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‘They breathed radioactive dust for a month’ The mayor of Chernobyl’s satellite town describes life under Russian occupation
Slavutych is one of the youngest towns in Ukraine. It was purpose-built 35 years ago in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, to provide a new home for the nuclear power plant’s employees and their families. In the early days of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces occupied the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, using it as a bridgehead for an advance on Kyiv. Slavutych, located 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and home to 25,000 people, found itself isolated. Nevertheless, the Russian troops who entered the town were met with civil resistance, with local residents staging a mass protest. After Russian forces retreated from the Kyiv region in early April, Slavutych came back under Ukrainian control. Speaking to Mediazona, Slavutych Mayor Yuri Fomichev described the month his town spent under Russian occupation. Meduza has translated the most striking excerpts from his account here.
On the Russian invasion
I think we were just a blank spot in the occupied territory, they just needed to show that they had been here. Perhaps there were future plans for a change of power, because [people from] many Soviet republics built the town and we have a lot of Russian speakers here. I think they were counting on there being some kind of support here, apparently because [they thought] the town must be well-disposed towards Russia. But this no longer works, it hasn’t worked since the first day of the invasion. We weren’t expecting it at all. We understood that maybe there would be some kind of expansion of territory through the DNR and LNR [the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics], but that this would be an invasion across the entire territory of Ukraine… The fact that they would bomb Chernihiv, which is next to us! This was a shock for everyone, it’s an emotion for the ages.
On the defense of Slavutych
The only thing we set for ourselves [was] that we would hold the defense outside the town. We aren’t taking cover behind civilians, we aren’t going into residential areas. We don’t have the Ukrainian Armed Forces here, that is, we defend ourselves exclusively with the forces of those people who took up arms here, in the town.
We held the defense for two days, and once we were cornered close to a residential area we decided that the civilians must not be bombed. Helping us with heavy equipment, some kind of weapon, was also impossible, we [had been] in occupied territory for a long time already. So we agreed that the territorial defense should leave, relocate to another region, and now they are continuing to help the armed forces.
The first [Ukrainians] died in town during those two days that we held the defense. We buried them after the rally. The four dead were participants in the territorial defense.
On the protest rally
We, the local authorities, decided that on the morning of March 26, we would lead people in a peaceful rally, demonstrating that there are no soldiers here, that they [the Russian troops] are fighting against civilians, with those who maintain the Chernobyl power station and those who eliminated the consequences of the nuclear tragedy and saved them, too. Three days beforehand, we had received an ultimatum from the occupiers: do not resist [and] we’ll enter the town and not harm anyone.
I’m proud of my town, I’m proud of my people, because there were thousands and thousands of people. Even for me it was unexpected, I thought that people would be afraid to go out and protest against weapons, against tanks and APCs [armored personnel carriers], but they weren’t afraid. And thanks to this, we kept the remaining soldiers from entering the town. They set up camp outside the town in the forest. They stayed there for two days, after that they went somewhere else.
There was a man very seriously wounded from the rally: flash-bang grenades were used there and he was hit in the head with a fragment. He’s in the hospital in bad condition. There was another woman injured, but it wasn’t as serious. [Flash-bang grenades were used] when people gathered on the main square and started to move towards the road where [military vehicles] had pulled up, in order to stop them. But people weren’t even afraid of this, it impressed me and, I think, many people: that all these grenades, all these shots in the air, the tear gas, didn’t stop people at all. No one ran away, they all continued to move, crowding out the equipment, screaming: “Leave, you aren’t needed here!”.
Remarkably, a priest from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate ran right out at the rally with a large wooden cross, driving out the occupiers with his cries: “Take off your crosses, because you are atheists, you are not Christians!”. It was so emotional that it surely inspired everyone. The Russian soldiers were discouraged that a priest was coming at them, and then we told them: “Keep in mind, this is the Moscow Patriarchate” — and they were just shocked.
On the seizure of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
The Russian Armed Forces really weren’t the brightest there — going to Chernobyl and deciding that this was the best “green corridor” for an invasion of Kyiv! Well, there will be very severe consequences, the Chernobyl zone doesn’t forgive such things. This really was a comfortable military route for them. But the Chernobyl zone requires specific behavior. You can’t drive heavy equipment [through] there, stirring up dust and breathing it. That’s what they did — they breathed this radioactive dust for a month.
It’s one thing when you’re [exposed to] external radiation. [When] there’s a source of radiation, you’re exposed, you leave, and then the body copes with it. When you’ve inhaled radioactive dust it’s a completely different story. Today, there’s even a saying that’s caught on here — I’ve adopted it myself: Russian troops left Chernobyl, but Chernobyl will never leave them. They’ve given their own soldiers a kiss of death. The Russian military’s casualties from this war will increase many times over after Chernobyl, without explosions — that’s a fact. And these will be slow casualties, there will be casualties for several more years. This is the science of cancer, it’s a terrible disease.
On being abducted
On the day of the rally, I was sort of abducted, but it wasn’t on purpose. In the morning I was driving from the suburbs, and I was ambushed, like many other people. We were stopped, searched, our cell phones were taken away, our hands were tied behind our backs, and we were taken to the woods, where other people were already standing and waiting for some orders. After they looked through my phone — there were various recordings and they provoked questions from the Russian soldiers — I said: “I’m the mayor of the town, call your commander.”
He [the commander] said: “Well we already asked for [you] to surrender.” I said to him: “Well look, we definitely couldn’t surrender, my soldiers are the same as yours, this is the territorial defense [forces], this is the police, it’s a matter of honor for them. But we aren’t fighting in the town, we aren’t hiding behind civilians, and there’s going to be a peaceful rally there now.” “No there’s not, we know there are people with weapons among the civilians, and they will shoot at us,” he said. I said: “Okay then, let’s go, I’ll go out and they’ll shoot me first, if you’re afraid. If shooting starts, [shoot] me along with everyone else.” I drove into town in a Russian “Tigr” — an armored car — along with the commander.
On life after the occupation
Right now we still have a curfew, we patrol the town, we make sure there’s no looting. We’re still cut off from the main road, they’re still bombing Chernihiv, we deliver small quantities of food exclusively via trails through the forest. But we’re trying to provide for the population. We introduced a rationing system for bread: every three days each person can receive at least a small bun. We bring in the grain ourselves, grind it into flour, and bake bread from it — [we’re] such an autonomous community. We’re already trying to bring back life in the town, we’re launching online education for our school children. We’re trying to get businesses working again, where possible.
We have a local television studio, we record a [video address] called “the daily recap from the mayor.” I try to go live at five o’clock in order to tell the townspeople a bit about what is happening, what the plans are for the next day, what needs to be done, where to come. [About] humanitarian aid and some other issues.
Translation by Eilish Hart
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