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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
Chernobyl Tourists 
21st-Mar-2011 12:30 pm
Seedlings1



Haibun: a combination of prose and haiku. Its focus is often on everyday experiences, but sometimes on a journey in the style of the originator of haibun, a Japanese monk named Bashô, who kept travel journals.

The disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has brought Chernobyl's disaster back into the headlines. This is a haibun I wrote after visiting Chernobyl, Ukraine, in April 2006. Organized tours have been permitted since 1994, and about 2,000 tourists go each year from all over the world. In fact, visitors are welcomed.

Viktor Yushchenko, then the president of Ukraine, said, "I hope that Chernobyl, just as it is, and perhaps Pripyat and those abandoned and dead villages that you find along the road will be visited, and the more people the better, because to see them will allow us to think in more conscious and more forward-looking ways about what happened."

This is what I saw:

A military checkpoint marks the entrance to the Exclusion Zone, the contaminated area roughly 30 kilometers around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The zone was evacuated within days of the catastrophe on April 26, 1986. A soldier wearing a film badge to measure his radiation dose checked our identification, then we stopped at the Chernobyl Interinform Agency. There, we met our tour guide, a cheerful, square-built young man who could answer any question in Ukrainian and quite good English. He gave us an overview of the continuing problems in the Exclusion Zone, and we returned our bus to head toward the areas marked red on the maps.

his pocket dosimeter
ticking ever faster
our smiling guide leads on

First we had to put on disposable paper hooded coveralls over our clothes -- one size fits all, or rather, no size fits anyone. We wondered if flimsy paper clothing really protected us from anything. Certainly not ridicule.

our radiation suits:
uniformed soldiers
point and laugh

Eventually we figured it out. The purpose of the suits was merely to identify us. Looting and vandalism remain a problem in the Exclusion Zone, but we were obviously under proper supervision and fearless leadership. Our guide, with his colorful maps, had impressed upon us the size of the zone. He also told us about the wild animals -- wolves, boars, eagles -- that now live there. Most have moved in from the surrounding area, but several dozen Przewalski's horses were deliberately introduced in 1998, a species almost extinct in the wild due to lack of habitat. The herd in the Exclusion Zone has thrived, and we saw some on our way toward the nuclear power plant.

wild horses --
and a pasture twice the size
of Luxembourg

The plant itself, the infamous plant, the symbol of so many failures, looked like a large, abandoned old factory, but a new building and parking lot stood beside it.

Visitor Center:
women in face masks
plant tulips

The cesium and plutonium spewed out during the disaster has washed into the soil, so in some locations digging requires precautions. Plants pull radioactivity back up through their roots, as a Geiger counter set on the pavement and then on the lawn can prove.

keep off the grass:
twice the dose
as asphalt

During the lecture in the Visitor Information Center, we learned about the precarious condition of the plant and the shelter erected over it, the Sarcophagus. Its roof is buckling and has gaps that let in rain and animals.

bird nests
in Chernobyl's tomb:
no hawks, no danger, right?

We moved on to Pripyat, a city built for the power plant's workers and families. Its 50,000 inhabitants were evacuated the day after the disaster with two hours' notice. They were told they were only leaving for three days, although authorities knew it would be forever: the radiation will subside to liveable levels in a thousand years.

busy ants. . .
do they notice
the city is empty?

It was a model Soviet city, with lovely tree-lined boulevards and many amenities. Its designer even had one rose bush planted for every inhabitant.

among the weeds
a few tough roses
alive

We visited Chernobyl the day after Palm Sunday. With no palm trees in Ukraine, the faithful use willow catkins and bring bouquets of them to churches to be blessed. They were in bloom in Pripyat, too.

pussy willows --
980 unholy springs
until Resurrection

The tour company owner (in the yellow jacket in the photo) had been a boy in Pripyat when the disaster happened, a third grade student at School Number 1. It has partially collapsed, spilling books, furniture, and students' possessions across the cracked and mossy sidewalk.

a string of beads
on the ground: everyone looks
no one touches

We got back on the bus and passed through the "Red Forest," the pine woods next to the power plant and directly under the path of the worst fallout. The pine cones and needles turned red overnight; the trees died, and were cut down and buried. The radioactivity there can still reach 1 roentgen, 50,000 times normal, the most radioactive outdoor location on the planet.

Red Forest
dust to dust. . .
Geiger counters scream

Our guide pointed out a tall metal grid visible over the new, young, radioactive trees. It was the early warning radar screen for Chernobyl II, a top secret nuclear missile site whose bombs could have reached the United States. An American spy satellite on a routine top secret mission passed over the area 28 seconds after a huge explosion. At first, U.S. analysts thought a missile had been fired. (That must have caused a scramble.) When it didn't move, they thought a missile had exploded in its silo. Then, looking at a map, they realized it was the nuclear power plant.

Chernobyl II
the bigger danger next door:
who knew?

And so we left, with one final stop at a Ukraine Army checkpoint to test our radioactivity. We all passed. Our exposure had been slight, equal to the radiation we receive in many routine activities. No tee-shirts, no souvenirs. Just memories.

like a small x-ray
but with nothing
to show

— Sue Burke

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