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Ukraine, Belarus commemorate 35th anniversary of Chernobyl disaster

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A ferris wheel in Prypiat’, near the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. Image by Ian Bancroft on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

On April 26, 1986, a routine safety test at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine resulted in an explosion in the fourth reactor, spewing a huge cloud of radioactive dust. Carried northwest from the town of Prypiat’, 150 km north of Kyiv, the dust spread over Ukraine and across the border to Belarus and other European countries, exposing hundreds of thousandsif not millions—of people to high levels of invisible radiation.

The Chornobyl explosion and its fallout is considered the greatest nuclear disaster in the history of humanity in terms of casualties and affected victims. Debates continue to this day about the causes of the accident. The most cited ones include errors in the reactor's design and lack of awareness of the possible danger among staff. But the harm was magnified by the fact that the scale of the disaster was concealed by Soviet authorities, including the power plant management and state officials.

The mundane horrors of Soviet bureaucracy and the heroic efforts of first responders have recently garnered renewed attention thanks to a 2019 dramatisation of the events in an award-winning television miniseries, Chernobyl, created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck.

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An empty abandoned building in Prypiat’, near Chornobyl. Image by Wendelin Jacober on Flickr (CC0 1.0, public domain).

This year Ukraine, Belarus and other countries are commemorating the 35th anniversary of the disaster. For the world, the story of Chornobyl symbolises the fragility of our environment and the threat posed to it by human activity. But for countless citizens in Ukraine and Belarus it remains a personal tragedy, one that saw loved ones lost, families displaced, lives and health ruined. Fittingly, commemorative events across the region have also taken on a personal dimension.

A night vigil in Prypiat’

Today, Prypiat’ is still a ghost town where buildings that were once home to a population of circa 50,000 people stand empty, overgrown with vegetation. Disaster tourists have frequented the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone over the years, first unofficially and then with the authorities’ blessing, and wild animals roam its streets freely, but other signs of life are rare. In 2017, Polish adventurers marked the 31st anniversary of Chornobyl with a symbolic act: using generators, the Poles electrified some of the buildings in Prypiat’, lighting up the abandoned town for the first time in more than three decades.

This year, local activists and artists organized an art event in Prypiat’ titled Chornobyl.35. The vigil the night before the anniversary saw a photo exhibition installed in the town's central square, along with live music, poetry readings and a light show.  Members of the music and poetry project “Euterpa” read works by Chornobyl poets, accompanied by improvised sounds produced by PRIPYAT Pianos, a virtual instrument designed by composer Volodymyr Savin based on the recorded sounds of old abandoned pianos found around Prypiat’.

An art action, Chornobyl.35, took place on the night from April 25 to April 26 – people gathered to honour the memory of first responders of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant incident. The participants of the action lit 35 candles – one for each year that has passed since the moment of explosion.

Oleksandr Syrota, one of the organisers of the vigil, former resident of Prypiat’ and head of the Civic Council of the State Agency for Management of the Exclusion Zone, wrote on Facebook:

Вже кілька років поспіль ми збираємося у м. Прип'ять в ніч проти 26 квітня, щоби вшанувати пам`ять тих, хто віддав свої життя та здоров`я, покинув рідний дім та все, що було йому дорогим, через аварію на Чорнобильській АЕС.

For several years now we've been gathering in Prypiat’ on the night before April 26 to honour the memory of those who gave their lives and health, left their homes and everything dear to them because of the Chornobyl disaster.

Chornobyl histories

Others in Ukraine documented the fallout of the nuclear accident by accounting for the impact on the mental wellbeing and health of thousands of people, but also recognising the influence of Chornobyl events on the burgeoning environmental movement in Ukraine. Nashi.30, a documentary multimedia project dedicated to the 30th anniversary of Ukraine's independence and jointly produced by Ukrainian Public Service broadcaster and the Ukrainian-British Public Interest Journalism Lab, focused their second episode on Chornobyl. A collection of written interviews and chronicles, a podcast and a documentary video reveal how news of the disaster, deliberately delayed by the Soviet authorities and hidden for days, mobilised citizens around the cause of environmental justice.

35 years ago the Chornobyl nuclear power plant disaster happened. The tragedy made Ukrainians more aware of the need for environmental protection and inspired the first eco-protests.

Watch our second #NASHI30 episode about how Ukrainians came together to protect their families from the invisible threat:

In Belarus, where land bordering Ukraine was one of the areas worst hit by the radioactive wind, and where citizens have been protesting against a disputed election and the ensuing government crackdown, protesters exchanged their white-and-red garb for black and yellow clothing, to mark the dark anniversary of Chornobyl.

The women, who usually walked the city wearing white and red, switched the colour of their clothes and umbrellas in mourning for the victims of the Chornobyl nuclear catastrophe. They took a stroll along one of the buildings in the capital where Chornobyl residents and liquidators of the accident had been relocated.

Can an exclusion zone become a heritage site?

Despite the dark history and the gloomy present of the Chornobyl site and its surroundings, Ukraine is seeking ways to regenerate the region and to capitalize on its iconic status. According to a recent Reuters report, the Ukrainian government has initiated work that could soon allow it to apply to have Chornobyl and Prypiat’ designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The hope is that such a status from the United Nations’ cultural, scientific and education body could potentially bring more funding and more tourists to the Exclusion Zone.

As Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko told Reuters,

We believe that putting Chernobyl on the UNESCO heritage list is a first and important step towards having this great place as a unique destination of interest for the whole of mankind. The importance of the Chernobyl zone lays far beyond Ukraine’s borders… It is not only about commemoration, but also history and people’s rights.

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