Chernobyl Night

In Chernobyl, the last thing you want to be doing is hiding from the authorities in the dark.

And yet I somehow found myself doing just that, begging my heart to stop beating, wondering if this was some sort of awesome spy movie.

I sure didn’t feel awesome.

Earlier that evening, I stood by the bed pulling things out of my backpack. We were going for a stroll in town and some divine foresight was nudging me to bring just my camera and to leave my wallet and bag in the room. I threw the strap over my head, stuffed a few hryvnia in my pocket and joined my friends outside.

Traveling lightly has its virtues.

Chernobyl-town is one of those rare grownup places with an actual curfew. Whether it was for safety or because the military doesn’t want to waste electricity (or manpower), I don’t know. We weren’t supposed to be out, so we strode through the night, flashlights off until we were well away from the occupied part of town.

In such silence is an element of unease.

I’d been feeling it so much recently, that wretched combination of guilt and sadness…

The moon battled with the clouds, revealing dark, mud-filled holes in a road that was sometimes little more than a deer path. The forest reached high on both sides hiding who-knows-what, wild animals and a few stunted houses.

Finally, Arek switched on his diving lamp as we turned down another nameless road. He seemed to have a specific place in mind, but he didn’t say a word until we reached a row of bigger buildings. With my eyes finally adjusting to the dark, I could see the world painted in silver and blue like a child’s illustration, complete with insanely tangled trees and regular square shapes.

These houses were vacuous holes in the moonlight. The first one we entered had been abandoned for at least twenty years and vandalized long before any of us had ever considered coming to the Ukraine. Sweeping the flashlight across the foyer I could see the house was a fair size by American standards, which seemed odd considering the modest accommodations you see elsewhere in the Zone. There were four doorways, each leading away from the hall.

I realized then that this was not a single home, but a collection of tiny apartments.

There was nothing left here but for the occasional torn poster I could not read. Like everywhere else in the Zone, there’s a distinct edge of shock seeing the level of disrespect shown to the old life; The brick walls had actually been forcefully ruptured, as if some trigger-happy treasure hunter came through with a sledgehammer.

But you’d be hard-pressed to believe that someone living in these closets would have had much worth looting.

The familiar feeling started rising in my gut. I’d been feeling it so much recently, that wretched combination of guilt and sadness for a life that never had a choice and was swept clean away. No more. I followed the guys back outside.

Suddenly, beyond the trees was a flash of a light and the unmistakeable crunch of boots. I froze. Panicking, I watched my companions scatter in different directions. The moon was behind a cloud so I could barely see the trees we had just walked through, but I took an educated guess and dove behind what I hoped was the largest one. Traitorous branches cracked under my clumsy feet, drowning everything out for a heart-stopping second.

I was a rabbit cornered by the fox.

Everything was a little wet and a lot cold. There I crouched, ducking my chin as far as I could into my chest and turning my face away from the noise. Moonlight on my skin would be as bright as lamplight and I could take no chances.

What would happen to a foreigner caught breaking the law in a unstable nuclear zone? The possibilities flash behind my eyelids, none of them good. I’d had some experience with this type of fear on the train just days before, but that was a cakewalk compared to this. On the train I was breaking no law, my conscience was clean.

But here I was defying curfew on a military base holding a big honkin’ camera, dressed in black with no ID. Convenient, eh?

I was a rabbit cornered by the fox. I knew he was there, just around the corner and my last hope was to be ignored. Oh to be ignored! This was no child’s game of hide-and-seek. This was the real thing, and being tracked by the law was not at all romantic to an otherwise model citizen like me. My heart was so loud I knew they could hear me, and I had an absurd moment of perfect literary clarity. Time seemed to slow.

The footsteps grew closer… closer… I would not open my eyes and risk my face in even the dimmest moonlight to see what was there. They came too close, just across the way. I don’t pray, but I prayed that the wild tangle of trees and underbrush concealed any hint of my existence. The woods are huge — Surely my outline is no different than that of the other boulders on the earth!

My heart, pounding ever faster, demanded oxygen and I fought against drawing breath in one, loud, explosive gasp. The gravel stopped crunching less than ten feet away, precisely on the other side of my tree. He was listening, my fox, listening to the air.

How does he know? How did he know?!? My temples felt about to burst. Do I know enough Ukrainian to understand “Come out, now”? Is that in the phrasebook I didn’t bring?

Instead he said:

” …. Hey, guys?”

It was Matt.

With that, I retrieved my dignity, air and my gear and we continued on our way.

I would wait for a later time, a much later day to think about how I had missed the retreat of the original patrol… and how the hell my companion had figured out where to find me.

Ten Months Dreaming

Edited to add: SmugMug has let me post about how this was made.

I will never lose the impression Chernobyl has made on me, although this may be the last time I create something from that place. This one was particularly meaningful because each clip brought back memories, motions and snippets of conversation.

This project was so long in the making, I cannot quite reach back to think about how the idea began. Ten months dreaming, four days shooting, three weeks editing.

All distilled into three and a half little minutes.

I hope that those of you who weren’t there find this one as enjoyable as it is to those who were.

Pripyat Chernobyl Ukraine exclusion zone truck


Say one word, “Chernobyl,” and you’ll get one of two polarized responses:

  1. Why?
  2. Wow.

No matter what they say in public, nearly everyone has an interest about Chernobyl that they don’t want to admit. Morbid curiosity and a secret fascination to the radioactive wasteland, a town locked in time.

Me, too.

I let my breath out after the third (and last) checkpoint, thankful that our paperwork was all in order. Military personnel in the Exclusion Zone have a certain hard, cutting look to them that unmistakably marks them for what they are. Even if their drab camo uniform and badges were somehow overlooked.

The trees really do obscure every surface and nature is slowly eating away at the ghost town of Pripyat. Through the windows of our vehicle I could see just one white hammer and sickle floating high above our heads. An ancient lamp post decoration. I was to learn later that it was probably the only emblem of the sort that remains in town due to its proximity to the guards. Everything else bearing the symbols of Soviet rule has been looted, scrapped or sold.

I’m not new to this. I’ve spent the majority of my twenties doing questionable things in questionable buildings, stepping carefully across squishy floors and ascending swaying ladders. I thought this would be the grandaddy of all explorations, a testament to all the things I’ve learned over the years. I thought I would be ecstatic and high on the treasure trove of opportunities once we passed that last gate.

And I stood there, feeling confused and empty and slightly guilty. I dedicated a lot of time to prepare for this trip and backpacked halfway across Europe to be there now. Selfish, I thought, So many people would give everything they had to have this chance. What’s wrong? Out came my camera and I begun to go through the motions, but something wasn’t right.

Where are the people? Where have they gone? I know this answer, but I was not asking the obvious question. The buildings of Pripyat have stood empty for almost 30 years and the 50,000 residents were evacuated just days after the explosion. But as the stories go, they left everything behind, not expecting to be gone for more than a few days.

In that time, countless others have passed through these same spots, looting, stealing, breaking and displacing. Reactor 4 was the greatest elephant in the room, but it was those faceless individuals who erased the memory of those people from this town.

I stood there, feeling confused and empty and slightly guilty.

No wonder I felt cheap. There is no one left here, and I understood at this late hour that I was here looking for the people the whole time, not the buildings. A building is a building no matter what letters are written on the walls; it’s who lived there that makes it unique.

And at that moment things got better.

There may be little left to indicate the people who lived here, people who laughed and smoked and swam and learned to read, write and sing songs about the great Soviet leaders. But I did the best that I could to make sure that even this far away from their existence, they would not be forgotten. At least to me.

At the same time we craft our own memories in the tracks of the rich, black earth. We have to capture those moments too before the trail grows cold.

See it all: Chernobyl, Pripyat and Polish boot camp


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