Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online.
Approximately 100 women defiantly cling to their ancestral homeland in Chernobyl’s radioactive “Exclusion Zone”.
While most of their neighbours 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 toxic earth.
Hanna, Maria and Valentya chose to return after the 1986 nuclear disaster, defying authorities and endangering their health.
They share this hauntingly beautiful but lethal landscape with an assortment of scientists, soldiers and young thrill-seekers.
Now, 30 years after the disaster, they share their remarkable tales of survival.
By Holly Morris
In 2010, while covering the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster for a travel documentary, I became aware of the community of women living inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and was immediately captivated. I wanted to understand their story, their spirit – their ability to survive under such extraordinary, toxic conditions.
After all, Chernobyl’s soil, water and air are among the most highly contaminated on earth, and reactor number four sits at the centre of a tightly regulated exclusion zone, or dead zone.
It’s a nuclear police state, complete with border guards and draconian radiation rules. The point being, no human being should be living anywhere near the dead zone. But they are. Why would they return to such deadly soil? Were they unaware of the risks or crazy enough to ignore them, or both?
I would come to understand that they see their lives, and the risks they run, decidedly differently.
I returned to the zone almost immediately to report and write The Babushkas of Chernobyl (widely syndicated in London’s Telegraph, the Independent, The Week, CNN.com, and MORE magazine as Ukraine: A Country of Women). Soon, my TED Talk about the babushkas of Chernobyl was released.
I felt a documentary could expand the reach of this global story – to further put a human face on pressing contemporary issues, including nuclear power, relocation trauma, the health consequences of environmental disaster, and mind-body effects on longevity. It’s not that the women haven’t suffered enormously, or that nuclear contamination isn’t bad (they have, and it is) – but the babushkas’ unlikely survival raises fascinating questions about the palliative powers of home, and even the tonic of living a self-determined life.
We worked in teams so no one crew member would have too much exposure time in the zone; we carried dosimetres; we did our best to avoid the mushrooms and moonshine. In the end I hope and believe we captured a singular story of some unlikely heroines – now a whisper away from gone.