about 300 people, known as the samosely, or selfsettlers, live illegally within the zone of exclusion that surrounds the most heavily contaminated areas near the chernobyl nuclear power plant. defying government ban, they evaded guards and secretly resettled in their villages shortly after the 1986 evacuation. about 80 percent are elderly women, known as babushkas, who, having outlived their husbands (and often children), live alone in a village populated with only one or two dozen others.
despite estimates that the area will not be safe for another 900 years, they nevertheless live off the fertile but highly radioactive land, harvesting (contaminated) wheat, mushrooms, onions, and beetroot. they also make their own vodka home brew, samahonka. as one samosely woman put it, “you can’t take me from my motherland. motherland is motherland.” said another, “we survived starvation and hitler and starvation and stalin, and now you tell us something invisible will kill us? we will die here.”
(stalin instigated a massive genocide-by-famine in the thirties, known as the holodomor, in order to subjugate ukraine and move peasant farmers on to state farming collectives or into factories. an estimated five million ukrainians died of starvation during this period, many of whom were the fathers of these women)
findings about the long term health effects of chernobyl on humans are controversial and contradictory. but the world health organization now considers the psychological impact of the disaster to be at least as detrimental as the physical. the samosely do not suffer from the anxiety and depression common amongst those who did not return. though they must travel by foot, they do enjoy each others company and joke about moving into one house for better heating. but of course they would never actually leave their homes.
photos by daniel berehulak. click pic for their names and ages.