Kyiv, 29 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Twelve years ago on the night of April 25, Tamara Bakhanchenko, in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat, was suffering from bad dreams. "Lots of us had a foreboding of disaster," she recalls. "But we could not expect what happened."
What happened the next day was that Reactor No. 4 at the nearby Chornobyl nuclear plant exploded and burned, releasing enough radioactive dust into the air to leave traces as far away as North America. That night Bakhanchenko and her five-month-old daughter fled their home, located three kilometers from the smoldering plant, to be joined over the coming days and weeks by tens-of-thousands of evacuees from within an official contaminated zone, stretching 30 kilometers from the plant in every direction.
Most of Pripyat's 50,000 inhabitants had been employed at the plant, and some, like Bakhanchenko's husband, stayed behind to help build the concrete shelter that now encloses the destroyed reactor.
More than a decade later, the former residents of Pripyat and neighboring villages are meeting to share poetry, songs and memories of the homes they were forced to flee.
"I often dream of it," said Bakhanchenko. "The dreams stay in my memory where they wind like a tape, like seeing video images. Since we came to Kyiv, all the people I've talked to have a kind of disease, the accident affected our memories. I see a face, and I know I know this person, but I can't remember his name or who he is. Lots of events have been blanked out by the stress. But something is left and floats up sometimes, so it's not all lost."
The organization of Pripyat Zemlyaki (people from the same town or area) came into existence ten years ago, when some of the 44,000 evacuees resettled in Kyiv, started to track each other down. "We were thrown all over the place, not just in Kyiv but in different towns," said Bakhanchenko, the club's chairwoman. "It was very difficult, but we finally found each other."
The club provides some professional psychological counseling, but its main purpose is to give moral support to the displaced Zemlyaki through concerts, lectures, art shows and to re-acquaint long-lost neighbors. Bakhanchenko described the tearful meetings of former colleagues and friends who had not seen each other for years.
The nightmare these people have in common is one of total loss, homes and belongings never to be recovered. Pripyat residents were told they would only have to leave their homes for three days, so much was left behind, said Bakhanchenko, even pets. The abandoned animals, locked inside deserted houses, starved to death.
Most evacuees spent the first months shuttling around the country, seeking temporary shelter with relatives. Some families were split up, as children were sent to camps and parents returned to work at the plant. After six months, Bakhanchenko and her family finally received an apartment in Kyiv. "So many of our plans were destroyed," said Bakhanchenko. "From April to October we were just up in the air. We had to start again from nothing."
The anniversary of the disaster is just an official reminder of something these survivors can never forget. "We don't need an anniversary to remind us," said Galina Dondakura, a kindergarten teacher from Pripyat. "It affected us so strongly, any reminder of those days makes us weep."
The club holds monthly meetings, usually attended by around 50 people, but this anniversary, fewer people were in attendance. Last Sunday was also Remembrance Day, when Ukrainians traditionally return to their native towns and villages to visit cemeteries where their relatives are buried. For former inhabitants of 'the Zone,' the journey home requires special permission, but many still make the trip. And there are many dead there to remember.
"My village belongs to the dead," said Petro Fedorenko. He was born in Terekhi, a village south of the plant. His parents were evacuated from their farm, but Petro returned one year after the accident. "I used to love picking mushrooms, so I went back to the woods just to have a look," he said. "When we had to leave I knew every path and every corner. The best holiday for me was to return to my native village and go mushroom picking in the woods or fishing in the river. And now I can't have that anymore."
Fedorenko has sought to immortalize his lost village in verse. Many of the other evacuees have likewise turned to art to release their memories. They paint, or write poetry or songs in which the names of their towns and villages appear over and over again. One member's poem, "Requiem," brought listeners to tears when read at the meeting. Later, Bakhanchenko was presented with a "Pripyat Street" streetsign, which was propped up along a wall covered with photographs of Pripyat as it was - and as it is now, a ghost town choked with weeds.
The Zemlyaki prefer to remember the town as it was. Built in 1970 to house Chornobyl workers, the town had a thriving cultural scene centered around the local House of Culture, where Bakhanchenko worked. "When we arrived it wasn't even built. We planned, built and decorated it all ourselves. It was like our child," she recalled proudly. "It held first place in Kyiv Region for events and entertainment."
Former plant workers are just as loyal to Chornobyl, even after the disaster poisoned their hometowns and destroyed their health. Vladimir Sennikov worked at the plant for ten years, and was on duty when the reactor exploded. He was one of the liquidators who cleaned up afterwards and built the shelter, and continued working until his declining health forced him to stop. "We understood the danger but what could we do?" he asks. "Someone had to clean up, build the sarcophagus, maintain the roads. It was impossible to ask anyone to leave and abandon it to the hands of fate. It never entered my mind to give up and run away."