A city without people

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The checkpoint

A gentle summer wind brushes through the trees in the country side of Ukraine.  Fields glow in a gold tone like in any other country side. Looking at the traditional landscape from the window of our van, speeding along the bumpy road, it’s hard to believe we’re only few kilometers from the infamous power plant of Chernobyl. Few kilometers further from the plant is the city that housed the workers and their families, Pripyat.

A guard in camouflage gives back our passports and signs us to keep moving.  We’ve passed the first of three checkpoints. A pack of wild boars make their way into the bushed across the long road leading into the area. – The government doesn’t want people to return, says our guide Natasha. – That’s why most of the houses in the quarantine zone have been bulldozed. A group of couple of hundred has still returned to their home town. People didn’t want to leave, no matter what.

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The plant

A view like any other

Don’t step on the grass, don’t pick up anything from the ground, don’t sit down – Natasha goes over the safety regulations before we continue to the plant. We are joined by another guide, Sergei who knows the area and Pripyat, his former home town. We sign the release forms. From now on we eat fruits from the area at our own risk.

On the other side of the lake that holds the cooling water for the plant is a construction site left unfinished, surrounded by rusty cranes. Additional reactors were supposed to be built here.

Workers are mowing the lawn and trimming the bushes in the front yard of the plant. The view is something out of an old photo and stunningly normal. Only the statue erected in front of the plant reminds of the history.

As just to be sure we get enough radiation we move closer to the plant. Sergei checks the reading on the meter 400 meters from the reactor. Radiation is now dozens of times higher than in an average city.

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The bridge

Citizens: zero

We’re driving over a rusty bridge into Pripyat. Street lamp posts stand on the bridge, the lamps themselves have gone along with someone looking to make a profit.

Pripyat was an exclusive city of the future. It had the cutting edge of everything, only people who were thoroughly screened were given the privilege to live in the modern paradise of a working man. The city was to be showcased to the rest of the world as a sign of communist progress.

The run down swimming hall of Pripyat stands in the middle of a thick bush. Apparently the safety regulations were only for the grass because we follow Natasha and dive into the bush towards the entrance. There’s plastic carpet on the stairs and floors. – This carpet protected against the radiation so people could use this hall after the incident. – At least this is what they believed. The city wasn’t evacuated until two days after the accident, Natasha explains.

Once outside, Sergei sets the meter on a piece of moss – absorbent moss is one of the most polluted materials in the city, says Sergei.  – It really took in the radiation.

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The square

Hammer on the skyline

Plaster fallen from the walls crumbles beneath my feet as we make our way to the lobby of hotel Polissya. On one wall of the empty corridor is a graffiti of children playing. Everything imaginable has been stolen and there was plenty to steal as well. – They’ve left in a hurry says Natasha. Thieves took everything from sofas to window glasses after the evacuation, paying no attention to radiation. The banquet hall that once entertained the elite of the Soviet Union visiting the city of the future is covered in dust.

The elevator seems to be out of order so we head to the stairs.  From the roof terrace opens an amazing view over the city and to the main square. The culture center that upheld the city’s communist spirit stands on one side of the square. The rusty sign with a hammer and sickle on the roof of the building catches my eye. The line of concrete houses that were to be the future of practical and equal worker housing continues behind the trees. The sun does its best but the city stays grey and dead silent.

Distance from here to the plant is four kilometers. A silhouette of the plant can be seen in the horizon. Trees grow on the roofs and plants have taken over the main square. You could spend days exploring this city that once housed 50 000 citizens, but we have to move on.

Our driver hurries us to move along and we leave the ghost town. We make our way back from the city through radiation scanners. The old meter looks like something out of the original star trek series. The machine gives me an assuring green light, I get to keep my shoes that went slightly over the moss.

The former city of the future stays behind to live its life together with nature.

More pictures


Fashion for Stasi agents

German artist Simon Menner came across these pictures while going through the archives of Stasi. These pictures were used to train the spies to blend in to the west better. Rather than making the spies look like your average west german they stood out even better in their fur hats and sunglasses. Morgen Contemporary gallery in Berlin is hosting a exhibition that includes the spy fashion shots as well as snapshots agents took before searching houses so they could put everything back as it was.

Check out the full story at Daily Mail


Enter North Korea – through an iPhone app

Photographer Eric Lafforgue has visited the DPRK four times since 2008 and now holds a collection of some 1 000 amazing photographs.  These photos ranging from culture to scenes and beyond are now available in his free Fotopedia iPhone app. You can also share the photos on Facebook or set them as background right from the app.

More about the app at Fotopedia.com


North Korea recruits hackers

North Korea is continuing to build up its army of cyberwarriors. The military is now recruiting new talent from schools and looking for prodigies that could be further trained to wage an electronic war against enemy states. In recent years North Korea has boosted its cyberwarrior army from some 500 soldiers to 3000, some of them deployed overseas.

North Korean defector Kim Heung-kwang who used to be a professor of computer science in the north reveals to Al Jazeera how the plan for a cyberarmy is coming along. “There is a pyramid-like prodigy recruiting system, where smart kids from all over the country – students who are good at math, coding and possess top analytical skills – are picked up” Kim said.

What seems surprising is that North Korea has hackers deployed all over the world, even Europe. According to Jang Se-yul who served as a hacker there are 600 hackers in two teams of 300 working abroad.

“They rotate once every year or two and those who return to North Korea continue on as researchers. It’s difficult to know the exact level of their technological skills, but according to a source, Kim Jong-il is investing hefty sums of money to prepare for cyberwarfare at any cost. He is investing nationally to nurture the best of the best. Whenever a new programme is released, he makes sure to buy it for the hackers to be able to study it.” Jang told.

North Korea is looking into modern ways of warfare because keeping up with western countries in an old-fashioned arms race is just too expensive. With the hundreds of millions they would have to spend on fighter jets or guns they can do much more damage online by training hackers. By giving them and their families a nice place to live in the capital and a change to work abroad while being part of the elite keeps most of them from defecting. To them there are no guarantees that the grass would be greener on the other side.

Read the full story at Al Jazeera


Smuggled footage from North Korea reveals the extent of food shortages

This video shot in North Korea over several months by an undercover reporter gives a glimpse into the real state of this malnourished country. The video shows homeless kids covered in filth begging for food and soldiers going around demanding bribes. Even the military that was long untouched by the shortages seems to be going hungry.

The state has been for long unable to provide food through the official distribution system and black markets are booming, not so secretly anymore either. The military has always been the cornerstone of Kim Jong-Il’s power and if the military starts to grow unhappy, hard times are in store for the Kim family. Especially for the new young 27 or 28 year-old dictator to be Kim Jong-Un.

See the video at abc.net.au


The Elders in North Korea

President Carter of The Elders visiting a group of students at Pyongyang’s Foreign Language University

An independent group of former heads of states known as the Elders visited North and South Korea in April on a mission to ease tension between the two nations. The Elders have now released photos and videos from their trip.

Let’s hope the efforts of The Elders will help all parties to find a diplomatic resolution to ease the tension.

See the rest of the pictures and read the blogs at TheElders.org


Recommended reading – Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick is an excellent book that covers the lives of six ordinary North Korean citizens and their families. From lovers in a forbidden relationship to a factory worker who worships Kim Il Sung.

Demick follows their lives in a world that gets worse every day after the club of communist countries came crashing down following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The author Barbara Demick is an American journalist who interviewed defected North Koreans while stationed in Seoul. She has done an amazing job gathering these stories into one wonderful book. The kind of overview she is able to create of everyday life in a country where radios are prefixed to one channel is one of a kind.

The book is nicely divided into different sections telling the story of the country and giving the reader an insight into its history while telling the stories of the six main characters at the same time.

Her style of writing combined with touching stories of everyday North Koreans trying to survive inside a system where the big brother watches you everywhere results into an excellent read.

I love the kinds of books that you can’t put down and that make you feel like you’re actually there. This achieved both.

Get your copy from e.g. Play.com