Vladimir Putin’s troops left Chernobyl after erratic and ‘illogical’ occupation of nuclear disaster site
Julia Bezdizha still does not understand why Russian soldiers set up camp in one of the most contaminated places on the planet.
Maybe their commanders didn’t understand the risks. Or worse, they knew the dangers but simply didn’t care.
“It was a completely stupid order,” she said.
As a tour guide, Julia used to bring tourists to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, showing them around the site of the 1986 disaster that became one of the worst nuclear incidents in the world.
Now she has returned to show the ABC the mess Russian soldiers left when they occupied the region after invading Ukraine on February 24.
As we travel through the area, his first warning is of landmines, which are still being discovered.
“Don’t walk on the grass,” she says.
Moments later, a huge boom in the distance interrupts the otherwise eerie silence. Message received.
His next warning is about radiation. We are told to cover our bodies with clothes, not to eat or drink anything and, whatever you do, not to put anything on the ground.
This warning makes the actions of the Russian soldiers even more difficult to understand, as most of the danger lies in the ground.
Signs of incompetence of Russian soldiers
Ukrainian officials said when Russian troops arrived in Chernobyl from neighboring Belarus, they drove their tanks through the highly contaminated Red Forest, kicking up dust along the way.
Then they chose a piece of land just outside the forest to build a camp.
A maze of trenches was dug deep into the ground, alongside temporary shelters.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited the site and measured the radiation in the trenches.
Although it is four times higher than on surrounding roads, the IAEA said it was still within the safe range.
Even so, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told reporters last month that digging into the ground was still risky, especially without protective equipment.
“Obviously this is not a place to picnic or dig,” he said.
Julia says by building trenches at Chernobyl, these soldiers risked their lives.
“These occupation soldiers could have received a high dose of radiation, which would lead to health problems for the rest of their lives,” she said.
“How long they live will depend on how long they’ve been in those trenches,” she said.
Inside the only place the Russians left alone
One of the most famous sites in the Exclusion Zone was also one of the least disturbed during the Russian occupation of the Chernobyl region.
The abandoned city of Pripyat, which was originally built to house nuclear power plant employees and their families, offered very little comfort to the invading soldiers.
Vine-covered apartments and ramshackle hotels are uninhabitable. Russian troops only entered it to disable the mobile phone towers perched on top.
The old fairground, with its bumper cars and rusty Ferris wheel, seems to have been left intact.
The city of Chernobyl itself was not so lucky.
Locals say Russian troops seemed determined to damage and steal as much as possible.
“They looted everything,” said Oleksander Skirta, an engineer who was on duty at the time.
“They broke all the doors and windows, trying to get into the apartments.
They have run over cars with their tanks, destroyed computers and appliances, stolen car wheels and even cut out chrome badges from steering wheels.
What they couldn’t take, they broke.
“It’s as if they were doing it for fun,” says Oleksander.
Oleksander, like many other Chernobyl residents, lives in the city 15 days a month while maintaining facilities in the wider exclusion zone.
He then leaves to give his body a break from the radiation.
He said the soldiers’ erratic and “illogical” behavior made him fear for the safety of the old nuclear reactor.
“We were very worried about what might happen,” he says.
“Electricity and mobile phone connections were cut. We didn’t know what was going on.”
Soldiers could pay a high price
Russian commanders understood the need to keep the nuclear facility in operation.
They brought in experts from their own atomic energy agency, but also forced Ukrainian technicians to work grueling shifts so they could monitor operations at the site.
In March, when power to the facility was interrupted, the Ukrainian government warned that spent nuclear fuel could overheat and trigger a major disaster.
The IAEA said there was no immediate risk and power was eventually restored.
However, Ukrainian officials say some of the soldiers patrolling the facility handled highly radioactive materials and some even stole contaminated items.
“We cannot understand the behavior of some of the Russian soldiers,” Julia said.
“They took it back to Belarus and from there back home.”
Russian troops blew up the bridges as they retreated across the border in early April, to halt any potential pursuit by the Ukrainian military.
But whatever radiation they were exposed to at Chernobyl, they could still catch up.