As Fukushima smolders and the world enters a foreboding era of nuclear threats, driven by geologic, political and energy-source instability, an extraordinary human story rises from the ashes of Chernobyl to inform the debate. In the radioactive Dead Zone surrounding Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4, a community of some 200 elderly women is defiantly clinging to their ancestral homeland. While most of their neighbors have long since fled and their husbands have gradually died off, this stubborn sisterhood is hanging on — even, oddly, thriving — while trying to cultivate an existence on some of the most toxic acres on Earth. Why they chose to live here after the disaster, defying the authorities and endangering their health, is a remarkable tale—about the pull of home, the healing power of shaping one’s destiny and the subjective nature of risk.
We first encountered this little-known community while filming in Chernobyl’s “Exclusion Zone” just a few short miles from a mass of radioactive lava that even now simmers beneath a crumbling reactor. We and our crew saw a bizarre sight — a small cottage straight out of an ancient folk tale, surrounded by lush vegetable gardens and farmyard animals. Then we saw Hanna, a striking woman in a colorful print skirt, headscarf and rubber boots, making her rounds. Over the next few days we met several more of these “babushkas” or “babas” – the Russian and Ukrainian words for “grandmothers” – making lives for themselves in the Exclusion Zone.
Why do these women insist on living on farms that the Ukrainian government and radiation scientists have deemed uninhabitable? How do they manage to get by, isolated, in an apocalyptic landscape guarded by soldiers, and increasingly rife with wild animals? How has the radiation affected them these past 27 years? At her cottage, Hanna offered us homemade moonshine and thick slices of raw pig fat. We demurred, fearful of the radioactive contamination that permeates the land, air and soil around Chernobyl. It is strictly forbidden to eat local food, though of course the women do.
“Starvation is what scares me, not radiation,” Hanna said. That stark choice was a hint at the incredible journey this woman, and the women like her in The Zone, have traveled in their extraordinary lives: From Stalin’s enforced famines in the 1930s, through World War II, to nuclear disaster. Like the wolves, moose, wild boar and other wildlife not seen for decades that have come back to the abandoned forests around Chernobyl, the women of the Exclusion Zone, too, have an extraordinary story of survival, and offer a dark yet strangely affirming portrait of life post-apocalypse. Because these women live in The Dead Zone (where few tread) their stories have gone untold and are now a whisper away from vanishing altogether.