered 40!  Totally contaminated.

Everyone here seems to have his own unique Chernobyl story.  Mikhail, our driver, came up me and started to ask if I wanted something to eat.  He told me his family from around this area and that his father was one of the “liquidators” sent to contain the hellish inferno.  His father never made it out alive.  Likewise, he lost his mother and his wife.  The cemeteries of Chernobyl are many.

Back in the van and within minutes, we approached the Check Point Station, which marked the entry into the forbidden Zone.  It was much the same as entering a foreign country.  All around were signs posted:  Danger!  Or just merely the radiation sign.  The guards wore dosimeters, a devise used to register that amounts of radiation to which a person has been exposed.  They were “experts.”  If they discovered too much radiation on your vehicle, they would come out in plastic suits and gas masks and give your car a chemical shower.  I wondered to myself just what kind of death job was this.  They were mostly young soldiers, age 18 or 19, living and working on the fringe of this nuclear holocaust. 

When the gate went up and we went inside, it was no different than being outside.  It was kind of anti-climatic.  The same countryside, the same forest.  However, you can only be inside the periphery or “Pink” Zone unprotected for a period of less than 12 hours before your body has absorbed a lethal invisible dose of radiation.  That’s under normal circumstances. 

On the road, the Geiger counter will measure very little radiation.  Step off the road, and you will get a reading 4 to 10 times higher.  That is because asphalt does not retain radiation.  It is different for soil, apples, grass, mushrooms, which soak up and retain the toxin like a sponge.  You could have a normal or high radiation reading from where you stood, but venture out one meter and the Geiger counter could fly off the map.  When particles fell from the radiated cloud, it came down in unequal patches.  Walking around the Zone is like straddling a high wire with a pole.  On one side of the pole is the gamma ray intensity measure; on the other side, the exposure time.  Disturbing too much dust in your path will result in breathing in the toxins.  Moving around the Zone without a Geiger counter is like walking in a minefield wearing snowshoes.

The sun was unusually intense these last few days of summer.  A certain calm had fallen on the landscape, quieter than most.  The orchard trees bore fruit, branches were laden with the full weight of ripe apples that no one would pick.  There was no one around, not the usual village scene, not a horse drawn cart, no plows in the field.  And yet, beyond the stillness, there was something else more eerie in the air.  At first, I could not determine what made this place so unusually quiet.  Then it occurred to me: in this deadly pastoral scene, there were no birds.  How odd.  Not one in sight.  Not one is making a sound, not the usual singing as in other landscapes.  “Poor birds,” I thought—just like one of the children’s paintings in the exhibition.  Their sensitive, fragile systems could not withstand the radiation.  The birds are the first to easily perish.

We soon passed by the first tell-tale signs of population evacuation.  Abandoned, now thoroughly rusted tractors spotted the landscape everywhere.  Next, we came upon a group of UN scientists testing and collecting soil samples.  They were all wearing white space suits.   It was as much unreal and unearthy as it seemed artificial.  It suddenly felt like I was watching a moon walk that was being staged on TV in the comfort of my home back in Chicago.  The UN scientists were not the only people inside the Zone.  Every now and then we would pass groups of refugees from Chechnya who lived here and who could not understand what all the fuss was about—after all this was peace and quiet and not war-torn like from where they escaped.  The Belarussian army tries to keep the Chechens out of the Zone, but to no avail. The refugees see the abandoned villages as a Garden of Eden of free and available housing and trees ripened with exotic, delicious fruit.

There places inside the Zone where even scientists in protective radiation gear refuse to go; for example, a forest located right outside Reactor 4 or the place where the radioactive graphite nuclear core was transported by the liquidators and buried. Those are two of the most toxic places on the planet.

We stopped at a village that must have been the home to several hundred people.  The ghost town was not even on the map.  Geiger counter readings varied between 20 to 500 microroentgen per hour.  On the high end, that would be 50 times the radiation of a normal environment.  Mikhail stopped the van and asked if we wanted to get out.  Aleksi wanted to show me the amounts of radiation that had accumulated on the village houses now all boarded up.  We wandered through the village main street, which, 20 years ago would have been teaming with rural activity.  Roosters crowing in the background; the sound of cows wanting to be milked.  Bees in orchards full of fruit.  A heavy silence has replaced all those usual farm noises. Aleksi placed the Geiger counter on one of the village houses.  It registered 28.  Next he positioned the machine on the ground where the water fell around the roofline.  It read 80.  He warned that the interiors of these houses were far more polluted than the exteriors, where pockets of radiation had settled indoors, particularly where there were windows on the southwestern sides of the buildings facing from the direction of the power plant.

Inside the house, through the curtains caked with dust, you could see all the visible signs of a household suddenly come to an abrupt halt.  Wallpaper peeling off the walls; random framed photographs of weddings, children, proud Red Army soldiers. Toys, clothes, and other private items laid in ruin.  Even during the Soviet era, these people, as poor as they were, had houses, money, farm animals, summer houses.  Within seconds on April 26, their lives suddenly disintegrated.  They were taken away,

showered by the authorities, and brought to new villages with no homes, no money, no personal belongings.  Native people in the villages shunned the new arrivals; gave them the label:  Chernobyl AIDS.

We boarded the van again and soon saw several wild deer run across the road.  According to Aleksi and his research on behalf of the State Museum of Natural History and Ecology, the area has become a paradise for wild animals.  Populations of wolves, foxes, deer, and boars have soared.  These animals in the wild are generally non-aggressive due to the lack of humans to prey upon them.  No one seems to know scientifically how the genetic poisons have altered their genetic makeup; the changes in their migration patterns; or their interaction with “safe” animals in “safe” areas; or simply what happens when they show up as dinner on someone’s table in Minsk.  Farmers have reported grotesque mutations—lambs born with two heads, calves with three eyes—but zoologists have denied their existence 

Mikhail wanted to see the town where his family was from and where he grew up as a child.  So we headed there.  This was a much larger city with concrete public buildings, shops, and schools.  Totally abandoned.  Much of the city had been festooned for May Day Celebrations, 1986.  Political posters, portraits of faded, forgotten apparenciks, banners, slogans, and Lenin flags still decorated many walls and windows for the May Day that never happened.

Here was where time that stood still.  Gone in a blink of any eye. 

I wanted to photograph this town so I started to wander about.  Alesksi warned that this place could have readings far in excess of other locations inside the Zone.  I was getting readings of 90-300.  The danger and newness of the area soon wore off fast.  You became accustomed to a danger you cannot see with your eyes.  That is how the Chechens felt, I imagined.

Across the street was a school and a great place to photograph.  I entered the building and went inside the class rooms.  Plaster cracks, rubble, disheveled desks everywhere.   Books piled up, face open like there had been a lesson going on when the sirens sounded to evacuate the city.   Bulletin boards showed photographs of the kids.  Many of their drawings were still taped to the walls.  The dust of time had settled throughout.

I put the Geiger counter down to take a photograph.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed there was no reading.  Fear drove through my heart.  No reading meant that the numbers were off the map.  I was standing in a highly contaminated area, perhaps 1,000 to 300,000 microroentgen per hour.  Sure enough, the windows were facing southwest.  I was receiving a lethal dose of radiation, and not feeling a thing.

Immediately, I ran out of the school.  I threw down my camera equipment, peeled off my shirt, and tried to stay on the asphalt street so I would not land in another contaminated pocket.  Out of breath, I reached the van and told the crew what had happened.  I took off my boots, pants, and underwear; naked, Mikhail threw a blanket over me.  We sped off to the Check Point. 

In Russian, Aleksi told the soldiers what had happened.  They got on their gas masks and plastic suits.  They signaled for me to enter the space for a chemical bath.  Not knowing what would do more harm, the chemicals or the radiation, I asked if I could just simply shower.  I stood in the shower while one soldier hosed me down.  Water poured over my head and down my naked body, much like the fear that circulated through my arteries.  I had a cold sweat and stood there shivering.  I remember catching a glimpse or two of the landscape still quite beautiful in this late summer and thought:  This place is an absolute, hopeless Hell.

We left the Zone and headed toward Gomel.  It was already becoming dark.  We had promised a site visit to a nearby hospital to speak to the administrator about the delivery of medicines and medical equipment.  She took me into the hospital “pharmacy”—a small closet with a single cabinet.  She opened the door and hardly anything was there except a couple of bottles of aspirin  and rubbing alcohol from of all places—Walgreens.  My mind keep flipping back and forth from the bare cabinet to the toxic school and back to the shower the "cleaned" my body. 

Then it finally came to me: Outrage and anger.  Outrage that this corner of the planet was devoid of life now and for hundreds of years to come; angry about the irresponsibility of this tragedy and about the fact that so little attention has been paid to this catastrophe by the world.  No, the stock market and corporate greed will not end; no, Americans and Europeans will continue mindlessly shopping in their shopping malls; and yet, millions of people will continue suffering both in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.  Leaving the hospital, I thought about my radiation-filled camera equipment that one day would end up in some Black Market stall in Minsk.