Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

After Chernobyl, they refused to leave

By Holly Morris, Special to CNN
November 8, 2013 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Holly Morris:1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident world'' worst. Area still highly contaminated
  • She says thousands relocated rural Chernobyl to city, but 1,200 defiantly came back to live
  • Most are babushka's, unwilling to be displaced from even an irradiated homeland
  • Morris: They tend to outlive those who left. Why? Personal agency? The tonic of home?

Editor's note: Holly Morris is co-producer/director of the forthcoming documentary "The Babushkas of Chernobyl" Follow her on Twitter @Holly Morris. She spoke at TEDGlobal 2013 in June. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website. For more on the future of nuclear power as a possible solution for global climate change, watch CNN Films' presentation of "Pandora's Promise," airing on CNN on Thursday, November 7, at 9 p.m. ET/PT

(CNN) -- On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant's reactor No. 4 blew up after a cooling capability test, and the resulting nuclear fire lasted 10 days, spewing 400 times as much radiation as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. To date, it's the world's worst nuclear accident. The 2011 Fukushima meltdown, of course, is still playing out -- but actually, so is Chernobyl.

Nearly 28 years after the disaster, Reactor No. 4 simmers under its "sarcophagus," a concrete and metal cover hastily built after the accident. It's now cracked, rusted and leaking radiation. A partial roof collapse last February sent reverberations of fear throughout the world. As well it should have. With 200 tons of lava-like radioactive material still below the reactor, and the "New Safe Confinement" aimed at containing and protecting it not scheduled for completion till 2015 (already 15 years overdue) this story of nuclear disaster is in its early chapters.

Today, Chernobyl's soil, water, and air are among the most highly contaminated on Earth. The reactor sits at the center of a 1,000-square-mile "Exclusion Zone," a quarantined no-man's land complete with border guards, passport control and radiation monitoring. Inside the Zone are hundreds of unmarked (and un-mapped) burial sites where machinery from the cleanup after the 1986 accident was dumped. These days, Ukraine's four other nuclear power plants also dispose of their spent fuel inside the Zone.

It's real, and it's scary.

TED.com: The deadly genius of drug cartels

Why stay in Chernobyl? Because it's home

But amidst the complicated real-life calculations and compromises -- where science and politics meet to duke out the viability of nuclear energy -- the long, deep, human parable of Chernobyl is often lost. That story is partly embodied in an unlikely community of some 130 people, called "self-settlers" who, today, live inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Almost all of them are women, the men having died off due to overuse of alcohol and cigarettes, if not the effects of elevated radiation. About 116,000 people were evacuated from the Zone at the time of the accident. Some 1,200 of them did not accept that fate. Of that group, the remaining women, now in their 70s and 80s, are the last survivors of a group that defied authorities -- and it would seem, common sense -- and illegally returned to their ancestral homes shortly after the accident.

I've been filming and interviewing this unlikely community since 2010.

The Zone's scattered ghost villages are silent and bucolic, eerie and contaminated. Many villages were bulldozed after the accident, others remain -- silent vestiges to the tragedy, and home to the ubiquitous wild boar. Still, other villages have 1 or 2 or 8 or 12 babushkas, or babas -- the Russian and Ukrainian words for "grandmother" -- living in them.

One self-settler, Hanna Zavorotnya, told me how she snuck through the bushes back to her village in the summer of 1986. "Shoot us and dig the grave," she told the soldiers who nabbed her and other family members, "otherwise we're staying." Then she handed me a chunk of warm salo --- raw fat -- from her just-slaughtered pig.

TED.com: What I discovered in New York City's trash

Why would they choose to live on deadly land? Are they unaware of the risks, or crazy enough to ignore them, or both? It's hard for us -- especially Westerners with deeper connections to our laptops than any piece of soil -- to understand. But these women see their lives in a decidedly different way.

When I asked Hanna about radiation, she replied: "Radiation doesn't scare me. Starvation does."

It's all about context.

They lived through Stalin's Holodomor -- the genocide-by famine of the 1930s that wiped out millions of Ukrainians -- and then the Nazis in the1940s. Some of the women were shipped to Germany as forced labor. When the Chernobyl accident happened a few decades into Soviet rule, they were simply unwilling to flee an enemy that was invisible.

So long as they were well beyond child bearing, self-settlers were allowed to stay "semi-illegally." Five happy years, the settlers logic went, is better than 15 condemned to a high-rise on the outskirts of Kyiv. The residents of the Chernobyl region are forest-dwelling steppe people of Ukraine's Polesia region and did not adapt well to urban environments. There is a simple defiance common among them: "They told us our legs would hurt, and they do," one 80-year-old woman told me. "So what."

TED.com: Why our universe might exist on a knife edge

What about their health? There are benefits of hardy living from the land -- but also complications from an environment laced with radioactive contaminants, such as cesium, strontium and americium. Health studies vary. The World Health Organization predicts more than 4,000 deaths will eventually be linked to Chernobyl.

Greenpeace and others put that projection into the tens of thousands. All agree thyroid cancers are sky high, and that Chernobyl evacuees have suffered the trauma of relocated peoples everywhere, including anxiety, depression,

Radioactive contamination from the accident has been death-dealing, to be sure, but relocation trauma is another, less-examined fallout of Chernobyl. Of the old people who relocated, one Chernobyl medical technician, whose job is to give annual radiation exposure tests to zone workers said: "Quite simply, they die of anguish."

Home is the entire cosmos of the rural babushka, and connection to the land is palpable. They told me: "If you leave you die," "Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness," "Motherland is Motherland. I will never leave."

TED.com: Architecture at home in its community

Curiously, what sounds like faith may actually be fact. There aren't studies to refer to (after all, semi-legal marginalized old women living on radioactive land are hardly a civic or research priority) but surprisingly these women who returned home have, according to local officials and journalists who have kept track of them, seem to have outlived their counterparts who accepted relocation -- by some estimates, up to 10 years.

How could this be? Certainly, their exposure at an older age put them at smaller risk. (Young animals -- and I'm including humans here -- are more severely affected by radiation.) But let's consider a less tangible though equally powerful idea. Does happiness affect longevity? Is the power of motherland, so fundamental to that part of the world, palliative? Are home and community forces that can rival even radiation? I believe so. And unfailingly, so do the babushkas of the Zone.

Radiation or not, these women are at the end of their lives. But their existence and spirit will leave us wondering about the relative nature of risk, about transformative connections to home, and about the magnificent tonic of personal agency and self-determination. They are unexpected lessons from a nuclear tragedy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Holly Morris.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT