Those Who Returned: Chernobyl Babushkas
Lots of people consider the whole Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to be a dead area with silence and ghosts. Some people believe that it is a huge cemetery, that is why sometimes one can even wonder how touristic companies dare to organize trips on bones. But it’s not a cemetery, not radioactive desert – this is the place where life is in full swing.
This article will ruin all rumours and gossips about Chernobyl inhabitants. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is not a cemetery. Some territories are truly uninhabited (10 km zone around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, including the city of Pripyat, the military town Chernobyl-2 near the Radar Duga and other villages), but inside the Zone THERE IS LIFE! Those who have ever been in the Zone, should have noticed it and been amazed. Those who have never chanced to visit it, do not worry – here you will find the provement that life in the abandoned Zone really exists!
On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced a power surge, resulting in an explosion that sent a cloud of radioactive particles across parts of Europe. The accident has gone down in history as the world’s worst nuclear disaster. The resulting nuclear fire lasted 10 days and the equivalent was as of 500 nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima.
Just after the explosion common people were not told the truth of what had happened and how dangerous it had turned out for them and for all human beings in reality.
The awareness of the seriousness of the disaster came only the next day, and the population of Pripyat and other villages in the 30-km zone around the ChNPP started to be immediately evacuated only 36 hours after the explosion. In total, 81 settlements of the Kyiv and Zhytomyr regions were evicted at the first stage of evacuation.
As a result, more than 115,000 people were evacuated following the explosion, with many leaving their homes and all of their worldly belongings behind forever. The areas surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, including the nearby city of Pripyat, have since deteriorated into abandoned ghost towns.
It was said to be a short-term evacuation approximately for 3 days and no more. Nobody could even believe that those 3 days will last forever.
Evacuation of children from Pripyat city
The problem was that all the people could take only documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case. Flats and houses were left with everything inside them. The administration and policemen were guaranteeing that all the staff would be kept safe. But some time later after decontaminating the area, those who were let to come back in order to take some things left in their houses faced to find out that there had been some visitors before.
A family of self-settlers in their home inside the Exclusion Zone in 1990, four years after the disaster.
Photo: Igor Kostin/Sygma
You don’t hear much about people willing to return to Fukushima, only accounts of the many who refuse to go back to areas now declared safe. With memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they have their reasons to be leery. For the people of Chernobyl, the horrors of World War II were worse than by the nuclear disaster. Why? They knew who they were fighting. By Chernobyl accident they didn’t see, feel or know what is radiation. Many Chernobyl residents just didn’t believe in this “invisible enemy” and thought that the government wanted to steal their home.
The first wave of return began weeks after the evacuation and lasted about two years. As a rule, residents of villages and the private sector of the city of Chernobyl returned, mainly of advanced age.
Two main reasons for returning – disorder in a new place and homesickness. A lot of rural residents were evicted to areas with natural conditions that were very different from their native land and for a person working on the earth, this was a disaster. Weak adaptation at a new place of residence or even the absence thereof, the breakdown of family and friendly ties – all this turned the evacuation into a personal “end of the world”.
The core question – why the Babushkas chose to return to their farms and villages requires an ap-preciation of the subjective meanings of these places.
Radioactive contamination from the explosion has been deadly, but the trauma of relocation is another fallout of Chernobyl. Of the old people who relocated, one Chernobyl babushka has said:
“If you leave you die. Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness. Motherland is Motherland. I will never leave.”
People were told to take few personal belongings and identity papers, as it was thought they would be returning several days later, which was not the case.
Photo: Igor Kostin/Sygma
Radiation or not, these women are at the end of their lives. But their continued existence and spirit indicate the transformative connections to the home, and about the strength of self-determination. They are unexpected lessons from a nuclear tragedy.
As a way out of this situation, some chose to return. Some returned “illegally” by bestial paths and bypassing posts. Some people returned “legally” – they got a job in the Zone and settled in their houses. It can be assumed that such methods of re-evacuation determined the geography of resettlement of self-settlers.
Who are “Self-Settlers”?
“Self-settlers” or in Ukrainian “Samosely” are residents of the 30-kilometer Zone of Alienation surrounding the most heavily contaminated areas near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Belarus and Ukraine.
The majority of the samosely are elderly people, almost all of them are women, who made their home in the area prior to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, although some are disaffected settlers from outside the region.
The remaining residents of the abandoned Belarusian village Tulgovichi, located in a 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the Chernobyl NPP, on April 7, 2006, celebrate the Orthodox holiday of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Before the accident, about 2000 people lived in the village and now there are only eight left.
Photo: AFP Photo / Viktor Drachev
About 116,000 people were evacuated from the Zone at the time of the accident, but about 1,200 of them refused to stay away. The women who remain, now in their 70s and 80s, are the last survivors of those who illegally returned to their ancestral homes shortly after the accident.
In 1987-1990 they lived in Chernobyl and 17 villages. They returned legally to the city of Chernobyl, illegally – to villages. At first, the villagers, as they could, hid their stay. The authorities could not oppose the demands of the returnees. On the one hand, they violated the law and were subject to appropriate sanctions. On the other hand, they were understood and sympathized with. Thus, self-settlers became an integral part of the reality of the Exclusion Zone.
Statistic of the self-settlers in the Chernobyl Zone
Unfortunately, the population of the Zone is decreasing. As for example, in 1987 there were 1200 of self-settlers, today there lives about 110 people. Why? People die, but not because of the radiation or influence by the consequences after the accident at ChNPP. People die because of their age. The average age of the self-settlers is 75-80 years old.
How Chernobyl Babushkas live?
Self-settlers’ house in Teremtsi village.
People living here are not afraid of radiation. The dosimeters in their houses and gardens show even less radioactivity than in London or New York. There are dosimetrists coming to measure the level of radionuclides in their wells where they get drinking water. Every 3 months.
Those who chanced to return to their Motherland and native houses – they are happy to be alive and feel themselves safe and healthy. Because they are at home.
Most villagers live self-sufficiently – they have domestic animals (pigs, cows, hens), they eat vegetables grown in their gardens and berries and mushrooms picked in the woods, produce honey.
The grocery store is far away, so there is a van with groceries that comes every week to the village. And also tourists with good consciences’ bring over products. If you ask what makes a Chernobyl senior citizen afraid, he or she clearly says: “snakes and wolves”. And they complain about the low pension that they get. A month with around 70 € is very tough, and the extra for living in a dangerous Zone without proper public facilities is so small that the pensioners just laugh about it.
85-year-old Ivan Semenyuk was a samosely, a self-settler who returned home soon after the explosion and now lives inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. |Photo: Jorick de Kruif
The area where self-settlers live is rural, so they are safe from the dangers of the “outside world”. On the other hand, without visitors, they are alone most of the time. They do not have very good eyes to read anymore, sometimes they do not have electricity and only occasionally they meet other people.
A point where the Chernobyl inhabitants meet is usually at Sunday mass in the Church of Saint Elias in Chernobyl, which is called the cleanest place in the whole Chernobyl Zone.
If you’re eager to know more about these courageous people, we recommend you to watch the documentary “The Babushkas of Chernobyl“.
It is the story of three unlikely heroines who live in Chernobyl’s “Zone of Alienation” or “Dead Zone.” For more than 29 years they have survived – even thrived – on some of the most contaminated land on Earth.
Chernobly might not be everyone’s first idea of a typical vacation destination, but each year brings upwards of 70,000 tourists to the Exclusion Zone. Guided tours to the radioactive Red Forest are also a part of the attraction.
While visiting the city of Chernobyl and other villages, don’t forget to visit these hospitable inhabitants who will treat you as good friends and guests, and will tell you various interesting stories of their lives. They love company, especially in such an “empty” area.
If you are interested, you can easily visit Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant or Pripyat already today.
Just book your Chernobyl tour online or contact us at [email protected]
Radioactively yours ChernobylX.