“They gave us vodka!” says 82-year-old Ivan Semenyuk, recalling the response from the authorities in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe — a misguided attempt to minimise radiation poisoning. It’s a biting -17C on a dark February evening. I’m sitting on a rickety, miniature stool in the dining room of Ivan’s home in Paryshev, a village inside Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone (aka the Dead Zone) that’s roughly 16 miles from the defunct nuclear power plant. Our guide, Kateryna, is interpreting as Ivan jabbers away passionately in Ukrainian, directing half his words towards her and half to the bewildered expression on my face.
Ten days after the disaster, Ivan and his family were forced to leave their home and head 80 miles south to Kyiv. A year later, they returned to resume their lives in Chernobyl.
“I didn’t want to stay anywhere else,” says Ivan. “I just wanted to come back here. I like the village. No noise. I can go everywhere. I can go fishing. I can pick mushrooms.”
My attention is divided between Ivan and the rogue kitten incessantly meowing at the door. The floor is a mishmash of old jars and wicker baskets overflowing with shallots and potatoes. Apothecary-style bottles are everywhere, blanketed in sheets of dust. The ramshackle, pastel-blue shelves are crammed full of mismatched crockery, floral tea cloths are serving as curtains, and the smell of kerosene and damp wood is all-consuming. Ivan is wearing an ushanka (a Russian fur hat), layers of baggy, soot-covered clothing and tattered, woolly boots.
“The one with the gun is my son, on his first day in the army,” he says, looking up at the collage of family photos hanging behind him. Ivan has been living here alone since the death of his wife Maria a year ago, and credits his chickens — merrily clucking away in the garden — as one of his main pastimes. He looks relaxed as he continues to recite tales of his life — how he fought in the now rebel-held district of Donetsk, his failed attempt to leave home and study in Germany, and how he once cooked his friend a radioactive fish that triggered alarms on the military-guarded border of Chernobyl. I have questions about said fish, but I’m pressed for time, so ask instead what Ivan remembers from the night that Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant malfunctioned.
“Oh, the catastrophe? It was around midnight,” he says. “You could hear the glass in the windows shaking. We kept hearing explosions.”
At first, Ivan’s village was deemed safe, so all 600-odd residents stayed put — something to do with the location of Paryshev that makes it unsusceptible to rain and, therefore, the dispersion of radioactive particles. “They didn’t want to move us. The wind blew the other direction, towards Belarus, not here,” he says. But, 10 days after the disaster, there was a mass evacuation of Chernobyl, and more than 100,000 residents were relocated. Ivan explains that in the following months, the authorities started allowing residents to return home, but quickly changed their minds. Ivan stayed, and has been living in Paryshev, with just two other residents, whom he sees about once a year, ever since. Why? “It’s home,” says Kateryna, without even asking Ivan. “It’s pride.”
When it’s time to leave, Ivan levers himself up on his makeshift walking stick, looks at me and, recalling an earlier exchange about my own heritage, exclaims: “Daughter of Azerbaijan!”
It’s difficult to know how to spend the rest of this piercingly cold night after a conversation like that. Vodka, I suppose.