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Ukraine: Target practice at Chernobyl

Mykola Berdnyk
August 1, 2019

In the course of filming in Pripyat, DW reporters learned that the Ukrainian national guard holds target practice in the radioactively contaminated city. Why there, and how dangerous is it?

An aerial shot of the abandoned Ukrainian city of Pripyat, with the Chernobyl nuclear power plant visible in the background
Image: DW/F. Warwick

"Those come from the military training exercises," a tour guide tells visitors from Germany and Canada wondering about the bullet holes inside a cafe in Pripyat. That's true for bullet holes in buildings across the entire abandoned city. They are due to military target practice, not adventurers hunting for mutants and zombies, as the tourists might think.

Read more: Visiting Chernobyl more powerful than Instagram hype

Little is known in Ukraine about the troop training sessions that take place near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986. References to the exercises from "stalkers," as the illegal visitors to the restricted Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are called, can be found online. In late January last year, Yaroslav Yemelyanko, the head of Chernobyl Tours, complained in a Facebook post that "they will shoot again." The city of Pripyat, he said, was shut down without notice, and "tourists are not allowed to visit even if they have already paid for it."

Tourist photographing a building in Pripyat
Many tourists travel to Pripyat to photograph a city suddenly abandoned more than 30 years agoImage: DW/D. Katkow

Interior Ministry plan

There is no mention of the exercises on the websites for the National Guard of Ukraine or the Interior Ministry. The state company responsible for allowing tourists into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone posted an online announcement that Pripyat would be closed to visitors on May 30. DW has learned that the national guard held exercises there that day.

The national guard did not reveal the date of their last training exercise in the exclusion zone. However, an official did tell DW that members of the national guard occasionally train in Pripyat with the approval of the authorities that manage the exclusion zone, and as part of the "plan of small steps" Interior Minister Arsen Avakov developed for the "de-occupation" of the Donbass. The war-torn region in eastern Ukraine has been under the control of pro-Russian separatists for five years.

Read more: 'Chernobyl' creator asks tourists to show respect at disaster site

Avakov presented the plan last summer as an alternative to the Minsk peace agreement, which he believes has been "exhausted." Mediated by Germany and France, the Minsk Agreement was reached in 2015 with the participation of Ukraine and Russia. The deal was aimed at curbing the fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.

A mural with bullet holes in Pripyat
Bullet holes, the result of military training exercises, can be found throughout PripyatImage: DW/D. Katkow

Risky for soldiers and tourists

Soldiers training in Pripyat follow safety regulations and check their equipment for radioactive contamination, the National Guard of Ukraine told DW.

But Taras Chmut, head of the Ukrainian Military Center nongovernmental organization, believes the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is not a safe military training area. The buildings are in danger of collapsing and the soldiers could be injured, he said. While such exercises should of course ideally take place under the most realistic combat conditions possible, they should not endanger the lives of the military, Chmut added, stressing the fact that the area remains radioactively contaminated.

Read more: Moscow residents fight back against 'second Chernobyl'

The military exercises could also pose a danger to the people who illegally enter the restricted area looking for an adventure. Buildings are searched and warnings issued via loudspeakers a day before the exercise, according to the national guard — but it is doubtful that every home in a city that once housed 50,000 people can be inspected. It is also unclear whether the warnings are heeded.

A large hole from a projectile in a wall in Pripyat
Despite official statements to the contrary, it seems not all projectiles hit pre-planned targets in PripyatImage: DW/D. Katkow

Chernobyl: A UNESCO World Heritage site?

The national guard told DW there is no cause for concern, saying: "Measures are being taken in the city to prevent the destruction of buildings, and projectiles are only fired at previously prepared targets, for instance into sandbags." The many bullet holes in buildings show, however, that this is not always the case.

Tourists see the bullet holes in the windows, said Chernobyl Tours employee Serhij Myrnyj, calling it sheer "vandalism." On Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's website, he has initiated a petition aimed at putting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Oleksandr Syrota, a Ukrainian researcher and activist, has warned that even if Pripyat becomes a UNESCO World Heritage site, turning the city into a museum is out of the question as long as central buildings are being shot at.