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The double tragedy of those evacuated by the Chernobyl nuclear accident | International

On maps it appears as Sukachi, but here everyone calls it Novi Ladizhichi (New Ladizhichi). The new is a town in the north of Ukraine with an air of urbanization to which the fifty thousand inhabitants of the old Ladizhichi, located 18 kilometers from the city of Chernobyl when the most famous nuclear accident in history took place on April 26, 1986. Although the radiation levels at the original Ladizhichi were reasonable (and indeed some evacuees later returned), it was within the notorious perimeter Soviet authorities established around the plant’s reactor that exploded (number four) after an initial attempt. to minimize the dimensions of the catastrophe.

Volodímir Stekhun, then a child dragged by his parents, grandparents and siblings to a new life, is today a 42-year-old man who looks at the black rubble of the brick house he built with his hands after getting married. “I have a feeling that the Russians are creating a tragedy for the second time. Here 20 years of my life have gone”, he assures.

The house was set on fire, apparently by the impact of a projectile, on the third day of the war, on February 26. “Suddenly my family and I heard a strange sound and then the crack of the burning roof. Neighbors helped us put it out with water. We took refuge in the basement, and about four or five hours later, the roof was on fire again. There we couldn’t do much. We had a lot of water in the basement, but we could only carry it with buckets. We spent the night throwing buckets of water, but it hardly did any good. Well… here you see the result”, he recalls as he points to the house sadly.

Stekhun has moved right next door to his father’s house, who died shortly before the war and it was empty. He has done it with his wife and one of his two children. The other, a member of the National Guard, is being held by Russia as a prisoner of war, he says. He was captured as soon as the invasion began, when he was defending the Hostomel airport, near kyiv.

Stekhun’s grandparents returned to the old Ladizhichi just a year after being evacuated. He used to visit them until they passed away in 2010. “I liked going there, it reminded me of my childhood,” he says. A small community of returnees lives there today by their own means (mainly thanks to agriculture and livestock). Given the low levels of radiation, it is one of the towns that can be accessed in peacetime on guided tours. As if it had a historical curse, the village had already been devastated by the Nazis during World War II, four decades before being emptied by the nuclear accident.

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“We have found a new tragedy in our house,” says Valentina, without words “to describe how difficult” it was for her – “married, and 22 years old and with two cows” – the uprooting in 1986 for reasons that took her long to understand . “People were talking about something bad happening, but there was little information,” she recalls of the day of the accident. She then made friends, started spending more time with the neighbors and ended up accepting Novi Ladizhichi as her new home. Some 36 years later, now 58, she gazes at a huge crater about five meters deep caused by a powerful bomb at a crossroads not far from the house where she was relocated. She “she was sitting in the basement when Russia released her. I felt how she lifted me off the seat a little bit and I went back down,” she says.

Crater caused by bombing in Sukachi.
Crater caused by bombing in Sukachi.Antonio Pita

The basement you are talking about is the one in your home. He used it to store the potatoes he grows and the invasion turned it into an improvised collective shelter. “We prayed all the time. We were three adults and two teenagers. the same 24 [de febrero] I already heard large vehicles and some shots. Then the sound got closer. At night I went out to see what was happening and I remember the sound of what looked like tanks. Only their red lights were visible,” she notes.

Valentina remembers how the Soviet authorities built in just three months in 1986 the 180 houses, dining rooms and nursery that make up the place, built twice as far from kyiv (about 80 kilometers) as from the southern border of Belarus. The two republics were then part of the USSR and today they are on opposite sides. “I have not yet accepted that we have a war in our country and in our people. I don’t have the strength to go anywhere else a second time and I’m too old to make new friends. Here, moreover, I am used to commenting on life, cooking borsch [la sopa ucrania más típica] and complain about the government together”, she adds with her friends, who laugh and nod. One of them, Nina Vasilenka, 51, breaks her silence and interjects: “The simple and poor people are the ones who suffered in 1986 and the ones who suffer now. And that was different before, because it was the USSR, so [Rusia y Ucrania] we were united Now we are separated.”

From left, friends Nina Vasilenka, Valentina and Natalia, at a bombed-out intersection in Sukachi.
From left, friends Nina Vasilenka, Valentina and Natalia, at a bombed-out intersection in Sukachi.Antonio Pita

In Novi Ladizhichi, where by mid-afternoon more bicycles than cars pass by, there are only a few “Finnish houses”, as they call the Nordic-style wooden ones. And, although the majority of neighbors are still part of, or descend from, those evacuated due to the nuclear accident, time has been bringing new families, attracted by affordable prices and a quiet life, explains Valentina.

Natalia Ribachok, in front of her house, half destroyed by the impact of a projectile.
Natalia Ribachok, in front of her house, half destroyed by the impact of a projectile.Antonio Pita

Natalia Ribachok came from a city in central Ukraine called Kropivnitskii, almost 400 kilometers away. She is 44 years old and she settled in Novi Ladizhichi six years ago, marrying a local man. One day, she says, he abandoned her and left her in charge of her two children in a house that was habitable until “exactly on February 25 at 6:00 p.m.”, when a mortar shell hit the roof. “I was in the basement with my children. They came out when they heard it and shouted: ‘mama, mama, our house no longer exists’. I didn’t believe them until I saw it, ”she recalls, unable to avoid a shiver. The house is miraculously standing. The projectile did not knock her down, but it did leave her badly damaged. Another family has welcomed them ever since.

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