The Not-So-Secret Residents Of The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

By Andy Roberts on Sunday, May 31, 2015
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“We were just not prepared for that sort of situation.” —Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking about the Chernobyl disaster

In A Nutshell

It’s been almost 30 years since the infamous Chernobyl disaster converted its surrounding areas to some of the most contaminated land on the planet. While it’s fairly common knowledge that Chernobyl has flourished into a wildlife sanctuary, it is also home to several hundred humans. They are called the Samosely (or “self-settler” in Ukrainian) and are made up of 80 percent women with an average age somewhere in the sixties. Living off the land, they remain fearless under the shadow of the desolate nuclear power plant, ignoring the risk of cancer; instead, they strive for happiness in the homes they love dearly.

The Whole Bushel

In the four years following the explosion of Reactor 4 at Chernobyl, 118,400 people had to be evacuated and a further 231,000 relocated. A 30-kilometer (18 mi) radius around the plant was deemed uninhabitable, so the relocated residents were compensated with a pension, an apartment, and deliberately vague information regarding their health. Most thought they were only moving away for a few days, but as weeks turned to months, it became clear that returning home looked nearly impossible. That is, of course, except for the Samosely.

Yearning for their motherland, many returned to their contaminated homes. When caught by the authorities, they stood their ground, shouting “Shoot us and dig the grave; otherwise we’re staying!” The Samosely are spread across the many villages within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, almost all of which are now silent ghost towns. Many of these tiny hamlets are populated with only a few people—in some cases, just a solitary resident. They live here semi-illegally. They aren’t so much defying the law as they are taking advantage (if one could really call it that) of an area the state has little interest in.

With 80 percent of the population being women and an average age in the sixties or seventies, it is essentially a settlement of babushkas. Ironically, though, it may not be the radiation that is killing them off. Most of the men meet their maker through excessive smoking and drinking, and the majority of women are said to die of strokes. That’s not to say they’re all cancer-free as many do suffer from thyroid cancer, a typical trait from radiation exposure. For many residents, the fear of starvation outweighs the fear of the radiation.

All the villages still get electricity, which is paid for by the pension received from the state, but there is no running water, which makes life somewhat difficult for these elderly folk. The Samosely spend their long days farming and chopping wood, despite their old age. Perhaps, though, their biggest worry is not the invisible radiation but instead the members of the thriving wild boar population that invade their gardens, eating their hard-earned vegetables.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Timm Suess
Chernobyl Tour: Self-Settlers
The Telegraph: The women living in Chernobyl’s toxic wasteland
CNN: After Chernobyl, they refused to leave
BBC News: In pictures: Chernobyl zone residents