Graffiti is something we all take for granted, and even admire if it was created by someone as talented as Banksy, but not all wall art is colourful or cheerful. Some is quite disturbing, with images of things we hope never to witness in our lifetimes. One moment in time can alter the future forever, as many know to their cost.
Say the name Pripyat to most people and they will stare blankly at you, but mention Chernobyl and the response is instantaneous. April 26th 1986, at 1.23 am, was when Reactor Number 4 blew up at the Chernobyl Nuclear plant in the Ukraine. It is considered to be the worst ever disaster at such a plant, the accident happening during what should have been a routine safety test.
During an experiment to test the reactor’s ability to safely run in the event of an external electric outage, a tragic oversight resulted in the overheating of the core. A deadly steam explosion followed by a second explosion two minutes later and ensuing fire released a cloud of radiation 100 times more potent than the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
The firefighters had no idea how dangerous the radiation was. Thirty-one of them and many plant workers died of radiation poisoning within a few weeks, however hundreds of thousands of people involved with the cleanup operation have continued to experience health issues.
The fire continued to burn until 10 May 1986, and there were fears that if it would burn through the concrete base of the reactor, spilling white hot radioactive debris into the pool of water under the base, it would cause an even more violent explosion. Helicopters dropped a total of more than 5,000 tonnes of sand, lead, clay and boron onto the burning reactor to quench the blaze, as well as injecting liquid nitrogen into the inferno.
The city of Pripyat, just 8km distant from Chernobyl, was not evacuated until 2 pm on the 27th April, for reasons unclear to this day. This city was home to nearly 50,000 people, most of whom worked at the power plant. These residents were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. It was a warm sunny weekend; people were outdoors, pushing babies in strollers and recreating in the Pripyat river; weddings were going on.
No warnings were given about radiation or fallout, and many gathered on a railroad bridge, now called the “Bridge of Death,” where they could get a good view of the plant. Here they received doses of radiation in excess of 500 roentgens per hour, and for many this would prove lethal. They were told that the evacuation would only be for a few days, and were allowed to take one suitcase with them. Left behind were treasured belongings like family photographs and other personal items. Those evacuees never went back, and Pripyat has been a radioactive ghost town for 24 years.
Officially there is nobody living in the exclusion zone. All workers stay a maximum of two weeks per shift. Radiation contaminates every living thing as well as all inanimate objects. That is why Pripyat has not been destroyed. Burning or levelling buildings will only release more radiation into the air.
Before the last people left they marked their departure with some of the most harrowing graffiti you are ever likely to see. Most Russian graffiti is bright coloured and cheerful, but the graffiti of Pripyat is haunted by ghostly black and white figures, many of whom are in obvious pain.
Most feature children, or at least the shadows they left behind, doing things like crying or playing or screaming. It seems the ghosts of those children haunt the walls of this abandoned city, and probably always will.