Chernobyl once brought tourists to Ukraine. They’re still coming but now to see scars of different terror

Damond Isiaka
16 Min Read


CNN
 — 

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, visitors from abroad frequently travelled to see Chernobyl, the nuclear power station that disastrously went into meltdown in 1986.

After the release of the HBO series “Chernobyl” in 2019, record numbers of visitors poured into the exclusion zone around the abandoned city of Pripyat, which housed the plant’s workers, according to official numbers.

Back then, President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree to pave the way for more tourists. New land, water and air routes were planned. Museums were being developed. A new modern hotel was on its way. Up to one million tourists a year were expected by 2025.

Then the war started and everything changed.

Russia attacked and Chernobyl, for a while, became the frontline as Russian troops occupied the exclusion zone, destroyed infrastructure and dug trenches in the radioactive dirt of the infamous Red Forest where dying trees turned the color of rust after being contaminated by fallout.

The area is now de-occupied but active fighting continues along the frontlines. For the most part, only official delegations and military personnel currently have access to the exclusion zone.

But even as fighting rages in the south, east and north of Ukraine, travellers are still heading to the country, drawn by scars from the ravages of war that are still fresh.

In Horenka, a suburb northwest of Kyiv, gray apartment buildings stand deserted and broken windows and damage from Russian shells are a common sight – a legacy of some of the worst Russian atrocities during the early days of the war.

Coming to the area was once unthinkable. But it has now become one of the stops of tours through the towns in Kyiv region that show visitors the devastation and the horrors of war, as they learn more about what happened here from those still living through it.

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“We were very much against such tours in the first months of the de-occupation, in the first year of the de-occupation,” said Mariana Oleskiv, head of Ukraine’s State Agency for Tourism Development. “It was a rather traumatic experience for all the residents.”

“But now we are already seeing a significant change. People are ready for the world to know about the heroism of Ukrainians, on the one hand, and the crimes of the Russians, on the other,” she said.

Among those who have gone on such tours are members of international organizations, volunteers, diplomats, people involved in reconstruction efforts and anyone who wants to witness what unfolded here.

Jean-Baptiste Laborde, a French student from Bordeaux, is also following the route. He’s accompanied by Svitozar Moiseiv, a guide and co-founder of a travel company behind some of the tours.

“I’ve been following events since the war began,” Laborde said. “So I wanted to see for myself what happened there, the destructions, the Russian occupation.”

The journey begins

Horenka resident Ivan Bilotserkivets explains how his town was shelled in the first days of the invasion as Russia attacked Kyiv.

Laborde and Moiseiv start their tour in Horenka. Standing not too far from one of the dilapidated apartment buildings, its entrance covered in red tape, its yard being inspected by a demining team and its innards exposed by bombardment, Moiseiv tells how Russian soldiers arrived here on February 24, 2022, and moved on to the big cities, including the capital.

He describes what happened in the nearby villages of Horenka, Bucha, Irpin and Borodianka.

The story is suddenly interrupted by a resident who hid in the basement of the building in the early days of the war. Ivan Bilotserkivets’ apartment was destroyed but he and all his neighbors were unharmed.

The pensioner recounts how they watched Russian helicopters attempting to land at Hostomel airport, just a few kilometers away. He says locals were sure the violence would end in a few days. But the reality is that the full-scale war is now well into its third year.

“In general, I have a positive view of the fact that people from all over the world come to see our house and the consequences of the war,” Bilotserkivets says. “It affects their perception of the war when people see the destruction with their own eyes.”

From his pocket, he pulls out a drone photo of his home taken just days after it was hit and shows it to Moiseiv and Laborde.

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“It is painful when you have worked all your life and done everything in your apartment, and now there are only ashes left,” he says. “All our belongings were destroyed in one blow.”

Bilotserkivets says he has spoken with many of the visitors. “They come and ask: tell me what happened here and how. Of course, I share our experience. There were people from the United States, Brazil, Portugal, from many countries.”

For the locals, the most urgent issue is the restoration of their homes. Hopes of which were raised – then dashed – when world-famous graffiti artist Banksy arrived to paint a mural on one of the walls.

“Banksy came here several times, and we served him borsch and donuts,” Bilotserkivets says. “We thought that this would somehow contribute to faster reconstruction. But because of his drawings, the opposite happened. Now we are waiting for a decision on what to do with them, whether they will be dismantled.”

The reconstruction can’t start before that decision is made, he said.

‘Endless cemetery’

A few hundred meters away is another location of the tour, which links the history of Kyiv’s defence against the Nazi army during World War II and the story of a Ukrainian family’s survival during the Russian invasion in 2022. Moiseiv shows Laborde a section of a concrete fortification that was part of the Soviet army’s defences in the 1940s.

Almost 80 years later, the crude concrete structure became a shelter for a family for two weeks during heavy shelling when they would only break cover to run back to their house for food, water or candles. Laborde enters the fortifications to experience the conditions in which the family lived.

Guide Svitozar Moiseiv and tourist Jean-Baptiste Laborde inside a building that was part of a Soviet army defense fortification during World War II and later became a shelter where a family from the Kyiv suburbs hid from Russian shelling.

Moiseiv tells Laborde what happened in each of the settlements, how the landscape affected the Russian offensive. The Ukrainian army blew up bridges to stop the Russian advance, he explains, but that made it difficult for people to evacuate quickly as the invading army approached.

“Frankly speaking, it is extremely unpleasant and difficult for me to actually be here every time I come here. Because, relatively speaking, we are moving through an endless cemetery,” Moiseiv says.

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“Now we are driving along Yablunska Street, where more than 70 civilians were killed. We will stop at the memorial to the shooting of young men. From a psychological point of view, this is a difficult process,” he says as the tour reaches Bucha, a town that has come to symbolize Russian atrocities around Kyiv.

Moiseiv says he tries to show human suffering in a personalized way on his tours – damaged houses, holes in the fences of residents. “We know their names and we know what they did during the hostilities.”

“Such tours are especially needed so that Europe and the whole world can help us more now, so that we can survive this cruel and absolutely inhuman struggle,” he says.

Among the locations of the tour is also the Church of St Andrew in Bucha, where more than 100 bodies of civilians were buried in a single mass grave and then exhumed after the liberation of the town. Now there is a memorial at the gravesite. There are fresh flowers near some of the names, as relatives of the victims come to honor the memory of their loved ones. Laborde stops to read the names.

Immersive tour

Yulia Bevzenko has also been conducting tours in Kyiv for Ukrainians and foreigners for 10 years. Among her clients since the war began have been famous film stars and directors, politicians, foreign ambassadors and volunteers. She developed her “Kyiv is not Kiev” route to show how the capital lives during the war.

“The tour is not about entertainment, it is an immersive tour,” she said. “We are not trying to distract their attention from the war. We are trying to immerse them in it.”

Before the start of the war Bevzenko ran about four tours for visitors per week. In 2022, she gave four or five tours in English during the entire year, and the guests were not tourists in the true sense of the word.

Austrian volunteer Petra Schröckeneder listening to guide Yulia Bevzenko during a tour of Kyiv's city center.

“My clients during the war, a full-scale war, were people who cannot be called tourists now, because they are representatives of companies that come to help Ukraine, they come here for different reasons,” she said.

Moiseiv, the tour guide travelling with the French student, also said pure tourism was almost non-existent after the start of the war, but in 2023 about 100 people visited Bucha with him. Oleskiv, Head of the State Agency for Tourism Development, said too “that tourism for classical purposes” is very rare.

The Wall of Remembrance of the Fallen for Ukraine in central Kyiv, which bears the photographs of soldiers killed in the conflict.

Bevzenko says visiting Bucha and Irpin is an emotional but also educational experience – for both foreigners and Ukrainians. “These are not excursions,” she says. The information needs to be presented carefully, accurately and “with respect, with honor, with an understanding that there is a war going on.”

Visitors in Kyiv see the National Guard and military personnel in the streets. Bevzenko takes them to a wall with thousands of photos of fallen soldiers. She shows them the city’s largest medical hub.

Petra Schröckeneder, a volunteer from Austria who has been helping house Ukrainians in her home city of Salzburg since the first days of the invasion, went on one of Bevzenko’s tours.

“Now I can really understand the pain Ukrainians have every day in their life and how strong they are as a nation,” she says. Some of the locations that touched her the most were the destroyed Irpin bridge, around which people tried to escape to Kyiv from occupied towns like Bucha. Some were shot by the Russians. She also saw graves and the destroyed houses in Bucha.

“Hearing about it and seeing it are very different things,” said Schröckeneder, who hosted Ukrainian children who had trouble reaching their parents still in the midst of conflict. “I saw the pain,” she said. “But if you see it yourself, I cannot describe how different it is.”

A wall of remembrance at a church in Irpin.

“My mind could not process how many people already died fighting this war,” Schröckeneder said. “Ukraine is still protecting Europe with being so strong. And I think it’s very important for other people from Europe to see this.”

While many countries, including the US, currently warn against all travel to Ukraine, it seems that a willingness to discover the realities of the conflict, continues to draw visitors across its borders.

And with an eye on a post-war future, Mariana Oleskiv, the head of the State Agency for Tourism Development, says she hopes travelers will one day be able to return to Chernobyl. But, she adds, Ukraine’s recent experiences of conflict must remain at the heart of any travel experience.

“It will also contain a part of the new history, including the defense of the Kyiv region, the trenches that (the Russians) dug in the ground contaminated with radiation.”

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