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Chernobyl: Land Of Milk And Honey?

In Chernobyl a small group of people have chosen to return to live inside the irradiated exclusion zone. RFE/RL's Amos Chapple met one man living a remarkably idyllic existence on Chernobyl's poisoned land.

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A view of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, 30 years after the explosion that shook the world
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A view of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, 30 years after the explosion that shook the world

In the abandoned towns and villages around the nuclear reactor, tourists now come, almost gleefully, to photograph the scenes of ruination. 
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In the abandoned towns and villages around the nuclear reactor, tourists now come, almost gleefully, to photograph the scenes of ruination. 

These children's gas masks (a precaution against attack from the United States) were strewn across the floor long after the disaster. Chernobyl guide Volodymyr Yehorov says it was done by an "artist" wanting a chilling image, a glimpse of the apocalypse.
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These children's gas masks (a precaution against attack from the United States) were strewn across the floor long after the disaster. Chernobyl guide Volodymyr Yehorov says it was done by an "artist" wanting a chilling image, a glimpse of the apocalypse.

The feeling one gets in the exclusion zone today, though, is mostly one of sadness. Far removed from the monstrous mismanagement that led to the catastrophe were ordinary people who took pride in their town. The brightly painted murals of this children's camp are rotting away one by one into the forest.
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The feeling one gets in the exclusion zone today, though, is mostly one of sadness. Far removed from the monstrous mismanagement that led to the catastrophe were ordinary people who took pride in their town. The brightly painted murals of this children's camp are rotting away one by one into the forest.

But there is another Chernobyl; remarkable only for how ordinary, even beautiful it appears. This house belongs to Vasyl Sokirenko, one of around 160 "resettlers" who chose to return and retire in Chernobyl.
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But there is another Chernobyl; remarkable only for how ordinary, even beautiful it appears. This house belongs to Vasyl Sokirenko, one of around 160 "resettlers" who chose to return and retire in Chernobyl.

The former policeman first moved to Chernobyl in 1990. He was enticed by the salary: twice what he would have earned outside the exclusion zone. After eight years in Chernobyl he left to begin life as a pensioner in his hometown of Sumy, but didn’t last long.
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The former policeman first moved to Chernobyl in 1990. He was enticed by the salary: twice what he would have earned outside the exclusion zone. After eight years in Chernobyl he left to begin life as a pensioner in his hometown of Sumy, but didn’t last long.

"I was sitting in some fifth-floor apartment listening to the noise of the highway," he says. With nothing to do but "drink and watch TV," Vasyl made the decision to come back. Chernobyl had gotten under his skin.  
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"I was sitting in some fifth-floor apartment listening to the noise of the highway," he says. With nothing to do but "drink and watch TV," Vasyl made the decision to come back. Chernobyl had gotten under his skin.
 

With his connections, both to the town, and the authorities, he was allowed to return. But the house he now lives in was not his own.
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With his connections, both to the town, and the authorities, he was allowed to return. But the house he now lives in was not his own.

Like some end-of-days fantasy, Vasyl had his pick of the abandoned properties. He walked the streets until he found what he wanted. A nice cottage with an enormous section for his vegetables, flowers, and bees.
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Like some end-of-days fantasy, Vasyl had his pick of the abandoned properties. He walked the streets until he found what he wanted. A nice cottage with an enormous section for his vegetables, flowers, and bees.

Vasyl checks one of his 21 hives. One year the former owners, who now live in Crimea, returned to visit their old house. "They knocked on the door...there was no problem, quite the opposite, they were happy I had moved in." Without him there, Vasyl says, the house by now would be in ruins.
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Vasyl checks one of his 21 hives. One year the former owners, who now live in Crimea, returned to visit their old house. "They knocked on the door...there was no problem, quite the opposite, they were happy I had moved in." Without him there, Vasyl says, the house by now would be in ruins.

Not much fazes Vasyl, as demonstrated here by his gloves-off monitoring of his hives, and for him the issue of radiation isn't something that much occupies his thoughts. "We tested the section and it's clean. I test what I eat it's all fine."
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Not much fazes Vasyl, as demonstrated here by his gloves-off monitoring of his hives, and for him the issue of radiation isn't something that much occupies his thoughts. "We tested the section and it's clean. I test what I eat it's all fine."

But there's no sign of radiation testing when he offers a dried fish, which, like this one, he raised outside in an old bathtub.  
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But there's no sign of radiation testing when he offers a dried fish, which, like this one, he raised outside in an old bathtub.
 

"I feel free here.... When summer arrives and the garden is in full bloom it will be self-evident why I chose to come back." Surrounded by birdsong, sitting in Vasyl's pregnant garden it does seem almost convincing, until that is, we say goodbye and try to leave the exclusion zone.
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"I feel free here.... When summer arrives and the garden is in full bloom it will be self-evident why I chose to come back." Surrounded by birdsong, sitting in Vasyl's pregnant garden it does seem almost convincing, until that is, we say goodbye and try to leave the exclusion zone.

This is the moment every visitor to Chernobyl dreads. As fixer Dmitriy Kolchinskyy (left) is tested for radiation, the alarm sounds. The red light blinking in front of him indicates contamination on his chest area. After he whips off  his visitor's badge the result is clean. But he passes through three different scanners to be sure, then on the way home he calls his wife to arrange a complete change of clothes. The T-shirt will be thrown away. "I don't want that stuff anywhere near my kid." A stark reminder that despite the time that has passed and despite the optimism of people like Vasyl, Chernobyl remains a poisoned land.
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This is the moment every visitor to Chernobyl dreads. As fixer Dmitriy Kolchinskyy (left) is tested for radiation, the alarm sounds. The red light blinking in front of him indicates contamination on his chest area. After he whips off  his visitor's badge the result is clean. But he passes through three different scanners to be sure, then on the way home he calls his wife to arrange a complete change of clothes. The T-shirt will be thrown away. "I don't want that stuff anywhere near my kid." A stark reminder that despite the time that has passed and despite the optimism of people like Vasyl, Chernobyl remains a poisoned land.

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