The Chornobyl zone is still home to twenty families that survived even after the invasion by Russian forces. We managed to find three people who were cut off from their normal way of living because the only bridge that used to connect both banks of the Pripyat River is currently destroyed. Journalists of Realna Gazeta found out how those who dared not leave their homes live in extremely difficult conditions today.
The exclusion zone, formed after the accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, has always been a symbol of disaster. This event changed the fates of many people and led to the tragedy of displacement of hundreds of villages. Over the years, the zone was mostly open to tourists, but after the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, entry became available only to military personnel. However, there are still families who have stayed. Neither man-made disaster nor the invasion of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory forced them to leave their homes. Such people are called the samosely (“self-settlers”). Gardens are the main source of livelihood for these people: they grow vegetables, collect mushrooms and berries, go fishing, and sometimes hunt. Before the war, employees of enterprises of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone and tourists regularly helped them. They carried out building repairs, helped with transport services, and performed medical examinations and treatments.
“I sit and, as soon as I hear a car, I immediately run. [People] constantly helped, sometimes giving bread, some kind of canned food, butter, water. The biggest problem we have is water and medicine. There is not enough communication, we are always happy to have guests, I lived here alone in the village before soldiers came, and there was no one to talk to,” says Yevdokia Beznoshchenko, a resident of the village of Parishiv.
Ms. Yevdokia is already 78 years old; before the accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, she worked as a cleaner in Chornobyl at the enterprise. After the explosion of the nuclear reactor, she, like most of the inhabitants of the settlements, was forced to leave her native home. However, as soon as the radiation went away, she decided to return to her hut. An elderly woman learned about the beginning of a full-scale Russian invasion from the military. She remembers: she could not believe it for a long time.
“Several men went in my direction, I thought they were firefighters. I shouted: “Who are you guys?” And they asked: “Grandma, don’t you know about the events in the country? The war has started!”. At first it was hard to believe, but then we heard such a loud explosion, my dog hid on the veranda and didn’t come out for a whole week,” recalls Ms. Evdokia.
As Ms. Evdokia says, she lives “without luxury.” There is no water, no gas either, electricity only came on a year ago. But to heat the whole house, you need a lot of firewood.
“It’s already difficult for me, I’m 78 years old, but I have my own farming, it’s complicated, but I try to manage it. As for the winter, I think it will be difficult, I haven’t seen volunteers for a long time, but there are many soldiers here, they take care of us. Our boys, soldiers. For example, foxes stole my chickens, and the soldiers brought me some eggs, some kind of bread, and cereal. I need some firewood to be chopped because I am already at an age where I am not fit to do that. So the boys chopped firewood for me to heat the house in the winter,” says Yevdokia Beznoshchenko.
Another man lives not far from the village of Parishiv, the neighbours call him Kuzmich. His house is located at least 5 kilometres from the border with Belarus. Kuzmich says that his house is a complete reflection of himself. It looks old but has seen a lot.
“This is my home, a small hut, but my own little one. We survived the Germans and the Russians and still remained in our place. I have firewood and food here. It is not cold in winter. I am the owner, so I try to keep everything here in order, I plant vegetables in the garden, and go fishing; there are problems with water, but nothing critical,” says Ivan Rayonok, a resident of the village of Teremtsi.
For him, as for other samosely, the most important thing is to live on his native land. He talks with sadness about every bush and birch, that he knows, because he himself planted them. For him, these things are a symbol of family and memories of the past. It is in this house that an elderly man sees the great war for the second time.
“There were three crossings here, and when they [Russians] came, I mostly saw them standing near the laundry room. They forced me to take their trousers and collect clothes there. But I didn’t need that, I was already waiting for our guys to drive them out as soon as possible. We want the war to end, we thank everyone, we thank our president, the military, everyone. We want the war to end and there to be fewer casualties. This war is very cruel, the Russians behave cruelly. Remembering the Germans who were here too, they were different, but they did not do as much damage as the Russians do,” recalls Mr. Ivan.
A young couple lives next to the grandfather. Mrs. Victoria and her husband decided to stay in the village, when the woman took care of her mother for a long time. Her mother was the liquidator of the accident at the Chornobyl NPP.
“My mother lived here, she was actually the liquidator of the emergency Chornobyl NPP, and once saved the world, including Russians. They have now attacked us. Mom died this year, she couldn’t stand it, she had endocrinology, she was worried a lot, but this is war, everyone is worried, everyone is on their nerves. So she stayed here to live in a remote forest. This village has a long history, a thousand-year history, but it is difficult here, especially now, the bridge has been blown up, and now neither the grocery store nor the ambulance is running. But I can’t leave it all, my husband is here, my home is here, Kuzmich is here, I won’t leave him here! “, says Victoria, a resident of the village of Teremtsi.
The woman recalls the difficult times of the occupation of the exclusion zone, for a long time there was no light, no help, no information about what was happening around.
“The occupation of the district centre was very scary. We were very worried. Thank God, they didn’t come to us. But we lived without electricity for a year and a half. So I want to say to those who are now worried about whether there will be a blackout or not. I want to say that you should not despise this, prepare yourself and do not lose heart!”, says Victoria.
Today, these people are completely cut off from civilization, the only thing they can count on is the help of the military. They are the ones who provide these people with firewood, food, help with household chores and simply stop by to visit. Of course, they also care about security, but the military says there is no threat from Belarus.
“Currently, there are not enough troops of the Republic of Belarus in this direction, but there is a certain danger. We realise that it can grow. Local Ukrainian defenders will be taken to a safe place in case of such a need. We will not leave these people, they need our help today, as in medical care, food products, for example, I was at grandmother Duni’s, she hasn’t eaten tomatoes for a long time, I asked the boys, and soon tomatoes will be at grandmother’s. These are simple things that these elderly people need,” says Serhiy Naev, commander of the combined forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.