Chernobyl is today, 100 days after the invasion of Ukraine, a much more dangerous place than it already was. The mines planted by the Russians form an explosive cocktail together with the radiation that accumulated after the 1986 nuclear accident. Oleksandr Skita, a 47-year-old engineer, perfectly remembers the early hours of February 24 when the first invaders arrived. “The alarms started to sound at 4:40 and the evacuation operation was launched,” he recounts. But he didn’t leave on the buses they chartered right away. He didn’t drive down the road with his car either. He stayed of his own free will. Like him, only a few dozen workers and neighbors remained under the yoke of the occupying military for a month.
Despite the tight control to which they were subjected, some were of great help by improvisingly becoming members of the Ukrainian intelligence apparatus. They passed on all the information they could about the movement of troops, the number, how they acted… During their visit this week to the exclusion zone, EL PAÍS met some of them. They do not want to give excessive details because, they recognize, it is a way of acting that continues to be maintained in other areas under enemy occupation. “When the war is over,” says one with a mischievous smile. As proof of the favors rendered to the country, some have already been decorated and proudly show the medal and the document that certifies it. “We tried to be helpful. I am not a hero, ”he ditches.
Who does not seem that the invasion changed the rhythm of life is Evgenii Markevich, 85 years old, one of the oldest in the place and one of the very few neighbors who live around the nuclear power plant. He was gone only a few months after the 1986 disaster and resisted being relocated. “The military lived right across the street in the lab building. My dogs ran there, I didn’t know there were Russians there and I went after the dogs. I saw 10 people with machine guns having lunch and asked if they would shoot. I wanted to see what kind of people there were. There were young people, they were friendly, they gave me a ration of food. There was canned meat and fish”, he says in his house in front of the greenhouse where he tends his vegetable garden.
At the Chernobyl plant, 10 kilometers from Belarus and on the shortest route to kyiv, there was tension, but not intense fighting, as there was at the gates of kyiv. It would have been reckless, says a resident of a nearby town. The Ukrainian army did not stand up. He waited a few tens of kilometers below after blowing up all the bridges to complicate the Russian advance.
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A small column of vehicles arrived at Chernobyl around 11:00 on February 24, says engineer Skita. “I immediately called my mother in Kharkiv and she told me that they were attacking there too. Where was I going to go?” he adds as he shrugs. The first scare was going to arrive that same morning. “I was on the street. I was going to the church, which is where there is better coverage to talk. They stopped me and laid me on the ground while they aimed at my head. They took my phone, but I had erased all the information”, adds this man, who has worked in Chernobyl since 1994.
Kremlin troops spent a month in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, a 30-kilometre circle around the nuclear plant. They ignored during all that time the dangers that the highly poisoned terrain still harbors, as the government of President Volodímir Zelenski warned. They dug trenches, moved earth to fill sacks with which they installed barricades and roadblocks, set up camps… “Digging here is very dangerous,” says engineer Skita, who fears that the soldiers have taken the radiation with them.
A swastika painted in black on one of the doors draws attention to the building where the engineer has his office. He recalls that Russian President Vladimir Putin justifies the invasion by the need to “denazify” Ukraine. Some of the rooms are still scrambled and with Russian military clothing abandoned here and there. A Z is painted on a mirror hanging on the wall, with which the Russian invaders mark their vehicles and with which they usually leave their trail wherever they pass.
Skita spent the first 10 days at home and then moved to another neighbor’s house. They were not allowed to move and they could see the Russian controls through the window. Sometimes they heard gunshots. “When I was already at home with my friend, they began to take a census of the population. They made us go out to count us and offered us the possibility of taking us to Belarus”, a country allied with the Kremlin. “It was advice, not an order. They came back two more times. They asked us strange questions like why were we still here, where were the police, where were the Nazis, if we had weapons…”.
One of the settlements of the Russian military is still today as they left it, very close to what is known as the Red Forest. It is one of the most polluted places in the world and is a couple of kilometers from the security dome, the largest mobile structure ever built, which has covered the famous reactor 4 since 2016, which was blown up in 1986. There are the holes drilled in the ground ignoring the danger, the sandbags to build surveillance posts, the nailed planks to build booths, the ammunition boxes, computers looted from offices… And the mines. The sappers have only been able to examine a small part of the occupied land. They have marked a corridor with sticks topped by red tape. The danger of radiation, a reminder of Soviet irresponsibility, goes hand in hand with the explosives left as a reminder by the Russians in the current war.
Yashunin Vadim Alekseevich, a 27-year-old electrician, was just starting his two-week shift on February 24. He got rid of living the occupation in La Zona, as the exclusion perimeter is known, for a few hours. He tells it at the foot of the huge sarcophagus in what is his first week on the job after the departure of the Russians. There is hardly any movement around, as the facilities have stopped working and tourist visits have been canceled due to the war.
After several weeks, the military “began to leave. A great column. One morning we saw that there was no one on the street, no one at the roadblocks. They had abandoned some vehicles”, remembers Oleksandr Skita, who came down the road towards kyiv, about 130 kilometers from the plant, until he found the first destroyed bridge. “Until two days later we did not see the Ukrainian army appear here,” he adds.
It was on March 31 that the Ukrainian authorities announced that they were once again in control of the plant. The public proof was an act in which the signature of a Russian general was stamped. The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, acknowledged the following day that the movement of Russian troops had raised radiation levels, although they were still within normal limits.
None of this seems to worry Evgenii Markevich, the 85-year-old neighbor, who, unlike the engineer, seemed to have a letter of marque from the occupants. “You could walk freely, because the city was empty. The only problem was the food. Once, the military called me on the phone and brought me something to eat”, explains the man, a resident of Chernobyl since 1945. Now, two months after the Russian withdrawal, he has returned to his usual calm and time does not exist for the. His concern is to celebrate life by toasting with a shot of whiskey. And then he cracks the biggest smile.
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