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Ukraine: Villagers In Chornobyl Exclusion Zone Feel Deep Connection To Land, Dismiss Dangers

  • Valentinas Mite --> Galina Yavchenko outside her home in Parishev Several hundred people still choose to live in the contaminated villages that dot the 30-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine. Despite the health risks still posed by radioactivity, 20 years after the world's worst civilian nuclear accident, the elderly villagers say the connection to their native land is too strong. RFE/RL visited the exclusion zone, near the border with Belarus, and spoke with some of those who have decided to live their lives in a haunted land.

Parishev, Ukraine; 21 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Parishev, 20 kilometers east of Chornobyl, was once a bustling village of several hundred people. Today, only a dozen or so still live here.

Police checkpoints surround the village. Permission to enter Parishev must first be obtained from officials in the exclusion zone's administration.

Halyna Yavchenko cooks dinner on an old stove outside her small cottage in Parishev. She is dressed in a blue print skirt. A white kerchief covers her head and is tied under her chin. Smoke from the stove wafts around her yard as she talks about life in the exclusion zone.

Yavchenko says the number of villagers in Parishev is shrinking, that people are dying one after the other. She herself complains of strong headaches and high blood pressure.

But she says she's not afraid to live in an abandoned village in the middle of a radioactive zone. If only the wild animals would leave her garden alone.

"We are used to living here. But we are like wolves here. Last year, boars ate everything they could find [from my garden]," Yavchenko says.

Yavchenko dismisses talk of the dangers of radiation. "Radiation, who has seen it?" she says. "I am feeling bad because I am old, not because of radiation."

She cares for several chickens, a pig, a goat, and two dogs. She says that caring for her animals takes her mind off of death. She says life is difficult, but at least she is living in her native village.

Olena Shylo lives nearby. She wears a plaid kerchief tied around her head. Her face is deeply lined, and her cheeks are tanned dark brown from working in the sun. She proudly shows off her colorful handmade pillows and says she has no desire to leave Parishev.

"I am at home, at home. How do I feel? I am already 76. How can I feel?! My life is already finished," Shylo says.

She says her sons worked at the Chornobyl nuclear plant during the disaster. Both of them died several years ago. They are buried in the village. Many former residents of the exclusion zone who are now scattered across Ukraine return to these villages to bury their dead on native soil.

Ukrainian ethnographer Oleksiy Dolia has visited the exclusion zone many times. Nowhere else in Ukraine, he says, do people feel such a strong attachment to the land.

"I have never seen this kind of love for a native land. For them, the main thing is their native land. They say they cannot leave their rivers, their forests," Dolia says.

Dolia says the majority of those who remain behind are elderly women. He cannot explain why, but believes men may die sooner due to the effects of alcohol, hard work, and the psychological difficulties of adapting to life in the zone.

Dolia says the old people who remain behind are in desperate need of basic medical care, decent food, and a little attention from the outside world.

He says life in the exclusion zone eventually becomes unbearable even for the strongest. Bushes and trees now cover what once were open fields. Wild animals threaten meager crops. Criminals roam the countryside.

"Vagrants and criminals who have escaped from somewhere are living in these dead villages. For instance, in the village of Lubyanka, vagrants or criminals came and killed an old woman. So, such are the conditions, and it is really difficult for them to live here psychologically because of this isolation," Dolia says.
"I am feeling bad because I am old, not because of radiation."

Dolia says he traveled to one village last year to collect ethnographic information and was forced to take armed guards because it was known that a criminal gang was operating in the area.

Despite checkpoints on every road, Dolia says it is easy for the zone's criminal underground to come and go at will.

"Imagine the life of an 80-year-old woman in this situation," Dolia says, "when your closest neighbor is several kilometers away."

(Story and photos by Valentinas Mite)