Article published on Medium, 10/05/2016. Article co-written with Laurent Geslin. Photos by Niels Ackermann.
At Vilcha, a town near Kharkiv whose population is mostly deportees from the Chernobyl disaster zone, a somber atmosphere looms as they prepare to commemorate 30 years since the catastrophe. Reporters Sebastien Gobert, Laurent Geslin and Niels Ackerman went to the reunion of these atomic exiles and published in ITHAQUE a longer version of their story.
Manhandled by the bumpy road, the car crossed the forest along a route formed by misfitting plates of concrete. At each shudder, Niels let out a nervous cry: his car, just fresh from the Swiss dealership, was taking a beating. At the entrance of the village, just beyond soil-rich fields, brick houses sitting on small parcels, each with individual gardens,form a single line without end. Although this setting is typical of the Ukrainian countryside, it becomes quickly obvious that Vilcha is different from other villages. Here, one doesn’t find those wooden farmhouses which are characteristic of such rustic scenes.
What catches the eye here are bungalows, all identical, which seem to have popped up like mushrooms. They are octogonal, with straight edges, and a nice passerby confirms that they sit along a path: the bumpy route which we find ourselves upon, leading to a decrepit old local administration building where we have a meeting. In front of the main door, a bell-shaped monument has been erected. On the stone is engraved a symbolic date: 26 April 1986, the fateful day of the explosion of Chernobyl reactor number 4.
At least, we were not mistaken about the village. We get out of the car: Niels has camera slung over his shoulder, Laurent, his recorder, and I, my notebook.
“Vilcha is a peculiar place, constructed by, and for, the evacuees of an older village known as Vilcha, which is in the Chernobyl exclusion zone,” we’ve heard whispered in Kharkiv, a large village in the northeast of the country, 60 kilometers (37 miles) from here. This is the ideal opportunity to report on Chernobyl more than 700 kilometers (430 miles) from the disaster zone, far from the mob of international journalists rushing to the power plant to cover the 30th anniversary of the nuclear catastrophe. In the inviting lobby of our host’s apartment building, we already know that we won’t regret the trip.