Oleksandr Sirota lives nearby the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. But his childhood memories are of the city most affected by radioactive contamination after the Ukrainian nuclear disaster. He was evacuated from the area when he was nine.
He takes us to Pripyat, a few kilometers away, where he organises tours for tourists and TV crews.
We pass the southern checkpoint of the exclusion zone and are led down ghost streets and abandoned areas of the town that used to be his home. Here, contamination levels are still high and people are forbidden to reside.
Oleksandr Sirota, tour guide: “This is the central square of the city of Pripyat. In front of us, you can see the Palace of Culture called ‘Power Engineer’. Actually, it was my second home. My mom worked there. And this is a picture of Lenin Avenue where we are standing now. This photo was taken in 1985-1986, before the accident.
“Somewhere under this rubble there is an entrance to my classroom where I studied at the time of the accident. On April 26 my classmates and I went to school in the morning not knowing anything about what had happened at the station.”
Oleksandr was evacuated the day after the explosion. He spent 20 months in hospital due to radiation exposure.
He asks us to take care while walking through the streets as radiation is still present and explains to avoid moss and stay away from dust.
Oleksandr: “The gamma background level here is five times higher than sanitary standards. But that’s the rate in this particular area. It doesn’t mean that all of Pripyat has the same level. Some places are dirtier, some cleaner.
“Why am I not afraid? Well, first, I’m coming home. I have seen this city in my dreams for many years. Second, those doses that Pripyat citizens got in 1986 were so high that we won’t get even a quarter of that level here for the rest of our lives.”
While Pripyat is totally abandoned, some returned to villages in the exclusion zone, despite the radiation and even though it is illegal.
Ivan Semenyuk is one of six inhabitants in the village of Parishiv, 7 km from the city of Chernobyl. He came back two years after the disaster.
Ivan keeps fowl and a pig. He grows vegetables and eats berries and mushrooms from the woods.
Ivan Semenyuk, villager: “Some Germans were filming here. They tested our soil, firewood and ash. They checked everything. And everything was good.”
Oleksandr’s radiation dosimeter confirms what Ivan says. It meets sanitary standards.
At the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, researchers study the radiation levels. They maintain that as the spread of radiation was uneven, mushrooms and berries that grow in the forests can be highly contaminated.
Yurii Zabulonov, Institute of Environmental Geochemistry of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine: “It’s strictly forbidden to eat. It may lead to severe ill-health in a person and could affect future generations.”