Wrocław residents Arkadiusz Podniesiński and Maciej Nastaga were the first volunteers from abroad to bring humanitarian aid to Chornobyl and the surrounding area. Local residents had waited more than 40 days for it.
Arkadiusz Podniesiński is a photographer, filmmaker and founder of the Profuturum Association. Maciej Nastaga works as a volunteer for the Potrafię Pomóc Foundation. Since 24 February, the pair has been almost constantly in Ukraine to help. “And when we go back to Wrocław for a bit, we’re still there in spirit,” they say. Several days after the beginning of the Russian invasion, they were in and around Lviv transporting those fleeing the war (more than 300 people in all) to the Polish-Ukrainian border and bringing in donations by the ton. Over time, they began to bring aid to places where it was less likely to arrive — closer to the front lines. They were in Kyiv at the end of March, just when the Ukrainian military was pushing the Russians out of the region. Their destination for their latest aid trip was Chornobyl and its surroundings. Arkadiusz Podniesiński had been waiting for the moment he could deliver aid there. He has spent 15 years traveling to the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone and documenting life in the shadow of the nuclear power plant, so he knows the local residents very well. “When I came, they gave me something of themselves: their time and stories,” he says. “Now, we could return the favor.” Wrocław residents sent them dozens of tons of donations. The pair were the first foreign volunteers to arrive there since the beginning of the invasion.
CHORNOBYL AND THE SURROUNDING AREA CUT OFF FROM THE WORLD FOR MORE THAN 40 DAYS
Podniesiński says that, before the outbreak of the war, several thousand people lived in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone — an area within a 30-kilometer radius of the plant. They are mostly workers and approximately 200 samosely. This is the name given to the people who returned to their homes after the 1986 disaster and forced evacuation in defiance of the ban.
Today, the samosely are elderly and ailing. “For some of them, this is the fourth disaster they’ve lived through, says Podniesiński. “First there was the Great Famine, then World War II, then the disaster at the power plant and the evacuation, and now the Russian invasion.” They found out that it had begun sooner than most people. The Chornobyl Zone is located very near to the border with Belarus, so the rockets fired from there towards Kyiv on 24 February flew right over their huts. The Russian invaders appeared there the same day and seized the power plant. The story was picked up by media from around the world. At the end of March, they noted that the Russians had exposed themselves to radiation by digging trenches in the nearby Red Forest, one of the most contaminated areas in the world. It also made headlines when the Ukrainians pushed the orcs — as the Russian soldiers are called there — out of the area on 31 March. According to Ukrainian officials, some of them ended up in Belarusian hospitals with radiation sickness. The residents of the Zone did not know that the area was being written about in newspapers. They were cut off from the world for more than 40 days. “When we arrived, they asked where the Russians were now and basically what had happened during that time,” Podniesiński recalls. Just a few days after the Russians withdrew, he was driving a pickup truck filled with medicines and cutting a relief route to the Chornobyl Zone. Maciej Nastaga, who set off in a bus filled with humanitarian aid a few days afterwards, soon found out how difficult it was to get there.
THEFT AND SENSELESS DESTRUCTION
It took him 21 hours to cover the nearly 500 km between Lviv, where he started, and his destination of Chornobyl. “On the way, a suspension spring in the bus broke. It was evening and curfew was approaching,” says Nastaga. “I had trouble getting in touch with Arek. On top of that, the GPS was going crazy and was losing both my phone and internet signals. I kept driving until my car got so badly stuck in a peaty field a tank had to pull it out.” Soon after, just 3.5 km from his destination, the vehicle became completely stuck in the ruts carved out by tanks and military vehicles. “It was the middle of the night, and I was wondering what to do,” says Nastaga. “For a while, I wanted to go by foot, but I decided not to. I didn’t want to leave the donations in the bus, and, well, it could have been a very short trip due to the mines.” So he slept in the car. In the morning, local residents helped him get out. In addition to land mines, blown-up or mined bridges and a lot of unexplored ordinance remained after the Russian occupation. Getting to the Chornobyl area was also hampered by bad weather. Rain had made the roads muddy and sandy.
CHORNOBYL RIPPED APART BY THE RUSSIANS
The Wrocław residents also managed to get there thanks to Arkadiusz Podniesiński’s acquaintances from previous trips and the trust he had earned then. He says that the Russians did not damage the power plant itself, but they looted the Zone. “They ransacked the administrative offices, stole equipment like word processors and computer hard drives. Not a single shop was spared,” he states. “They even looted cars — they removed dashboards and wheels from them.” “Chornobyl is an empty city, ripped apart by the Russians,” adds Maciej Nastaga. “We walked through the administrative buildings, we saw how they destroyed everything that was of no value to them.”
For him, the villagers to whom they brought aid were the most important. They were thankful to see them. They prayed that the pair would stay safe and return. Maciej Nastaga remembered one woman in particular. She recounted how she collapsed in fear when she heard the planes flying over her head. She couldn’t even recall how long she lay on the cold ground. “We gave her gifts, but she asked if we happened to have any bread, since she hadn’t eaten in a long time. Arek gave her the last loaf. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so happy about bread,” says Nastaga. One of the photographs taken by Arkadiusz Podniesiński shows the woman holding the bread to her cheek.
TO THE VILLAGE OF TEREMTSI BY BOAT
“There were many more emotional scenes. People were hungry, emaciated and scared. They cried with joy and emotion that they had these basic products,” says Arkadiusz Podniesiński. In addition to his pickup and Maciej Nastaga’s bus, another truck packed with humanitarian aid also arrived in the Chornobyl Zone. The Wrocław residents spent 10 days there distributing donations to residents of the surrounding towns. They delivered several hundred kilograms of foodstuffs and household cleaning products to Chornobyl itself.
They left several dozen kilograms of food in the village of Kupovate, which is home to nine samosely. Taking aid to the village of Teremtsi required carrying out a logistically difficult operation. The bridge over the Pripyat River had been mined, so the only way to get there was to ford the river. A boat had to be found and, when that was accomplished, fuel as well. And then they had to cross 32 km of river. There are eight people living in Teremtsi. They had no contact with the world for 45 days.
FEAR FOR TOMORROW
In addition to ruins, mines and trauma, the Russian invaders left behind uncertainty about the future. There are only 20-odd kilometers between the power plant and the Belarusian border — a distance that could be covered in less than an hour. That was enough for residents to be shaken by the news that the Russians were again amassing in Belarus and might attack again imminently. The Wroclavians took this news with detachment. Everything seemed “normal” in wartime nomenclature, meaning there were just soldiers and checkpoints everywhere. But over time, they began to notice new troops, more trenches and fortifications. “One Ukrainian finally told us: ‘Today you leave.’ We argued that maybe we could leave tomorrow. He replied: “There is no tomorrow, there’s today.”, recalls Maciej Nastaga. “He knew that if the Russians came here, they wouldn’t be likely to shake our hands. And even if they spared our lives, we’d spend a lot of time there and be on other people’s minds. And we wouldn’t be able to continue helping.” There are still many villages, including ones outside the Chornobyl Zone, in need of help, they say. “These people need help, even if we have to get to them by boat.”
Karolina Kijek – Gazeta Wyborcza
Short film from humanitarian aid in Chornobyl:
Short film from humanitarian aid in Zaporizhia:
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Previous reports from Chernobyl and Fukushima:
2021 – THE SARCOPHAGUS’S LABYRINTH
2020 – LOST HERITAGE
2020 – REMNANTS OF THE CHERNOBYL DISASTER
2019 – OVER THE HORIZON
2019 – SARCOPHAGUS AND OTHER MOST RADIOACTIVE PLACES IN CHERNOBYL
2019 – FUKUSHIMA 8 YEARS ON
2017 – ZAPOVEDNIK – BELARUSIAN EXCLUSION ZONE
2016 – FUKUSHIMA: A SECOND CHERNOBYL?
2015 – FUKUSHIMA
2015 – THE ZONE IN 4K II
2015 – WINTER IN THE ZONE
2014 – THE ZONE IN 4K
2014 – OFF THE BEATEN TRACK 2
2013 – OFF THE BEATEN TRACK 1
2013 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 2 – BEHIND THE SCENES
2013 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 2 – PREMIERE
2013 – LONG WEEKEND IN THE ZONE
2012 – HEROES OF A NON-EXISTANT COUNTRY
2011 – REACTOR 4
2011 – LITTLE REACTORS
2011 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1 BEHIND THE SCENES
2011 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1 – FILM
2010 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1
2010 – VICTORY DAY
2010 – CHERNOBYL 3RD EXPEDITION
2009 – CHERNOBYL 2ND EXPEDITION
2008 – CHERNOBYL 1ST EXPEDITION