59. Meeting the Chernobyl Resettlers

After meeting the Urupa family of resettlers in 2012 , it was my number one priority of this trip to meet some more.

If you remember from my last report, there were only 3 villagers in Parishev: Maria and Mikial (Ivan) Urupa, and another lady. I was desperate to get back to see them, however the night before I was due to visit the other lady passed away. I couldn’t bear to bring myself to visit them, and I really doubted they wanted to see me.

Luckily, as I pulled into a small village about 20Km East of Chernobyl I was met by Hanna Zavorotnya. She’s now 80 and it’s clear that she holds a lot of respect in the village. She confidently walks over to me, who must look like a complete alien to her and greets me with a long sentence in Ukrainian; of which I understand nothing.

I smile and nod, she smiles back and her blue eyes light up.

Despite me only being there for less than a minute she begins to prepare a meal, and shoos me away while she does. I walk through the smallholding trying not to tread on the gaggle of chickens running round my feet:

The Smallholding

I start walking towards the village graveyard which is just behind her cottage. On the way I pass another elderly lady hobbling down the road. She stops me, again with a quick string of Ukrainian which I don’t understand. But then she holds her hands to her face making the international gesture for ‘Photo’ before pointing her stick to the road. I look where she’s pointing and there is a small snake at her feet! I look up at her and she does the ‘photo’ thing again, so I get as low and close as I dare to take a photo of it:

After my shutter clicks I realise she’s moved her walking stick away; I look up to make sure she’s OK, just in time to notice she has raised the stick above her head.

I pause, she swings it down at great speed, I feel the ‘woosh’ of it passing inches from my face, before the crunch of it going through the poor snakes skull!

I jump back up onto to my feet as she grinds the stick into the lifeless snake whilst muttering something in Ukrainian (although I swear I heard ‘Putin’ in there somewhere).

The graveyard was amazingly well tended, and seemed a stark contrast to the rest of the exclusion zone. There was also a large portion of new graves from recent years.

Fresh graves

There are 19 People left in the village. Most of them were born in this village - They will all certainly be buried right here.

Unknowingly, I’d coincided my visit with the weekly supplies van visit, It was also pension day, which is bought in the same van once a month. Their pensions are actually quite generous, equivalent to someone working 40 hours a week on minimum wage. The whole village came to meet the van, patiently queuing. After collecting their money they bought basic supplies like toilet rolls and flour, although they actually consume very little; growing and slaughtering what they need themselves.

The supplies van next to the village well, which is tested once a month for levels of radionuclides

I make my way back to Hannas cottage and the meal is nearly ready. Our young interpreter was helping away in a scene of almost domestic bliss.

Hanna and our interpreter
As I’m admiring the food Hanna brushes past me at quite some speed for a lady of her age, holding a gleaming machete. She quickly and expertly slices a lump of fat the size of a fist which is sat on the table into thin slices before laying them into home cooked bread. There’s a jar of pickled gherkins (a Ukrainian favourite) some fried meat balls, and a large pot of seasoned potatoes also laid out.

There was also two small bottles of clear liquid, which I’m guessing wasn’t water. I was painfully hungover and my stomach has been on a spin cycle since the snake slaying. But I’m a polite guest, and quickly tucked into the food which was actually delicious.

Then the time came… Hanna poured out the home made moonshine into glasses. As she poured she didn’t even look at the glasses, she made eye contact with each of us in turn, almost sizing us up to see if we would be able to handle it.

After a short speech from our interpreter we all raised our glasses and I threw back as much of it as I could. My god it burned. I could feel a sear from my lips down to my throat, staining everywhere that the liquid had touched in pain. I’m ashamed to say I only finished half my glass, but my reaction was enough to give Hanna a big belly laugh.

As I was swilling the remainder of the moonshine around the bottom of the glass, an elderly gent emerged from one of the sheds and greeted me with the same string of Ukrainian which I’d failed to understand twice already today. I replied with the usual smile and nod, but I also realised I could probably palm this moonshine off to him.

I offered him my glass and raised my eyebrows. He happily took it and drained it without so much a grimace.

Hanna didn’t like it though. Not because of my inability to finish the drink, but because of her neighbour getting bevvied up at 10am. She slapped his hand and he laughed like a schoolboy a tenth his age. As soon as Hanna was distracted enough, I managed to sneak him a few more half glasses of moonshine (I’m glad it wasn’t just me that couldn’t finish it). After Hanna had cleared away all of the empties (eyeing us, and the now swaying man with suspicion) she joined us to talk about the resettlement.

“The Soviets declared that the village was within the 18-mile uninhabitable zone, so evicted all of us [116,000 residents] with a pension, an apartment and sketchy information about the health risks. In the following years, we were joined by a few hundred thousand more, all displaced, most from the land where they’d grown up.”

But Hanna, who had been forced out in the first group, did not accept that fate.

Three months after being relocated, she returned with her husband, her mother-in-law and a handful of other members of their collective farm, most of whom are now queuing at the blue van behind me. When government officials objected, she responded, “Shoot us and dig the grave; otherwise we’re staying”

Hanna was among some 1,200 returnees, called 'self-settlers’, most of whom were in their 50’s, who made their way back in the first few years after the accident, despite the authorities’ legitimate concerns. Although the self-settlers’ have a deep love of their ancestral homes, it’s a fact that the soil, air and water here in the Exclusion Zone is the among the most heavily contaminated on earth.

It is now estimated that there are under 200 resettlers in the whole zone. A number I have been freshly reminded is falling all the time. I guess that’s what saddened me the most about visiting the village - the thought that in five years time it’s unlikely there will be anyone alive in this village at all, it’ll just be empty.

I asked if she was scared of the radiation at all? She laughed and gave a similar response to what I had heard from the previous resettlers: She told me that she was born in 1934, right in the middle of the Holodomor. Stalin was starving the people of Ukraine to keep them subservient, where it’s estimated that up to five million Ukrainians were starved to death. She explained that a lot of families were forced into killing and eating their own infants just to stay alive.

She survived this, but things didn’t get easier; when she was six years old the Nazis stormed through the village, raping and pillaging. When they stole all of her fathers potatoes, he begged for mercy and asked for them to just leave a few for the family, they threatened to kill him. Ten and a half million Ukrainians were slaughtered by the Nazi, but miraculously Hanna’s family survived. She made it clear that she wouldn’t be moving for some threat that she cant even see, smell or taste.

As I departed she left me with the words “You can take me from my mother, but you can’t take me from my motherland.”

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