At Vilcha, a town near Kharkiv whose population is mostly deportees from the Chernobyl disaster zone, a somber atmosphere looms as they prepare to commemorate 30 years since the catastrophe. Reporters Sebastien Gobert, Laurent Geslin and Niels Ackerman went to the reunion of these atomic exiles.
Manhandled by the bumpy road, the car crossed the forest along a route formed by misfitting plates of concrete. At each shudder, Niels let out a nervous cry: his car, just fresh from the Swiss dealership, was taking a beating. At the entrance of the village, just beyond soil-rich fields, brick houses sitting on small parcels, each with individual gardens,form a single line without end. Although this setting is typical of the Ukrainian countryside, it becomes quickly obvious that Vilcha is different from other villages. Here, one doesn’t find those wooden farmhouses which are characteristic of such rustic scenes.
What catches the eye here are bungalows, all identical, which seem to have popped up like mushrooms. They are octogonal, with straight edges, and a nice passerby confirms that they sit along a path: the bumpy route which we find ourselves upon, leading to a decrepit old local administration building where we have a meeting. In front of the main door, a bell-shaped monument has been erected. On the stone is engraved a symbolic date: 26 April 1986, the fateful day of the explosion of Chernobyl reactor number 4.
At least, we were not mistaken about the village. We get out of the car: Niels has camera slung over his shoulder, Laurent, his recorder, and I, my notebook.
“Vilcha is a peculiar place, constructed by, and for, the evacuees of an older village known as Vilcha, which is in the Chernobyl exclusion zone,” we’ve heard whispered in Kharkiv, a large village in the northeast of the country, 60 kilometers (37 miles) from here. This is the ideal opportunity to report on Chernobyl more than 700 kilometers (430 miles) from the disaster zone, far from the mob of international journalists rushing to the power plant to cover the 30th anniversary of the nuclear catastrophe. In the inviting lobby of our host’s apartment building, we already know that we won’t regret the trip.
Vilcha 2, a unique village
“Vilcha, it’s a unique village,” Tetyana Sementchuk immediately confirms for us. “It was constructed for the victims of Chernobyl. Everyone comes from the zone. Nobody lives here but the sick, the evacuated, liquidators [those workers who were involved with the cleanup], and those who rushed into the plant to contain the contamination…”
Our subject, her face framed by blonde hair, is the leader of the Memory of Chernobyl Association; a very important part of village life. It was exactly 30 years ago; she was 22, and pregnant with her first daughter. She was a carefree inhabitant of Pripyat, one of the Soviet “atomic cities,” constructed in 1970 for the plant personnel. “April 26, it was a beautiful spring day, like all of the ones before it. Our Belorussian family had come to visit us. Nobody suspected anything.” There was no alert from the authorities. Only the residents high up in the apartment building were able to notice the smoke rising up from the plant.
“The first sign that something abnormal had taken place was the asphalt, which was sort of humid, was coated in a layer of an unidentifiable substance…” The unease came the moment Tetyana Sementchuk went to the train station. “The people waited for nothing: there wasn’t a bus, it wasn’t possible to go anywhere.”
She learned afterwards that every available vehicle had been requisitioned to help fight the fire at the plant. An anxiety about being late to work gave way to fear, and then panic. People began wandering the town, thrown into confusion, looking for answers. What’s next is a matter of history: dozens became sick in the hours which followed, and the authorities proceeded with the collective evacuation of the inhabitants on 27 April. In a few hours, 53,000 people were transported to villages clear of the zone.
“They told us it wouldn’t last for more than three days. People didn’t bring with them anything but the bare minimum. We left behind everything…,”remembers Tetyana Sementchuk, her voice loaded with emotion.
After having realized that she would never return to her home, the young woman spent some time in Belorussia, before being relocated to Vilcha, a small village in Kiev oblast (administrative region). “Old Vilcha,” the little village was now called… Some 40 kilometers (24 miles) from the plant, the town didn’t sit in the Exclusion Zone before 1993. Soviet authorities nevertheless understood very quickly that the village was no longer habitable: the plan to construct “New Vilcha,” in Kharkiv oblast, more than 700 kilometers (430 miles) from there, was drawn up in 1988.
The Aborted Plan for a Mushroom Village
“There was nothing here before. They needed to build these routes, clear out the trees sufficiently to make space for the town, bring in electricity, gas… it was a titanic undertaking,” explains Oleksandr Breitenfeld, the manager of the local association of liquidators.
As his family name indicates, Oleksandr is the descendent of a family of German settlers invited by the Empress Catherine II in the 18th century. When he lived in Old Vilcha, he was employed in the kolkhoz (a collective farm), but he was forced to move in 1992 and recreate for himself a life in the countryside of Kharkiv oblast. The souvenirs he keeps of his Soviet past are his brown, well-groomed moustache, and a leather jacket.
Life was full of beauty and promise. “The construction plans were very ambitious,” Maya Borissivna, details for us with an almost childish air about her round face, topped with a permed hairdo. In 1986 she was a young mother in “Old Vilcha,” and she was also plunged into the turmoil of the nuclear emergency and forced evacuation.
“The government wanted to make the new Vilcha a model for the relocation of evacuees. We were promised a school big enough for 300 students, a well-planned day care center, a clinic with several floors, and that many businesses would be established…” But none of that took into account the historic speech of Mikhail Gorbachev, 25 December 1991, when the President of Soviet Union put an end to that office. The next day, the USSR ceased to exist: granting de facto ratification of independence for Ukraine, which was officially declared 24 August of the same year. For many, the unforeseen collapse of the Soviet Union was, among other things, a direct consequence of the poor management of the Chernobyl disaster.
“The young Ukrainian state, despite its promises, simply didn’t have the money to continue the project,” lamented Maya Borissivna. At least one third of New Vilcha was never constructed. “The clinic is functional, but it’s small enough. The idea of a cultural center was completely abandoned…”
Isolated at the end of the countryside, some several hundred meters from the new border with a now foreign Russia, the exiles of Vilcha found themselves again confined to a life peaceful and steady, with neither work, nor distractions. A daily life which, Niels and Laurent guessed, left much to want for in the village.
“It didn’t take long to see everything,” Niels throws out in laconic tone.
“Here, at least, there is forest, so we can continue to forage for mushrooms during the season,” confesses a mycologist sitting on the corner where a bypass road crosses one of the streets. “We brought our talent to collect mushrooms, because in our forests, they were abundant.”
Concerning mushrooms that were harvested during the period between the catastrophe and his departure from Old Vilcha, the man smiles, and asks us to turn off the recorder. “At least, here, we don’t need to go searching for mushrooms with our Geiger counters, to detect the radiation…” During the years, the inhabitants of Vilcha have harvested and consumed the products of the forest by listening for the “tap-tap” of their counters. A local sport, the memory of which is the source of many jokes now. Although he jokes, the man does so without giving his name. Decades later, the mystery surrounding the contaminated zone is a burden that the exiles have carried across time and space, across lives past, to comfort their wounds and relive their memories.
“That’s Nikolai, one of the first firemen mobilized to attempt to cool the reactor. He died in a hospital in Moscow, 16 May 1986,” Tetyana Sementchuk recounts with emotion, as she passes in front of the photo of a young man in uniform, hanging in the lobby of the local administration office. “His photo is here because he is one of us, of New Vilcha. I am from 1964, and he from 62. We were in school together, with Maya Borissivna. We remember him as a part of the house.”
“Nobody is in good health”
“Living here? We’re fine, but it’s hard, psychologically.” Anna Pintchuk, nurse at the local clinic, zigzags her bike between chicken nests scattered across the pavement. “But life goes on, and you have to get used to it.”
As she guides us to the clinic, we pass in front of a block of red brick buildings. The construction of “Molochnaya Kouchnia,” the store specializing in baby food, was stopped suddenly. Today, the bricks of the facade are falling one in front of the other, and weeds pop up in the entryway to the incomplete building. “There is a future for Vilcha, I am convinced of that,” Anna Pintchuk says pointedly. “But it’s true that everything has to be built here, in every sense of the word.” Her two children left the village a long time ago, to look for work elsewhere.
The lack of economic activity is a fundamental problem, in a little countryside town where hardly 2,000 people live. Even more so given that the majority of them are invalids.
“Here, nobody is in good health,” Tetyana Sementchuk confides in us. “In each family which came from the zone, there is someone ill. One in every two or three women has had a breast operation…”
Going by the official numbers, 31 people have died directly as a consequence of radiation exposure, while 237 are seriously ill by the same cause. In reality, there were thousands of cases of cancer and other serious health problems which were due to the nuclear fallout from the catastrophe, in the former USSR and elsewhere in Europe. Logically, these people, the previous inhabitants of “Old Vilcha,” less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the power plant, could not have come out unharmed. It’s not clear that the clinic of this small town, a building with washed out blue walls, would be sufficient to treat them.
“There are many categories of patients, for sure: the liquidators, the inhabitants of the zone, the children…,” explains Mykola Prokorchuk, the doctor in chief, in his office, furnished in a haphazard “vintage” style. “But, in general, we face the same types of illnesses which face the median population: cardiac problems, shortness of breath, encephalopathy, cases of cancer…”
“We have all that we need, we can even accommodate some patients from other villages,” the nurse Anna Pintchuk assures us. Despite this, they are far from the level of equipment which is available to certain cities closer to the contaminated zone. At Naroditchi, for example, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the plant, the governments of Japan, Germany, and other countries, are financing the daycare center of that city, which is in full “baby boom.” The medical facilities there are endowed remarkably modern equipment.
At Vilcha, it’s an impoverished and dysfunctional Ukrainian state which is completely in charge. “I am a patriot of Ukraine, so I am going to tell you that we have everything we need, and then some!” teases the doctor Mykola Prokorchuk with a large smile.
Since 2014, Ukraine has been the victim of a fierce hybrid war: a conflict in which the initiators — linked, more or less, to the Kremlin — take on different faces, and are acting on various fronts, ranging from military to economic, according to the latest information. In this tense situation, Vilcha finds itself less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) as the crow flies from the Russian border, that is: an intense war zone. Here, it seems out of the question to challenge the policy of the authorities in Kiev.
Tetyana Sementchuk shows herself sometimes to be more critical than our doctor: “The legislature, which regulates the fate of the people evacuated because of the nuclear accident, has changed 49 times! I think that this legal uncertainty speaks for itself.”
Officially, the victims of the nuclear tragedy are considered as wards of the nation. “It is true that in Ukraine, medical care is free,” conceded Oleksandr Breitenfeld. It is nevertheless well known that the state does not take, or provides little support for the burdensome treatments of the liquidators, notably those concerning advanced cases of cancer.
“We don’t enjoy any sort of special favors, but at least, the state pays out our pensions,” our old liquidator confirms. The exiles of Vilcha must survive on pensions similar to the rest of the country, that is, about 1,500 hryvnias — about 50 euros (or 60 US dollars) per month.
Vilcha 1, 2, and 3…
Playfully, the doctor Mykola Prokorchuk speaks freely of the illnesses of Chernobyl. He is curious of the state of medicine in France, of the salaries of healthcare personnel in Western Europe, and doesn’t miss the chance to make a cutting remark about French politics. Despite it all, he doesn’t complain about his work. Originally from Khmelnitskiy oblast, in the west of Ukraine, he chose to come and settle down in Vilcha, “where the soil is black and rich, and the forests are so beautiful.”
He is not alone. After Oleksandr Breitenfeld, about 30% of houses of Vilcha were claimed by families who didn’t have anything to do with Chernobyl: “The urban installations are good enough, we have electricity, running water. The streets are… passable.” A comment which gives an idea of the state of infrastructure in the Ukrainian countryside. After some years spent crossing the country, in every sense, I had a good picture of these remote little corners, where gas pipes never arrived; of these towns where the only square of paved road is that which leads to the church. Underserved, undervalued by the authorities, these villages in the Ukrainian countryside are among the biggest losers in Ukraine’s independence. In Vilcha, things have turned out rather well.
At any rate, it’s here that we find the best discotheque in the country, the “Jermuk.” The owners, Nune Margaryan and her husband, don’t consider themselves exiles. But it’s definitely the war of Haut-Karabagh which forced them to flee their motherland, Armenia, in the 90s, and to come start a life in Ukraine.
“During the week, we have generally few customers,” comments Nune Margaryan, seated at a table in the large empty room of the club. “But each weekend, we organize concerts and large parties. You can see them on our website. Yes, we have the internet!”
“We also have coming a stripper from Kharkiv,” adds, nonchalantly, her husband, while taking a long drag on a cigarette, and warmly extending us an invitation for the next Saturday. “Everyone will be coming, and you will be able to see the youth. Otherwise, you would think that the population of the village is mostly the elderly. The mortality rate is very high in Vilcha.”
The reason for newcomers repurchasing houses is found a few hundred meters from the village, at the end of a poorly paved road.
“Look, from the the size of the cemetery, one would say that Vilcha has existed for at least a hundred years,” Oleksandr Breitenfeld described emotionally. On the gravestones, regularly decorated by the faces of the dead, the dates engraved indicate that the majority of those died at between 40 and 60 years of age. These premature deaths are the final consequences of exposure to radiation.
In early March, Oleksandr Breitenfeld buried his best friend, a former liquidator. He rests today under a pile of freshly pounded earth, covered by wreaths of plastic flowers. This loss doesn’t prevent him from sharing a bit of dark humor: “You see, we have the chance to have 3 Vilchas. Vilcha 1, that’s where we lived, Vilcha 2, that’s the new village which was constructed for us. And Vilcha 3, it’s here, where we are all going to end up resting…,” He stifles a little laugh behind his moustache. Some weeks before, the metallic barriers which surround “Vilcha 3” were moved back a few dozen meters to make space for new boarders.
“Only 114 liquidators remain in Vilcha,” he confides in us once we return to the village. “Each year, we lose a few.” In Vilcha more than anywhere else, the demographics are law: the village will be called, one day or another, to lose its status as refuge of the exiles of the zone.
Maria Itan, age 13, is hastily making her way home, and doesn’t remember Chernobyl except for “what they say of it in school.” Her family, which recently moved to Vilcha, have no link with Chernobyl. “They say that there, in the zone, life was better, that the soil was richer, the forests more beautiful… I can’t compare them. What I think is that the life was better there, at that time, than it is here, right now.”
Tetyana Sementchuk, doesn’t say anything else. She, who describes Pripyat “as the most beautiful city in the world,” blends her memories of the city with those of her youth. A carelessness that fate stole from her, in only a few hours. “In any case,” she recollects herself, “you see with Maria that the children of Vilcha know very well the story of the tragedy of Chernobyl. In Ukraine, the young generations tend to forget the meaning of that. Here, it’s very present in the educational programs. Every 26 April, we organize our special commemorations…”
The New Refugees
In Vilcha, the memory of the exile is essentially omnipresent. It’s one of the reasons the inhabitants are strongly motivated to ensure that refugees of other types are also able to settle down there. “For more than a year, our village has been accommodating people displaced from the zone of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO),” explains Maya Borissivna, referring to the official name of the’’ Donbass war zone. More than 1.5 million people have fled the region since the beginning of the conflict, in spring 2015. About a thousand of those found themselves in Vilcha, in 2015, put up by the 2,000 residents of the village. “Today, it’s less, but we still have about 300–400 of them,”estimates Maya Borissivna.
“Vilcha is a calm place, full of nature. It’s an ideal environment for the evacuees of Chernobyl, but also to give a little break for survivors of the war,” observes Father Serhiy, leader of the small Greco-Catholic parish of the village. We are surprised by the presence of this church in Vilcha. Greek Catholicism — Christian patriarchy of the orthodox tradition, but placed under the papal authority of Rome— spread remarkably beyond its historic birthplace in Western Ukraine, until it won the hearts and minds of these traditionally orthodox lands. Vilcha, conceived as a refuge for the true “homo sovieticus,” was likewise touched by the propagation of the culture from the west of the country, and was very proactive in the diffusion of Ukrainian national ideals. And the village today welcomes people displaced from the industrial east by war. Suddenly, we have the sensation of being in a very condensed Ukraine.
With the help of Caritas Internationalis, Father Serhiy welcomes a few families of refugees in the church building, and offers them food, clothes and psychological support. A change of surroundings which Anna and her daughter needed, after having lived a long time in the cellar of their apartment building in Horlivka, one of the bastions of the separatists of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk. The city is regularly victim to artillery duels, characteristic of this enduring war of position: “My little one is four, but she knows already how to tell the difference between a tank shell and a ‘Grad’ missile, so I am grateful for our experiences in exile, they give us a common point of experience. Our biggest difference, it’s that they haven’t needed to face the horror of war. They acknowledge themselves that our situation is worse than theirs, but the trauma of leaving is similar enough.”
The dream of returning is impossible
Another big difference is, if a political solution is one day found to put an end to the conflict which is tearing apart Ukraine, the refugees of Donbass could be able to return home. The exiles from the contaminated zone, they are condemned to finish their lives on foreign ground. “If there were the smallest possibility to return to Pripyat, I would be the first to organize my return!” exclaims Tetyana Sementchuk. “Some time ago, one of my daughters went back there, without giving me any warning. She took a photo of our old apartment building, and wrote: ‘Mama, I’m at the house.’ I could’ve fainted!”
Her daughter didn’t stay long, she said. The “atomic city,” of which the photos of desolation have toured the world, is good and well abandoned. It will not accommodate any human life for hundreds of years yet, if it ever will.
If Pripyat is uninhabitable, Vilcha 1 simply no longer exists: “They razed our houses after we left,” recalls Maya Borissivna. “I returned there several years ago: of my house, there’s nothing but a stove planted in the middle of a square of earth!” At old Vilcha, nothing remains but a train station and a few small factories. Some people braved the prohibition a few years ago, and moved back without permission. But for the inhabitants of Vilcha, that’s not an option. “At least here, we have a house, the clinic…,” Maya Borissivna reassures herself. They haven’t gone back to Vilcha 1 except on the occasion of religious celebrations such as All Saints’ Day, when they return to place flowers on the tombs of their ancestors.
“It’s hard to have to travel so many kilometers to go take care of the tomb of one’s parents…,” concludes Oleksandr Breitenfeld. “We must live with the direct effect of the radiation. But also with the trauma coming from the fact that we were forced to flee our homes and go to another region…” In Vilcha 2, he has learned to live with the consequences of the radiation, in a half-constructed village. He has even learnt to laugh at it. But for him and these refugees of the atom, it’s the exile which they will never accept.