The full article was published on The Calvert Journal in January 2019

In the shadows of the tourist boom in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are the ‘stalkers’; Young Ukrainian men, now offering an illegal alternative to the theatre of the official tours.

I can feel the undergrowth digging into my legs as the two of us hide among the trees in anxious silence. The darkness is so absolute I feel entombed within it. It’s been seven hours since my last drink. Kirill, our guide, left to get water with the others, but they haven’t returned; after hearing a barking dog in the distance, we fear they’ve been caught.

We entered the 2,600-square kilometre Chernobyl Exclusion Zone illegally last night. Without Kirill, we are lost, somewhere in a forest, with no water, no map, and no plan.

Well, it would be a dark and solemn reminder if it had not been turned into a paintballing arena. This being Colombia, once the tour of the main mansion is completed, it is time to suit up and head to the series of annexes close by for some good old ‘capture the flag’, or in this case ‘capture the coke’.

In recent years, the Zone, a highly restricted area in northern Ukraine that surrounds the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, has become a tourist hotspot. Each morning, tour buses queue at the entry checkpoint where a souvenir shop plastered with nuclear warning symbols peddles neon keyrings and radiation suits. The guides’ t-shirts read: “Follow me and you will survive”. In fact, the dangers are minimal. Along their tightly demarcated routes, these visitors will be exposed to less radiation than during a routine x-ray.

Beyond youthful rebellion, the motivations of the modern stalkers are complex, and speak to the national trauma that resulted from a tragedy whose effects will be felt for generations. And now there is another side to the practice. Enterprising stalkers have started offering their own “illegal tours” to travellers seeking a less restricted (and therefore more dangerous) experience of the Exclusion Zone. I joined one such tour in an effort to discover why visitors might chose a stalker over an official guide. Can a subculture that is so tied to deep wells of personal and national loss really offer something of value to an outsider?

Accompanying me on my journey into the Zone are two Americans, Bradley Garrett and Steve Doe (not his real name), and a Brit, Darmon Richter. Garrett and Richter are renowned urban explorers; the former’s passion for adventure has earned him a PhD, a column for The Guardian, and criminal convictions in four countries, while the latter himself runs tours of post-socialist ruins. We meet in a bar, awaiting our stalker, Kirill Stepanets. Having first visited Chernobyl at the age of 21, Kirill has completed over 100 illegal trips to the Zone. When he arrives, he is tall and fair, with long stubble and a round face. His frameless glasses bounce in unison with jovial, shifting facial expressions. He is not the stoic, battle-scarred individual I had pictured.

Before long, we are driving through a town close to the Zone’s perimeter. “They will bring us here if we get caught,” Kirill jokes, doing little to calm my nerves. Nobody knows the exact implications of getting caught for a foreigner; the least we can expect is a jail cell.

Read the full article on The Calvert Journal