THE events of April 26, 1986 unexpectedly and mercilessly put Chornobyl (Chernobyl) — a small municipality hardly known even in then-Soviet Ukraine — on the world map.
A massive explosion of a nuclear reactor in the wee hours
of a chilling spring morning spewed into the air invisible, yet deadly dangerous radioactive materials equalled to 300 Hiroshimas.
The contaminated cloud left its dreadful footprint in most of the European countries and reached as far as Greenland and Canada.
The HBO miniseries was quite accurate in portraying the disaster and the aftermath that followed: the irrational Soviet administration system, desperate cover-up attempts by Communist Party officials, careless people not realising the danger of nuclear radiation and hundreds of unsung heroes who selflessly sacrificed their lives so that others may live.
Thirty-five years on, my own account of the incident is still quite fresh. After a few days of hearing "nothing serious happened" messages from the officials on television, suddenly there were shockingly abrupt interruption of the school year, unusually big numbers of orange trucks continuously water-spraying the streets of Kyiv, concerned faces of parents and sealed windows at home — all incomprehensible for a teen who was told to stay indoors.
The Chornobyl accident highlighted some serious issues and triggered fierce discussions globally on how safe nuclear energy is. Is it worth gambling with only because it is so cheap? Some argue that Chornobyl was, in fact, a watershed that launched the countdown to the downfall of communism in Europe and the eventual collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
One of the legacies of the accident is a 30km Exclusion Zone around the disaster site. The Soviet authorities finally decided to evacuate local residents who had been helplessly exposed to the strong nuclear radiation 30 hours after the disaster struck. In an unprecedented move, more than 200,000 people were moved over the next few hours into safe areas far from Chornobyl, leaving their homes, possessions and memories behind.
In 2019, president Volodymyr Zelenskyy launched the Chornobyl Development Strategy, which aims to transform this frozen in time area into a new local and international tourist destination.
As a matter of fact, over the years, wildlife in forest reserves of the Exclusion Zone has miraculously returned. Some species of animals considered to be rare or extinct even before the accident are now roaming freely.
Due to the restricted access from outside with almost no human intervention, birds, moose, wolves, lynx and endangered Przewalski's horses have slowly reoccupied the surrounding forests, creating a unique ecosystem and invaluable research ground for biologists.
The amazing revival story of Chornobyl was featured in the final episode of Our Planet, a Netflix documentary narrated bythe legendary David Attenborough.
The symbolism of Chornobyl, or wormwood — what it literally means in Ukrainian — has so many levels. It is a manifestation of the ever-daring human mind constantly striving to venture into unchartered waters of exploration. It is a constant reminder that each step of scientific advancement comes at a cost, which, sometimes, is unbearable. It is also an old Biblical wisdom that the truth will set you free. But most of all, it is a message of hope that the power of life is overwhelmingly stronger than any intentional or unintentional human-made mistake.