MY TRIP TO A VILLAGE DISPLACED AFTER THE CHERNOBYL DISASTER
We are going to Vilcha, to a new Vilcha. The journey, although short, is exhausting: bumpy roads in an August heat. The land is stretched out, irritatingly dry, burnt. Some years ago, the whole village of an old Vilcha was moved to these lands. Old Vilcha was contaminated after the Chernobyl disaster: not suitable for living. It happened in 1986, and still people stayed there for the next six years, living on suitcases, waiting, waiting, waiting for relocation. When we get to Vilcha and start interviewing people for our research project on Chernobyl and displacement, all of us young, born in a different country, a different time, we will keep on asking Vilcha residents: but why, why did you not just move by yourselves, without government’s help? We don’t quite understand the Soviet times, the stasis so often confused with stability, small things creating impossibilities, the fact that people could not throw away contaminated clothes because they had no money to afford a new pair of trousers.
When we finally arrive to new Vilcha, we are greeted by our host families. We step right into their embrace, their hands gripping our shoulders, our suitcases, and bags. Already on the next day after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, first families from the town of Pryp’yat’, the closest town to the plant, have been evacuated to nearby villages, and Vilcha was one of the villages to host these first displaced persons. I wonder if that is the way they greeted them, opening their arms and houses. Some of the families had up to ten people living with them for the first months after the disaster. Those were hard times, but people remember sharing bread, sharing milk, sharing clothes, even sharing nightmares, fears, and hopes.
The first wave of the displaced was eventually relocated to other regions of Ukraine. Vilcha was contaminated but not deserted, yet. The government changed roofs in old Vilcha, built new roads, did not manage to evacuate people for the next six years.
As we walk to the house of my host family, I notice that this new village is not a typical Ukrainian village. We follow a long street with no houses. There are big pieces of land with trees scarcely standing here and there, and another street running in a different direction with houses pressed to its side. Streets dividing the land, running into the fields, lines of houses like generous gestures in an empty space with giant blocks of grass and bushes in between, separating, disconnecting, and breaking. The local school hosts a small museum, and you can find an ambitious plan of a new village there. There are two nonexistent Vilcha’s now: the one which stayed in the Exclusion Zone, and the one that has never come to be. Plans for a new village were grand with its athletic centre, a culture club. However, soon after the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet Union collapsed, reducing ambitious dreams to paper plans. Basic things disappeared from shops and newly independent Ukraine was just learning how to be a different country.
As we walk through these long Vilcha streets separated by blocks of land, we struggle to find house numbers. Numbers don’t really work here. Everyone knows each other by name and knows who lives where. When people arrived to new Vilcha they were allowed to pick houses next to their relatives and friends. If you get lost they will call the person you are looking for and then you just need to turn right, then left, right again and then you will see them waving to you, hand thrown into the air, a landmark for all times.
We go from house to house interviewing people. In the evening when I return to my host family, my host mom pulls out an old document, a real estate purchase agreement. It was issued in the Russian Empire. The agreement states that my host family’s’ ancestors owned the land which is now contaminated. It’s a fragile, almost ethereal looking piece of paper, an ownership of a land not suitable for living received from a country which ceased to exist.
The next day the mother of my host mother, called Stanislava, comes to the kitchen while we are talking about the Chernobyl disaster. She has put on a beautiful yellow dress. She says there is nowhere to go in the village, not like in her old village, and so the dress is just hanging in her wardrobe in vain. She sits down in the corner of the kitchen and starts singing folk songs, loudly, shining, owning the space. Stanislava was born in Kazakhstan. Her parents were forcefully displaced from Ukraine. While growing up, she always dreamt of returning to Ukraine, and eventually she did. She did not live in Vilcha, but in another village. Her village was not considered to be contaminated enough, so the residents stayed. The village did not become part of the Exclusion Zone; instead the Zone began right behind the last garden in the village. Did the contamination stop there? Eventually Stanislava moved to new Vilcha to live with her daughter. Today she put on her prettiest yellow dress and is singing folk songs in the kitchen. Her family’s history is rich in forced migration trajectories, but you don’t need space for packing songs; you can carry them in your body.
We came to new Vilcha to collect horrific stories of the explosion and radiation disease and suffering. We came to hear about 1986 from people who were there, whose land absorbed it, whose bodies were seen as dangerous, just because they came from that region. People tell us all we want to hear as researches. They tell us about constant bleedings they saw, about skin peeling off, about poverty, about being looked upon as contaminated, about moving to this new village into houses with no roofs and no electricity. They tell us those stories sitting in their gardens under apple trees, with grandchildren climbing their knees, grabbing their hands, embracing. A boy refuses to go to sleep without his grandfather, and while we keep on asking about explosion, evacuation, contamination, displacement, the boy falls asleep under the table grasping his grandfather’s feet, grounding him.
When I leave the boy and his grandfather, and I come to my next interview, the woman I came to talk to exclaims: ‘Oh no, do I really have to tell about 1986 yet again?’
I sit down at her table in her garden, which breathes heavily with fruits and berries, and I finally understand. No, you don’t have to tell me about the Chernobyl disaster. Tell me about forests absent in these lands. Tell me names of all the neighbours in the street, which you remember just like yesterday. Tell me about games you played on a local lake when it froze in winter. Tell me about the music school. Tell me about the dance ensemble. Tell me about anything you want to tell; there are no narratives I expect.
We came to new Vilcha to find the true story of leaving contaminated lands, of witnessing the disaster. We came prepared for darkness. We peeked at it, and it was heavy and ineffable. Still, maybe the August sun is too intense or pears hit the ground with a sound too loud, but everywhere I look I see hands holding each other, wives holding husbands, grandchildren holding grandparents, neighbours holding neighbours, gardens pressed into each other, no numbers on the streets, remembering all the names, somebody waving at you at the end of the street: hand in the air, all those stories in the summer heat, tight, together, connected, flesh, bone, blood and kompot with berries. Throw your yellow dress on. Sing that song.
About this essay, the author said: "During my years of studying abroad, I found that when I said I was from Ukraine, the only thing most of the people knew about my country was the Chernobyl disaster. Chernobyl: dark, apocalyptic, tragic, monstrous, inhuman, lifeless." In lieu of an author photo, she has supplied this painting which she produced to accompany the essay.
Darya Tsymbalyuk is a writer and a visual artist from Ukraine, but she has lived in 6 different countries in the past 10 years, has learned 4 foreign languages and eventually reached a place where she felt in-between languages and in-between countries; this is the reason she writes and looks for ways of articulating her understanding of things. Her work has appeared and / or is forthcoming in Fiction International, CALYX, The Blotter, Brasilia Review and Bitterzoet. Darya received her BA in Studio Art and Languages from Kenyon College (OH) and her MA from the University of St Andrews (Scotland), where she focused on oral histories of displacement.