Our day trip included visiting the villages of Zalissya and Kopachi. Zalissya is the first stop after the checkpoint into the Exclusion Zone while Kopachi is farther north; visitors can see the Chornobyl plant from Kopachi’s road near the Red Forest.
Where are we?
Both villages were two of 186 communities (including over 100,000 people) evacuated after the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. Kopachi, highly contaminated even to this day, remains abandoned, while other villages have seen a number of their former inhabitants return. These “self-settlers” chose to live within the Exclusion Zone, despite the health risks. One woman, Rozaliya Ivanivna, returned to Zalissya and became the village’s only inhabitant until she passed away a few years ago.
I highly recommend the 2016 documentary, The Babushkas of Chernobyl. The film shows why three women returned to their homes inside the Exclusion Zone and how they live in their villages post-disaster.
Many chose to return because these are their homes, where they grew up, and where their families are buried. “I won’t go anywhere, even at gunpoint.” says one of the self-settlers in the documentary, Babushkas of Chernobyl. The women in the film, and many of the 1,200 people who chose to return to their homes (illegally) inside of the Exclusion Zone, survived Holodomor, the Soviet-induced famine that killed seven million Ukrainians, not to mention WWII, and the invasion of the Nazis. For many, the connection to home is greater than their fears of radiation poisoning.
The first stop on our tour was the village of Zalissya. This path was previously a well-traveled road into the village.
Located in the Exclusion Zone, the village was abandoned in 1986 and nature has taken over the once-bustling community.
Unlike Kopachi, most of the buildings here remain above ground: homes, a grocery store, and the cultural center for the village are still standing.
The forest near the village is slowly taking over. We visited on a beautiful day and were able to see how much nature was thriving in this once inhabited place.
Zalissya is 30km (18 mil) from Chornobyl and was the first village to be completely abandoned after reactor four exploded.
At the time of the explosion, Zalissya was a thriving village with over 3,200 inhabitants. The villagers initially did not know what (or the impacts of) the events taking place at the plant.
Zalissya was also previously a collective farming village.
Most of the inhabitants evacuated from Zalissya were relocated to the Borodyanka (Бородянка) region, roughly an hour and a half south.
The supermarket for the village.
Many left their belongings behind and their possessions can be seen scattered throughout the village.
Oleksander Leonenko, evacuated from the village at age 22, said: “To tell the truth, we did not suspect we were leaving forever. The only thought we had was about coming back; maybe in three days or maybe in a week. But we would come back for sure.”
Zalissya’s once busy roads are now only walking paths.
One of the inhabitants, Rozaliya Ivanivna, came back to Zalissya after the explosion of reactor four. Known as one of the “self-settlers” that returned to the evacuated communities inside the Exclusion Zone, she lived alone in the village.
Living a self-sustaining life, Ivanivna became annoyed with tourists walking through the village. She has since passed away, but her belongings remain in Zalissya. Her garden also continues to grow.
I was super annoyed that tourists were touching things and even moving other people’s belongings! Now that Zalissya is considered a tourist site, people seem to forget that this was someone’s home and life before being forced to move.
Kopachi, located 4 km (about 2 1/2 miles) from Chornobyl, was evacuated on May 3rd, a week after the nuclear explosion. 1,114 people lived in the once-thriving village before they were forced to leave their homes.
Unlike other locations within the Exclusion Zone, most of the buildings in Kopachi were demolished and buried as an experiment to suppress the radiation. Today, only the village’s kindergarten and one additional brick building remain standing.
The burying of the building materials did not negate the contamination from Chornobyl; today the soil and water around Kopachi are contaminated by plutonium, caesium-137, and strontium-90, having seeped into the water table from the burying of these radioactive houses.
The village remains somewhat radioactive even today, exceeding normal numbers by 5x the approved amount.
The “Parents’ Corner” of the kindergarten.
Entrance into one of the two buildings left above ground in the village. Kopachi is also near the Red Forest, an area that received the highest dosage of radiation from the Chornobyl explosion, and was “cleaned” up in a similar way; most of the trees were knocked down, buried, and covered with sand.
For me, walking these villages was one of the most impactful aspects of the trip. So often the Chornobyl disaster is portrayed, or even just feels, like it was a long time ago. Seeing the homes of people forced to leave and the possessions they left behind is a reminder that this happened just thirty years ago.
Watching: The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)