Monday, 29 March 2010

Zone of Alienation

In the aftermath of the worst nuclear reactor accident in history, when the severity of the fallout started dawning on Soviet officials, it was realized that parts of of the affected areas would never again be habitable. The immediate and direct damage was limited to the exploded Chernobyl Reactor 4, and the 47 deaths of the firemen and "liquidators" who battled the vicious graphite blaze and the cleanup that followed.

But radioactivity slowly spread with the dust and debris, and like a mist descended on a vast area in the Kiev Oblast surrounding the plant, that would come to be known as the Zone of Alienation.

Spanning an area of roughly 500 km2, the Zone of Alienation is a deadly reminder of the prolonged effects of nuclear fallout. Even a quarter century after the April 1986 accident, it is still restricted, some parts entirely and permanently off-limits, and extensively bordered by guards and police. It is likely that it will continue to be for hundreds of years to come.

       The Zone had many smaller towns and settlements, but the one that most captures the imagination is the city of Pripyat. A "nuclear city" built in 1970 to house power plant workers, it was located a mere 3 km from the power plant, with a thriving population of 50,000 at the time of the disaster.

Unlike the bleak older Soviet cities with narrow streets and tiny yards, Pripyat was open and vivid, designed by the brightest architects in Moscow to be the idyllic home of Ukraine's keenest nuclear scientists and engineers. It would turn out to be the area hardest hit by the fallout.

It is said that in the night of the explosion that shook Pripyat at 01:23 am, some residents flocked to a nearby railway bridge (seen below), later known as the Bridge of Death, to get a better view of the burning reactor. Unaware of the danger, they were right in the path of the leaking radiation, exposing themselves to over 500 Röntgens, a fatal dose. They all later suffered agonizing deaths.

Picture credit: benfairless, flickr.

Within 40 hours of the meltdown, Pripyat was being evacuated by the Soviet military. Residents were given no choice but to leave their highly radioactive belongings behind. Most hastily abandoned everything they owned, as they were told to expect shortly to be allowed to return. 1200 buses were needed for the evacuation, forming a convoy 15 miles long. A total of 336,000 people had to be resettled as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. In Pripyat, now a time capsule of Soviet Ukraine, many of the 160 apartment blocks remained furnished until modern-day looting and widespread metal theft left most of them picked clean. Today, overgrown and steadily crumbling, Pripyat remains the largest ghost town in the world.

For years after the disaster, the Zone of Alienation remained derelict and virtually uninhabited. A new city, Slavutych, was built for the former residents of Pripyat and the Zone villages, 45 km from the Chernobyl plant.

However for some evacuees, the longing for their abandoned homes and possessions eventually drove them to illegally migrate back to their former houses. They were joined by the samosely, or "self-settlers"; reclusive drifters for whom the lonely Zone, despite its risks, was a perfect alternative to urban Ukraine. Officials turn a blind eye to these squatters, numbering roughly 50 in the Pripyat area, neither allowing or forcibly preventing them from occupying abandoned apartments.

As a result of the absence of human interference, wildlife populations in irradiated areas of the Zone have multiplied enormously. Stories of horrific mutations are many, but proof is as yet scarce. Birds, some of which have been seen to nest in the cracks of the sarcophagus covering the still-smoldering Reactor 4, have been found to have low reproductive success as well as a high numbers of birth defects, including albinism and deformities.

Nature is reclaiming the Zone of Alienation. Among tales of mutated monsters and forests of misshapen trees is the cold fact that Pripyat and the other Zone settlements will likely never be safe to live in again. Even in 2010, the city is not safe to tour without a radiation dosimeter, and the Reactor 4 sarcophagus may not be approached closer than 400 meters. Incredible as it may seem, the other reactors and buildings of Chernobyl power plant was not closed down until 2000, protected by 200 meters of concrete.

Bafflingly, Slavutych, the city built in 1986 to house the Chernobyl evacuees, and the one place one might expect long-term effects of massive radiation exposure to manifest, has a uniquely low mortality and high birthrate, giving it the lowest average age by far of any city in the Ukraine. The mysteries of radiation are apparently many, and the answers to some of them are surely waiting for us somewhere deep in the Zone of Alienation.

Chernobyl Today: A Creepy Story told in Pictures

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Towers of Silence

The ancient Zoroastrian tradition tells of how human flesh, once dead and decomposing, is so unclean it will pollute everything it touches. Holding the elements of earth and water as inviolably sacred, their religion did not permit the dead to be interred in soil or disposed of in the sea. Fire above all was worshipped as god-given and pure, and burning the dead would be the greatest of desecrations.

In acts of elaborate ritual the dead would be carted out into the forbidding desert by the nasellars, ritual pallbearers of Zoroastrianism. Far from settlements, they were taken up winding slopes up stark and ragged sandstone hills, to the Towers of Silence.

A Tower of Silence, known as dakhma in the sacred avestan tongue, is a large, cylindrical structure with a plateau of slabs laid in concentric circles surrounding a center pit. Its sole purpose was to leave dead bodies exposed to the searing desert conditions, though most importantly, to ever-circling, ever-present voracious birds of prey.

Through a peculiar religious loophole, Zoroastrians had found a solution to the problem of the elemental pollution of putrefaction. Men outermost, then women and children, were laid supine in separate circles, leaving animals to feed on the dead at will, and so evading the defilement of earth, water and fire. It was considered to be a person's final act of charity. When after as long as a year nothing remained but sun-bleached skeletons, the nasellar would collect the bones, disposing of them in the vast center ossuary pit, built to hold the bones of thousands.

Unusually, the tradition of burial by exposure is still upheld by modern-day Zoroastrians. While Iranian dakhmas were banned in 1970, parsi Zoroastrians in Mumbai and Karachi still maintain Towers of Silence, though not without difficulty. An assortment of factors have combined to reduce the modern-day population of birds of prey in the region to a mere 0.01% of what it was. Despite modern ventures such as vulture breeding and solar panels to speed up decomposition, without vultures to feed on bodies, the dead are left to rot unattended, offered up to empty skies, in concentric silence.