Southern Reclamation Zone (SRZ) is the southernmost region of the Baltic Union encompassing most of Southern Lithuania. An extension of the Kaliningrad Radland, it is sparsely inhabited due to heavy and persistent radioactive and chemical contamination.
When the nuclear exchange of 2054 commenced, Southern Lithuania with its Suwalki Corridor and the adjacent Kaliningrad Oblast were among the first to be hit due the heavy concentration of military targets. The entire Kaliningrad Oblast was, at the onset of the war, little more than a massive military staging ground, containing a major Russian Navy base and dozens of military bases including nuclear missile silos and ABM complexes. The 100-kilometer stretch of Lithuanian soil known as the Suwalki Corridor in turn was one of the most hotly-contested battlegrounds of the war, massive NATO and Eastern Bloc forces clashing for control of the area that would essentially decide which side would gain control of the Baltic States and seize strategic initiative. Consequently, the area was targeted by nuclear weapons from both sides once the conflict escalated to a strategic nuclear exchange. According to post-war estimates, Kaliningrad Oblast and its adjacent areas were hit by no less than 32 strategic-yield warheads and dozens of smaller tactical weapons including area-denial cobalt bombs, generating large amounts of long-lasting fallout, enough to render the entire Eastern coast of the Baltic Sea up to St. Petersburg pretty much permanently uninhabitable. It was only by a stroke of luck that strong Western winds prevailed in the area around the time of the exchange, the majority of the fallout settling within a relatively narrow area stretching deep into adjacent Belarus. Chemical and biological weapons were also deployed in the area, further aggravating the contamination, the idea being to completely cut off the Baltics from land access to the rest of Europe. The strategic reasoning behind it became irrelevant as the Western and Russian government authorities alike collapsed in the post-Exchange chaos.
In the following years during the nuclear winter, a handful of limited forays into the region were conducted by nascent Baltic Union forces under the former Bundeswehr Brigade General Hans L. Domrose. Commanding the assorted remnants of Bundeswehr forces in Lithuania centered around his 41st Panzergrenadier Brigade that included a dedicated CBRN battalion, Domrose controlled the only force even capable of entering the contaminated areas for any significant time. His efforts eventually managed to decontaminate the town of Alytus and a handful of smaller settlements and the roads connecting them sufficiently to enable human habitation once the winter began to thaw, but by and large, Kaliningrad Radland and much of Lithuania south of Neman River still remained inaccessible and uninhabitable.
Over the next 60 years, radiation levels would gradually decline to acceptable (if still high). During this time, only a handful of recorded attempts were made to cross the area by land, most involving convoys of CBRN-protected vehicles. Few of these expeditions were successful, as the heavy nuclear bombardment especially in the southernmost parts had destroyed most of the infrastructure, and radiation levels were still prohibitively high to loiter in the area and explore potential routes. Even air travel across Kaliningrad Radland was precarious especially in the first decades after the Exchange, heavy ionization disrupting sensors and instruments, and freak radiation storms and other bizarre weather events posing lethal danger to any travelers. CBRN crews of Baltic Union and Zapadoslavian military were able to clear paths through some of the less-contaminated areas in the 2070's, reestablishing the first overland connection in 2073, but these early routes still remained precarious, frequently being re-contaminated by radioactive dust storms, rains and spring floods.
Private explorers would begin to chart the area at their own initiative and peril around the same time, gradually establishing a network of relatively-safe passages known as "ratlines". These unmarked trails not found on any official chart would become haunts of smugglers and outlaws, and often their undoing as well. With the ever-shifting nature of the radland, routes that were safe a day ago could easily be recontaminated with deadly fallout the next day, leading a careless traveler to accumulate lethal radiation dose in a matter of hours.
By 2110, radiation levels over much of the Kaliningrad Radland had declined sufficiently to allow a few days of uninterrupted outdoors operation without immediate ill effects. This led to a significant increase of land reclamation efforts by the Baltic Union, Zapadoslavia and also by Old Nations. New Koenigsberg was established by the latter at this time a few kilometers south from old Kaliningrad. More recently, Mekhrus has also shown renewed interest in re-acquiring the area. This would unfortunately require an overland access through Baltic Union/Zapadoslavian territory, leading to a repeat of the Suwalki Corridor scenario.
It is estimated that radiation levels in Kaliningrad Radland and the Southern Reclamation Zone will have sufficiently declined to make the area relatively safe for habitation no sooner than 2160.
Life in the Zone
Although at least the decontaminated areas of the SRZ are relatively safe to live in these days, population in the region is still sparse and volunteers for resettlement few even with generous Union government incentives. After all, freak dust storms still occasionally blow radioactive dust deep into SRZ, spring floods still wash up buried fallout and toxic chemicals, and the unpopulated and unpoliced wastelands around are still havens for raiders, outlaws and other assorted scum who see peaceful settlers as easy prey. Furthermore, the Union's eugenics laws are quite strict about radiation exposure, discouraging families from settling in an area where irradiation is an ever-present potential hazard.
Consequently, the Union authorities have taken to use resettlement to the SRZ as a form of legal punishment. Citizens found guilty of banishable offenses are increasingly often deported to the South rather than simply expelled to find unincorporated communities to settle in on their own. Although formally they are free to leave, the law merely barring them from entering any safe-zone settlements and their adjacent territories for the duration of their banishment, few do. Owing to it's special status as the administrative center of Southern Reclamation Zone, the town of Alytus is unique among safe-zones in that banished citizens are permitted to settle there on the condition they take up work either in decontamination of the surrounding countryside, or farming in newly cleared areas. Although conditions are often harsh and the living standards below those typical to other safe zones, most banished still prefer that to striking out on their own. To further encourage settlement by convicts, Union government has offered reductions of sentences to those who volunteer to partake in the reclamation efforts.
Despite intentions to the contrary, this presence of convicts has further contributed to the unsavoury reputation of the SRZ, or simply "the Zone" in casual parlance. While most take up honest work in hope of having their sentences reduced, some continue with their antisocial activities, often by joining one of the region's numerous smuggling rings. Smugglers use a network of unmarked trails and paths through the Kaliningrad Radland known as "ratlines" to deliver contraband goods from the West into the Union. Most of the times, these goods aren't even illegal, merely being strictly rationed, deficit or otherwise difficult to come by. The local authorities generally look the other way on smugglers and their activities because of their ability to procure deficit goods, and because many smugglers are also prime experts on navigating the Radland.
Still other exiles join one of the region's numerous outlaw gangs, preying on unwary settlers and travellers. The large stretches of uninhabited land and lack of authority presence makes much of SRZ a haven for fugitives and outlaws. Tracking down and eliminating these scoundrels falls to the Union's regular military forces, making the whole SRZ a sort of military training ground. A prospective Tier One commando traditionally must have been on at least one outlaw-hunting expedition in the Zone to be accepted permanently on a combat team.
There also exists a bustling industry of treasure hunting in the South, intrepid explorers entering the Radland to seek out pre-War artifacts. Amber is of particular interest, Kaliningrad Oblast being the only place in the world where it was mined industrially before the war. Although for the time being the old amber mines are still too heavily irradiated to be approached safely, a lucky few have made a considerable fortune finding new amber deposits. Still more scavenge for pre-War tech, even though the latter is an even more hazardous occupation, considering the amounts of unexploded wartime ordnance including chemical weapons present.
Some explorers of the Zone find work as guides to third parties, such as scientific expeditions or military patrols. These professional guides are known as "stalkers" (apparently in a tongue-in-cheek reference to a pre-War science fiction novel). Their expertise in radland survival is invaluable to any outsider who seeks to explore it away from officially-approved routes.
While the typical radland flora and fauna isn't much different from the outside world, except maybe hardier, wildlife too can pose dangers out here. Reports by stalkers, smugglers and other SRZ residents frequently mention encounters with bizarre mutants and even paranormal phenomena. While most dismiss such accounts as tall tales by people of questionable integrity and repute, the frequency and similarity of these reported encounters indicates there may be at least some truth to them. In the very least, all Zone residents regardless of their belief in mutants and strange things agree that packs of wolves and feral dogs are another, very real hazard of the radland.
Civilian travel through the SRZ is restricted to avoid spreading radioactive contamination. All roads leading through the Zone have military checkpoints, travellers and their belongings being subject to mandatory contamination checks and decontaminated if necessary. Non-residents are restricted to the main roads, and subject to serious fines if caught in unauthorized areas without a special permit. Residents may travel the area largely at will, but must likewise submit to inspection upon leaving the Zone. Military also observes strict CBRN safety protocols while in the Zone, always carrying a Geiger counter, dosimeter and hazmat gear while outside verified decontaminated areas. These safety protocols aren't just precautions - too many deadly incidents of radioactive, chemical or biological contamination have happened in the past to treat the potential hazards of the Zone lightly.
"The Zone" and the "stalkers" who are experts in navigating it are an intentional (both in- and out-of-character) reference to a 1979 Soviet science fiction film Stalker, itself based on the sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic. The film/novel shares a similar plot of an irradiated and dangerous "Zone" which can only be safely navigated with the aid of a "stalker".
In a more unintentional reference, "zone" is also a term in Russian criminal argot (therefore familiar over much of the post-Soviet world) denoting a prison or correctional labour camp, the informal term for the Southern Reclamation Zone echoing its function as a site of penal exile and its association with criminality.