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A Town gives up on going home

Alexander Syrota gives tours of Pripyat, now a ghost town. (Photo by Masayuki Kozono)

CHERNOBYL Pripyat is a town frozen in time. Located about 4km from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, close to the Ukraine-Belarus border, it was once home to 50,000 people. A residential building still bears an emblem from the Soviet days, when Pripyat prospered as an energy and industrial hub.

"This is the primary school I attended. I used to sit in the second row from the back of the classroom," said Alexander Syrota, who left Pripyat on April 27, 1986, the day after explosions at the plant sent radioactive material spewing into the sky. The desk and chair he points to are covered with a thick layer of dust. "At the time I thought I could return quickly," he said.

Now 39 years old, Syrota works as a professional tour guide, showing visitors the cultural hall where his mother worked, the square where he played with his friends, and the amusement park whose opening he looked forward to with such eagerness. Today, the buildings look as if they are about to crumble to dust, and the Ferris wheel has been left to rust.

The look on Syrota's face was sad as he said, "I understand the town will never return to what it used to be."

The Ukrainian government has already given up on Pripyat. "Rebuilding is not an economically feasible option," said Vitalii Petruk, head of the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management. "Having the residents return home is no longer a priority."

The agency plans to turn the area within 10km of the plant into a nuclear waste dump and the area within 10-30km into a nature preserve.

Many people were also forced out of their homes in neighboring Belarus, where about 70% of the fallout from the plant landed.

Svetlana Pehota lives in Minsk, where she moved after the Chernobyl disaster. (Photo by Masayuki Kozono)

Svetlana Pehota, 60, used to live in the Brahin district of the Gomel region, about 40km from Chernobyl. Some six years after the disaster, she moved to the capital city of Minsk, about 330km from the plant. Socially, her life continued much as it had before the accident, as about 2,000 people from her region also moved to Minsk, living in units in 12 buildings provided by the government. "I can't go back to my home of 30 years ago, so I may as well enjoy my life here now," she said matter-of-factly.

Frustration persists among the transplants, though, as the government has gradually reduced assistance to them.

A GRIM WARNING For Yuko Endo, the sight of a decaying town, its former inhabitants having lost hope of returning, presents a frightening glimpse of what the future might hold. Endo is the mayor of Kawauchi, a village located not far from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture.

Endo visited Chernobyl shortly after disaster struck the Fukushima plant. What he saw alarmed him, and he began to wonder whether Kawauchi would suffer the same fate. Resolved to do what he could, he made an official declaration nearly a year after the accident -- before the head of any other affected local government -- that Kawauchi's evacuees would return home. He reopened government offices and schools to encourage villagers to come back. So far, about 60% have done so.

Yoshitaka Akimoto, 72, remained in the village after the disaster and continued farming rice. "We shouldn't blame the nuclear plant forever," he said. "We have to reclaim our lives." That feeling is growing stronger among the villagers.

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