21.04.2015 → 26.04.2015
You can't take me from my motherland
— Exposed: Resettlers in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
A note on the door: ‘Dear stranger, do not look for valuables. We never had any. Use whatever you need, but please don’t loot. We’re coming back.’
In the early hours of April 26th, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was the site of the world's first, Level 7 nuclear disaster. The resulting radioactive plume spread radiation across the Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and many parts of Europe.
The area worst affected by the contamination was designated the Exclusion Zone. Also known as the Zone of Alienation or simply the Zone, the area covers 30 km around the site of the plant. In the next few days, following the disaster, residents living in the Exclusion Zone were forcibly evacuated and resettled elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
They were lied to and told it was only for three days, otherwise they would never have gone. People who were in limbo, with nothing to their name. They made their way back to the villages across army barriers, along forest trails, through the swamps. At night. The authorities hunted them in trucks and helicopters, try to catch them. ‘Like when the Germans were here,’ the old people say. ‘During the war.’
Despite the health risks posed by remaining in the region, in the weeks and months after the accident a number of former residents illegally started going back to their homes in the Exclusion Zone. Many were elderly people who felt unable to rebuild their lives away from their lifelong homes.
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Even a bird loves its nest.
Now why would they return to such deadly soil? Were they unaware of the risks or crazy enough to ignore them, or both? The thing is, they see their lives and the risks they run decidedly differently.
The atrocities of Stalin's Holodomor.
You have to remember, these people have, mostly in one generation, survived the worst atrocities of the 20th century. Stalin's engineered famines of the 1930s, the Holodomor and the Gulags killed millions of Ukrainians. They faced the Nazis in the '40s, who came through slashing, burning, raping, and in fact many Ukrainian women were shipped to Germany as forced labourers. So when a couple of decades into Soviet rule, Chernobyl happened, they were unwilling to flee in the face of another, invisible, enemy.
Evenmore, they were also not really wanted in the rest of the Soviet Union. They came from highly infected areas and other people would rather interfere with them as little as possible. Children were often not allowed to play together and ultimately the people of Chernobyl were fully designated to each other.
‘I got home. Went to a dance. There was this girl I liked. ‘Let’s go out together.’ ‘What for, you’re now a Chernobyl guy. Who’d want to marry you?’’
‘The world has split in two: there is us, the people of Chernobyl, and you, everyone else. Have you noticed? We don’t make a point of this ‘I’m Belarusian’, ‘I’m Ukrainian’, I’m Russian’. Everyone calls themselves Chernobyl people. ‘We’re from Chernobyl.’
'You can’t take me from my mother; you can’t take me from my motherland. Motherland is motherland.'
So, many returned to their villages and when told they're going to get sick and die soon, they refused to listen. Profoundly connected to the ground where they were born, they wanted to live the way their grandfathers and great-grandfathers did, their ancestors. Five happy years is better, their logic goes, than 10 stuck in a high rise on the outskirts of Kiev, separated from the graves of their mothers, fathers and babies and the whisper of stork wings on a spring afternoon.
Now around Chernobyl, there are scattered ghost villages, eerily silent, strangely charming, bucolic but totally contaminated. Many were bulldozed at the time of the accident, but a few are left like this, kind of silent vestiges to the tragedy. Others have a few residents in them, one or two 'babushkas', or 'babas', Russian and Ukrainian words for grandmother. Another village might have six or seven residents. It is the strange demographic of the zone: isolated alone together.
A selection of this series was nominated for the Dutch SO 2015 Awards.
Published on P3 Fotografia, Portugal (2015)
Editor's pick in the International Life Framer photography competition (2016)