Dispatches from a travel-obsessed writer and editor.
Monday, 4 July 2011
Gone fission: the giant catfish of Chernobyl
I was half-expecting to see the three-eyed fish from The Simpsons when we approached the River Prypiat flowing through Chernobyl, Ukraine. You could hardly be blamed for imagining that wildlife in the shadow of the sarcophagus, the huge concrete structure enclosing the nuclear waste of the 1986 disaster, might have suffered some graphic mutations. But the only unusual thing about the catfish was their enormous size. Watching them thrash around in the water, in the spring sunshine, felt like being on a day trip to the zoo rather than the world’s most famous fall-out zone.
Many column inches have been spent debating “disaster tourism”, the practice of visiting the sites of terrible past events, like Chernobyl. There is an uncomfortable line between sincere respects paid to a dark moment in history, and clumsily clicking a camera at infamous sights like the Auschwitz museum’s room full of hair. The pull to confront the sites of man’s greatest inhumanity is usually coupled with the dilemma of visitor etiquette. Does it cheapen the victims’ memory to photograph the Nazi gas chambers? Is treading the bone-studded soil of Choeung Ek a step too far? Sometimes the atrocities are so geographically removed from your own experience that you wonder uneasily whether commemorating these events falls under the important banner of “Never forget”, or is sheer indulgence in a sorrow not your own.
The Chernobyl fall-out zone, the area evacuated and largely left fallow after the nuclear accident, has largely been preserved from rubber-necking. Fenced off from the public since the area was evacuated, the town of Prypiat and the surrounding countryside have been left to grow wild. The Ukrainian government announced late last year that they were opening up the area to tourism, but guides have been taking curious travellers on fiercely controlled tours through the fall-out zone for years, usually arranged through hostels like this one in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
The surprise to me was that Prypiat wasn't a dead town, but a living museum surrounded by greenery, flowers and fish. While the countryside has remained undisturbed since the accident, claims that this area’s freedom from human influence has created a wildlife sanctuary have been strongly contested. We may not get a full picture of the effect on local wildlife for many years to come, but it's certain that tour guides will praise it as a nature reserve, while encouraging you to feed the fish.
Which brings us to why the catfish are so big. Much as we'd like to imagine they've gained superpowers from the reactor, the prosaic explanation is overfeeding by visitors, and by the workers who commute into the highly guarded zone to work on fully decommissioning the plant. Workers on their lunchbreaks throwing crumbs to catfish on a sunlit riverbank is hardly the image we get from the word "Chernobyl" but perhaps it's time to strip away the gothic menace and see both light and dark, tragic and flourishing, concrete and catfish.