In total 188 villages were evacuated in Ukraine and Belarus after the nuclear accident in April 1986. But in 1987 about 1000 self-settlers, mostly older people, returned to the exclusion zone on their own. First these ‘Chernobyl Squatters” were illegal, but soon the government accepted it. Now about 100 of them are left.
They are scattered throughout the area. Most of them are women, most men have died off from age and illness. The elderly women live alone in reclaimed homes. It is hard to imagine why anyone would want to live within a hundred, 1,000, even 10,000 miles of a contaminated place.
Five of these villages can be visited. Of the three villages we visited the one that I will always remember is Barischu. The reason why it is so engrained in my memory is Ivgena, an elderly woman who returned to her village in 1987, one year after the nuclear accident.
Ivgena was evacuated from her village on 1 May 1986, six days after the explosion in reactor 4 Chernobyl. A year later she returned, together with a few others, all knowing their risks. She used to work as a cleaner for Tschernobyl Nuclear Company. Now, long retired, she lived in a dilapidated house. It is not her original home, but she moved here because it was in a better state than hers and abandoned. She is the only person alive in this abandoned village.
She chops her wood, keeps chicken and grows vegetable. Her only complaint: the mobile shop comes only twice a month, so the bread gets stale. Our small group was invited to her house, actually it is an abandoned house. Her original home was in such terrible condition that eventually she moved. It is quiet large but we had the impression that Ivgena lived in the tiny kitchen. She cooks and heats it with what looks like a tiny pizza oven, where she was cooking borscht while we visited.
Large jars of pickled vegetables were stored under the wobbly shelves and the long strip full of dead flies dangling from the ceiling brought back childhood memories. My great aunt lived on a small farm In the of reminded me of a farm of my great aunt.
Considering the very basic conditions Ivgena lives in, she seems not only happy, but also healthy, positive and cheerful. Walking us to the gate she chased her chicken away sharing another complaint with us. Last week an eagle had taken off with a chicken. The average age is these settlers is 70 and several die off each year.