In the wan light of a snowy spring morning, belongings scattered on the floor of an abandoned kindergarten speak of a time before the children of Pripyat lost their innocence. Musty sandals and ballet slippers for tiny feet. Cardboard pictures of Lenin as a young boy and as a youthful leader—the Soviet equivalent of baseball cards. In the next room, dolls in various states of dress and dismemberment, lolling on metal cots where the children once napped. Finally, on the gymnasium wall, photos of the children themselves—doing calisthenics, climbing monkey bars, balancing on boards.
Twenty years ago this month, life in Pripyat came to a shuddering end. Before dawn on April 26, 1986, less than two miles (less than three kilometers) south of what was then a city of 50,000, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant's number four reactor exploded. Thirty people died in the blast and fire or were exposed to lethal radiation. The destroyed hulk burned for ten days, contaminating tens of thousands of square miles in northern Ukraine, southern Belarus, and Russia's Bryansk region. It was the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen.
The fallout, 400 times more radioactivity than was released at Hiroshima, drove a third of a million people from their homes and triggered an epidemic of thyroid cancer in children. Over the years, the economic losses—health and cleanup costs, compensation, lost productivity—have mounted into the hundreds of billions of dollars. As evidence of government bungling and secrecy emerged in its wake, Chernobyl (or Chornobyl, as it is now known in independent Ukraine) even sped the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Today the fiercely radioactive remnants of reactor four continue to smolder beneath the so-called sarcophagus, a decaying concrete-and-steel crypt, hastily built after the accident, that now threatens to collapse. Work is about to get under way on a replacement: an arched structure, the size of a stadium, that will slide over the sarcophagus and seal it off. With its completion the destroyed reactor will be out of sight. But for the region's people it will never be out of mind, as a slow-motion catastrophe continues to unfold.
Early estimates that tens or hundreds of thousands of people would die from Chernobyl have been discredited. But genetic damage done 20 years ago is slowly taking a toll. No one can be sure of the ultimate impact, but an authoritative report estimated last year that the cancer fuse lit by Chernobyl will claim 4,000 lives. Alexei Okeanov of the International Sakharov Environmental University in Minsk, Belarus, who studies the health effects of the accident, calls it "a fire that can't be put out in our lifetimes."
Yet Chernobyl's most insidious legacy may be the psychological wounds borne by those who fled blighted homes, and by the several million who continue to live on contaminated land. "The psychological effects have been devastating," says Mikhail Malko, a physicist in Minsk. "Many women feel they will give birth to unhealthy babies or babies with no future. Many people feel they will die from Chernobyl."
Olesya Shovkoshitnaya doesn't know whether to blame Chernobyl for her terrible headaches and the fact that, she says, "sometimes I forget everything." But she has fond memories of growing up in Pripyat, built in the 1970s for the Chernobyl plant's personnel. "It was fantastic. It was a warm town, lots of trees, roses," she says over a bowl of the cherry dumplings called vareniki in Kyiv, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) south of Chernobyl, where she now lives. "We had sport classes. I played handball, swam, played checkers. We had music. I was in choir. I enjoyed my childhood."