HA: 017 Samosely

Life Inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Words and images by Raul Arantes | Website | Instagram

On the 26th of April 1986 the world's worst nuclear power accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. Following the disaster, hundreds of thousands of residents in the area were evacuated, most able to take only a few items with them leaving behind the majority of their belongings as well as their homes.

As a result of the disaster, the area surrounding Chernobyl is largely uninhabited except by a handful of residents, known as "Samosely", who either refused to evacuate or secretly resettled after the nuclear disaster in 1986.

At the time of my visit, less than 180 samosely lived in the area, all elderly and primarily women. Most of them lived off minimal resources and home-grown food - some of them even refusing official support. Given their average age, it comes with a certain inevitability that the numbers of these samosely have been and will continue to diminish.

The area they inhabit, officially named the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, is a part of northern Ukraine and southern Belarus and is split into three sections based on the varying levels of radiation and distance from the Chernobyl reactor site. It contains many villages and three towns overall occupying an area of roughly 2,600 square kilometres. The Ukrainian police and security services guard the zone, which is closed to the public, allowing entry only for workers or tourists with special permits. In recent years, day visits to the ghost town of Pripyat have become increasingly popular.

The difficult access and the long distances between villages and cities mean that most settlers live in isolation. As a result, the majority of the residents usually spend their time farming and repairing their houses. 

As I heard their stories, a common thread became salient: a strong sense of attachment to their homes and of belonging to the area. Their homes are primarily packed with dusty belongings, family pictures, and religious icons. As you listen to their stories, you glimpse the past in front of your eyes. It felt as if time had stopped, and memories stretched into the present. 

For many, the Chernobyl disaster was and remains something distant and hard to comprehend. Thirty-five years have passed, but a certain stigma remains that drives a negative impression that is larger than the event itself. Perhaps exacerbated by the political context of the time, the disaster holds a position of importance that reaches far beyond the immediate tragedy.

On visiting, my first impression was as if nothing ever happened there. It was early September, and as we drove across the area, I could see wild horses and thriving wildlife. The landscape was peaceful, quiet, predominantly green and yellow and it was warm and sunny. In a way, it was beautiful and very far from the apocalyptic scenario I pictured in my mind.

As you drive away from Chernobyl, you come across areas that are safer, clean of radiation and you may even come across some residents fishing and farming. Yet in-between all this, some fields are still highly contaminated and will continue to be so for thousands of years.

As time goes by, however, nature regains its territory, villages become overgrown, people age and pass away, and the invisibility of mortality becomes apparent – reality asserts its prerogatives.