The first signs of the Chernobyl nuclear accident of April 26, 1986 were detected in Sweden two days later, after a cloud of radioactive fallout from the explosion was spread over large parts of Western Europe. Following international investigation, the Soviet Union was forced to officially recognize the accident of catastrophic proportions.
Twenty-five years since the disaster, access to the area around Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor is still restricted with barbed wire and police checkpoints. About 230 people inhabit the area of 30 km in radius, now named the Zone of Alienation. Inside the Zone, as well as in some sparsely populated villages adjacent to it, the inhabitants are mostly elderly women. They survived the great famine of Stalin’s blockade, Nazi occupation in WWII and even only days after the worst nuclear accident in the world’s history, they chose to return home.
The women live alone, on meager pensions, sustaining on their small orchards, harvesting radioactive food, burning contaminated logs and sneaking into the forests of the Zone to collect mushrooms and berries that are known to absorb radiation. In spite of inherent dangers of the contaminated food chain, these extraordinary women have outlived their husbands and even their children.
Their hospitality and inexhaustible spirit is in stark contrast to the grim reality of Chernobyl. Still, life goes on in the Zone: a pig is being butchered for Christmas, bottles of moonshine are hidden in the attic for a special party, even at the funeral – a stranger’s visit is a sign of good luck. “A pigeon flies close to its nest! Those who left are worse off now, all dying of sadness…” – says Maria Vitosh. No matter how damaged the land is and how harsh the experience, they still call it and make it home.