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Chernobyl for refuge, from war to radiation – photo essay | Chernobyl nuclear disaster


On 26 April 1986, the core of reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted down, causing the world’s biggest nuclear disaster. About 130,000 people were urgently evacuated, leaving towns and villages deserted across 2,200 sq km in the north of Ukraine. The area became a ghost region, forming the forbidden zone – estimated to be dangerous for 24,000 years according to specialists – and its adjacent regions, free to access but also contaminated.

Despite the danger of radiation, 35 years later Ukrainians are moving into dilapidated houses in the border areas of the exclusion zone. In 2014, the war in the Donbas region forced more than 1.5 million people into exile, fleeing the conflict that has been going on in the east of the country for almost eight years.

Lydia is cut off from the world, far from everything and everyone. But her dogs, found by chance, are her companions, her family that helps her to bear the immense loneliness in which she now lives. Village of Bazar, Jytomyr region, Ukraine, 1 October 2021.
This small dilapidated wooden house, located near the exclusion zone, costs 21 Ukrainian hryvnias (55p) per month
Before the war, Lydia had a modern, comfortable three-room apartment in the city centre with heat, running water, electricity and gas

  • Lydia is cut off from the world. Her dogs, found by chance, are her companions, her family that help her to bear the immense loneliness in which she now lives in the village of Bazar, Jytomyr region, Ukraine

Every year, Lydia has to bring in several steres (cubic metres) of wood in order to survive the very cold winter in the region. In spite of everything, she does not complain about this life, nor about the pension of 90 euros a month she has to survive on.

This coquettish and urban woman, in spite of the conditions of her new life, always tries to take care of her appearance. She therefore built herself, behind some boards and a curtain in the middle of her new house, a bathroom. Very dark and without running water, this allows her to wash in more comfortable conditions than from a simple bucket.

Before the war, Lydia had a modern, comfortable three-room apartment in a city centre, with heating, running water, electricity and gas. She had worked all her life as an accountant, and her late husband also had a good pension. They were not rich, but they had everything they needed to live comfortably.

One night, awakened by the noise, she opened her eyes to find her bed entirely covered with pieces of glass and her blanket burned by numerous impacts. All her windows had been blown out by a bombardment.

In shock and surprised to be alive, she decided to leave, taking with her a few changes of clothes in a bag on her lap. Having lost everything, she could not afford to rent anywhere else than in the village of Bazar, where for this small dilapidated wooden house located near the exclusion zone she pays 21 Ukrainian hryvnias (55p) a month.

Yehven in the village of Bazar, Jytomyr region, Ukraine

Yehven does not regret for a moment having left, even if they lost a lot and even if it was to live not far from the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. “Any doubts? No! Radiation was not the question, the question was to leave,” he says.

Of the “self-rule” referendum held by pro-Russian separatists in Donbas in 2014, he is dismissive. “If there were 30% of the village that went to vote, that was the maximum,” he says. “When you have a machine gun in the back that is not an election.”

The Ukrainian government has not provided a solution or compensation substantial enough to allow them to make a new start. Fifteen euros of monthly aid for an adult, and 30 euros for a retired person, are the compensation they receive for having lost everything.

They have no other choice than to look for the most economical solutions to rehouse themselves. The numerous dilapidated houses in zones 2, 3 and 4 around the exclusion zone have the cheapest rents in Ukraine at 106 hryvnias (£2.78) a year.

An abandoned kolkhoz (collective farm) on the road connecting the villages of Bazar and Dydatky, Kiev region

The roads along the forbidden zone between the two regions of Jytomyr and Kyiv are practically deserted, leaving lush nature. At times a village or some abandoned ruins show that the region was once much more alive.

Despite the dangers and the harsh living conditions of a partially deserted area with almost no infrastructure and no employment opportunities, many families from the Donbas region have made the same long and perilous journey from Ukraine under separatist control to the abandoned villages on the edge of the exclusion zone.

From the bombings to radiation, from war to the site of the biggest nuclear catastrophe in the world, these internally displaced persons who settled on the outskirts of Chernobyl found there their only refuge in the face of a conflict that does not end.

Witnesses and victims of this current conflict, they fled under the threat of a life much more terrifying than the dangers of nuclear radiation.

Yuri, 58, drives in the village of Bazar, Jytomyr region, Ukraine, September 2021.

  • Yuri drives in the village of Bazar, Jytomyr region, Ukraine, September 2021

Yuri, 58, says he spent 207 days in detention, in a cold and damp 20 sq m cellar where he was severely tortured. Today, he says his nights are filled with nightmares and insomnia and his back is covered with nervous shingles.

“The only good news in all of this,” he says with a tight half-smile, “my penis still works, I tested it.” Yuri says he was tortured with electricity on his genitals, a common practice in the self-proclaimed republics of the separatist forces.

Yuri at home in Bazar

Yuri was arrested on 16 June 2014 by separatist forces. Upon his release, this man who had weighed 100kg weighed only 49kg. Rich people, as Yuri was, are kidnapped to be stripped of all their possessions. “In Luhansk there are always people in the cellars,” he says.

Sasha collects the grain harvested in Yuri’s field

When Yuri left Donbas, some of his employees followed him; Sasha will collect the grain harvested today in his employer’s new fields, located in zone 3 on the edge of the exclusion zone.

Makarevitch, 66, an employee and friend, cuts wood for the stove in his small hut of less than 15 sq metres on Yuri’s farm in Bazar

  • Makarevitch, 66, an employee and friend, cuts wood for the stove in his small hut of less than 15 sq m on Yuri’s farm in Bazar

Vadim, 50, lives a few dozen kilometres from Yuri with his wife, Elena. He also testifies to tortures practised systematically in separatist Donbas. He claims his best friend was tortured and killed, and the director of his company was also tortured. He adds that his brother was arrested but escaped abuse during detention, but another of his friends “disappeared without a trace”, which is often synonymous with summary execution.

He says: “Such an atmosphere, it imposes itself in your mind, this dream déjà vu haunts me constantly. There in Donetsk, it is not a military regime, it is a criminal regime!”

Vadim and Elena, Dytyatky, Kiev region, Ukraine

  • Vadim and Elena, Dytyatky, Kyiv region, Ukraine

In spite of the horrors suffered in the war zone, in spite of the difficulties encountered and the loss of their goods, Vadim and Elena are happy in their new lives. However, the conflict has not left Vadim and he still has nightmares.

Vadim and Elena’s house was a real ruin when they moved in four years ago, and there is still a lot to do
Previously, they owned a beautiful house in perfect condition, a horse stable, and a company with 40 employees. The factory and stable were severely damaged by gunfire, and the horses died of a bombing-induced heart attack. Dytyatky, Kiev region, Ukraine

Vadim and Elena left with just a few things that fitted in their car and a little money. Previously, they owned a beautiful house, stables, and ran a company with 40 employees. They lost everything. As compensation, the Ukrainian government pays them 15 euros a month.

Today, they are slowly rebuilding a house and a waste recycling business that Vadim bought by selling his car. They want to start different projects such as cheese making, walnut growing, and opening guest houses for tourists from Chernobyl, once the work is finished.

Every night Vadim keeps the animals safe
The couple have created a vegetable garden to feed themselves and raise farm animals for eggs and milk

In Chernobyl, it is not only the radiation that is dangerous. Since the area has been practically uninhabited for more than 30 years, wildlife has reclaimed its rights. Eagles do not hesitate to attack the henhouse, and in winter, at night, the wolves approach in search of food. The little dog that Vadim and Elena had brought with them from Donbas was killed by one of the wolves. Since then, a local priest gave them a wolf-hunting dog, Sultan, an imposing Alabai (Central Asian shepherd dog), and every night Vadim keeps the animals safe.

The couple have created a vegetable garden to feed themselves and raise farm animals for eggs and milk. They are not concerned about radioactivity; they have checked with a dosimeter and the results are good. Even though the government institute that monitors levels of radioactivity says mushrooms should not be eaten under any circumstances, inhabitants on the outskirts of Chernobyl like Vadim and Elena do not heed these warnings.

Maria and her daughters Iryna and Lena. Maria was receiving aid for displaced people, but the social services have suspended this allowance because the ruins of her house are back in government-controlled territory. Today she does not earn more than 15 euros a month.

Maria, 45, did not flee for fear of being kidnapped and tortured but for fear of seeing her two daughters killed by heavy artillery fire. “A friend offered me to leave, I accepted immediately … I didn’t even ask ‘where are we going? Will I have a place to live with my children?’,” she says.

“The main thing for me was to get the children out of there. At night a car arrived, the girls each took a stuffed animal and we left. It was when we got here that I knew where we were. I am not afraid of radiation, the worst was when the shells flew over our heads.”

Listening to them speak in the incredible silence that reigns in these almost deserted regions, one understands why this inhospitable area may seem like a haven of peace.

Maria owned a large wooden house where everyone had a room, but it was dismantled by her neighbours during a fire
Lena with her mother, Maria. Lena, 20, was 13 years old when war started

Maria and her children had a large wooden house that she owned where everyone had a room, but it was dismantled by her neighbours during a fire. She also lost her parents’ house. “Everything was left there, they took everything,” she says. “We came here and we only took spare linen, documents and that’s all.” The girls sleep in one room, and Maria in the other. A corridor serves as a kitchen, and there is no bathroom or toilet. The house has no gas or running water.

Maria was receiving aid for displaced people, but the social services suspended this allowance because the ruins of her house are back in government-controlled territory. Today she does not earn more than 15 euros a month.

Lena, 20, was 13 years old when the war happened, and confides her terror: “I was afraid, we had forgotten what it was to play. When I see that at that moment, in my childhood, it turned out like that … I don’t know what will happen next.

“Despite that I had planned to get married, have children, a good profession. It shattered all my dreams. I realised that I should not build something great. That I needed a little something. Because more … you can’t have everything.”

Alyona at her home in the village of Zelena Polyana, October 2021

  • Alyona at her home in the village of Zelena Polyana, October 2021. She bought her house for 1,700 euros (£1,400)

Alyona did all the work on her new home in Zelena Polyana by herself for three years. It was a real ruin – like all the uninhabited houses on the border of the exclusion zone. Today she is retired and survives on a pension of 80 euros a month. Not having the means to settle in another region of Ukraine, she rebuilt her life in Chernobyl, after having survived the first Chechen war and then the war in Donbas.

Alyona says she can sense when danger is approaching, spot bad people, and pack her bag very quickly with the bare necessities. She feels better in the countryside of Chernobyl than here in Kiev where she comes on weekends to look after her grandchildren
Alyona was a seamstress for the ladies of Chechen high society in the 90s. She had to flee Grozny leaving everything behind.

Alyona was a seamstress for the ladies of Chechen high society in the 90s. It was the first war of her life when she had to flee Grozny leaving everything behind. Ukrainian, she settled in Luhansk, but had to flee war again on 6 June 2014. “In the first Chechen war, they opened the prisons and armed the inmates, they did exactly the same here,” she says. “ I had already seen this scenario, I knew what would happen.”

“In spite of everything, we never believe that war is coming,” says Alyona. She says she can now sense when danger is approaching, spot bad people, and pack her bag very quickly with the bare necessities. She feels better in the countryside of Chernobyl than in Kyiv, where she goes on weekends to look after her grandchildren.

Today she finds peace by walking in the nearby forest at the edge of the exclusion zone where she lives. “I lost everything, absolutely everything in these two wars. If you don’t want to go crazy, you shouldn’t look back.”

This photo essay was realised with the support of the Centre national des arts plastiques (National Centre for Visual Arts), France



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