PRIPYAT, Soviet Union — This abandoned city, which once counted 50,000 inhabitants, is the first nuclear ghost town, a silent monument to the catastrophe at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
More than a year after the world's worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl's No. 4 reactor, empty high-rise apartment buildings and deserted streets give mute evidence of the dangers of radiation.
Garments still hang from clotheslines and children's dolls peer out of kindergarten windows, testifying to the haste that followed orders to evacuate Pripyat's residents after the explosion and fire at Chernobyl.
Nearby, evergreen trees have lost their needles to the lethal radioactivity and stand as brown, skeletal reminders of the tragedy.
Cars Slowly Rusting
Hundreds of cars and motorcycles, contaminated by the fallout, were left behind by their owners and remain parked in fenced-off parking lots while they slowly rust.
Special permission is now required to go beyond police barricades that block access to Pripyat for motorists and pedestrians alike.
Pripyat, once the bedroom community for workers at the Chernobyl plant, is still too "hot"--too radioactive--for people to live there.
Its topsoil has been scraped off by bulldozers and replaced with sand from distant locations. Streets are continually washed with water to reduce radioactive dust. Workers in brown coveralls and white face masks occasionally can be seen on the streets as they perform essential tasks.
Although two of the reactors at the nuclear power station three miles away resumed operations with a full staff last October, there is little prospect that Pripyat will come to life again in the near future.
The workers at the plant are now bused more than an hour each way to and from the plant so they can avoid the higher-than-normal radiation levels in the area. They work for 15 days and then have 15 days off, outside the so-called danger zone, encompassing the area within a 30-kilometer radius of the stricken reactor.
"For now, it's not possible to clean out this place (Pripyat) so people can live here," said Alexander Kovalenko, a spokesman for the Chernobyl Kombinat, a Soviet organization set up to cope with the consequences of the disaster.
"We are going building by building, however, and it's getting cleaner all the time," Kovalenko told foreign correspondents visiting Pripyat and Chernobyl. "We are going to use this city in the future"--but he could not say when.
Controversy still exists over the handling of the evacuation of the city's 50,000 residents after the explosion at 1:23 a.m. April 26, 1986. On the first day after the blast, which led to the deaths of 31 people and sent an enormous radioactive cloud into the atmosphere, officials evacuated no one. Only a few panicky people, aware of the danger, fled in their personal cars.
Kovalenko said there was no danger to the residents of Pripyat on that first day because radiation levels had not yet increased dangerously. Western experts have said they find this hard to believe.
At any rate, the evacuation was started the following day, April 27, and was completed within three hours. A fleet of 1,200 buses came and took the residents to temporary shelters near Kiev, 60 miles to the south. Evacuees were allowed to take a few of their personal belongings, but their dogs, cats and pet birds were left behind on government orders.
Western observers said that a soccer game was played the day of the accident, exposing players and spectators to dangerous fallout. Soviet officials, however, have said that a check of nearly 250,000 people from Pripyat and surrounding areas failed to turn up a single case of radiation sickness, indicating that the evacuation was completed in time.
A new Soviet play about the Chernobyl disaster, however, is critical of the delay in evacuating Pripyat.
One of the characters in the play, talking with a prosecutor, is astonished to learn that the evacuation did not occur until 36 hours after the explosion and fire.
"Why didn't they immediately broadcast it on radio?" the character inquires. "It would take just one hour for everyone to leave the city on foot."
"They waited for the arrival of the government commission," he is told in the play. "No one (in Pripyat) had the courage."
A formal document put out by the Soviet Foreign Ministry, however, ignores the controversy. It merely reports that 92,000 people were evacuated in 70 population centers in the Ukraine, plus an estimated 43,000 from parts of neighboring Byelorussia.
With unprecedented speed, more than 8,700 homes were built and 8,000 apartments were provided for evacuees, the document reports, adding: "Chernobyl came to symbolize the victory of Soviet man over the calamity."
Meantime, residents of a resettlement village near Kiev told visiting correspondents they were satisfied with their accommodations but wanted to return to their homes about a mile from Chernobyl.
Twenty people recently went to the village, Zalesce, to attend the funeral of a man who wanted to be buried in his now-abandoned village.
"Oh, my God, I want to go home. It's so beautiful there," said an elderly woman sunning herself in the newly built village of Vizhavka.
Vladimir I. Chekovsky, 29, said that he, his wife and two children received a new home and compensation of 10,000 rubles (about $16,000 at the official exchange rate) to offset the loss of their belongings and their former home.
"Everyone wants to be back home," he said. "That money is almost gone by now because you have to buy furniture, clothing, television sets, everything."
Soviet officials said that residents already have been returned to two villages and that 22 other villages are ready for reoccupancy.