By guest contributor and TEDMED 2015 speaker Holly Morris
This spring marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in Ukraine, the world’s worst nuclear accident. Today, Reactor No. 4 simmers under its “sarcophagus,” a concrete cover hastily built immediately after the accident, now cracked, rusted and leaking radiation. Its long delayed “New Safe Confinement,” the structure being built to cover the reactor, has been repeatedly delayed, and is now years overdue. This story of nuclear disaster is in its early chapters.
Inside Chernobyl’s 1000-square-mile “Exclusion Zone,” known simply as “the Zone,” lies the most contaminated land on Earth, including hundreds of unmarked (and unmapped) burial sites where machinery from the clean up after the 1986 accident was dumped. These days, Ukraine’s four other nuclear power plants also dispose of their spent fuel inside the Zone.
But amidst the complicated real-life equations 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 100 people, called “self settlers” who, today, live inside the Zone. Almost all of them are women in their seventies and eighties; they are the last of a group of some 1200 people who defied authorities and illegally returned home after being evacuated.
One self-settler, Hanna, 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.
Why would they choose to live on deadly land? Were they unaware of the risks, or crazy enough to ignore them, or both? These women see their lives, and the risks they run, decidedly differently.
It’s all about context– the women had already survived Stalin’s famines, and Nazi atrocities, and were simply unwilling to leave their homeland in the face of an enemy that was invisible–radiation.
So long as they were well beyond child bearing, self-settlers were eventually allowed by officials to return. Five happy years, the logic went, is better than fifteen condemned to a high-rise on the outskirts of Kiev. Despite the hardship, the wolves, the radiation – all of the women chose to return to be near the graves of their parents, and babies; to the villages, they say, where they know, exactly, where the sun will rise. There is a simple defiance common among them: “They told us our legs would hurt, and they do. So what.”
The benefits of hardy live-from-the land realities are complicated by an environment laced with radioactive contaminants such as cesium, strontium and americium. The upper estimates of the eventual Chernobyl death toll are in the tens of thousands. Thyroid cancers are sky high, and that Chernobyl evacuees have suffered the trauma of relocated peoples everywhere, including anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and disrupted social networks.
To be clear, the nuclear accident was a miserable tragedy that clobbered the health and economy of a region. But relocation trauma is another, less-examined fallout of Chernobyl. As one Chernobyl medical technician put it about the old people who relocated: “Quite simply, they die of anguish.”
Home is the entire cosmos of the rural babushka, and connection to the land is palpable. Chernobyl babushka sayings go, “Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness,” “When you live outside your village, you leave your soul,” “Motherland is Motherland. I will never leave.” The surprising truth seems to be that these women who returned home have, according to local officials and journalists, (and the women themselves) 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. (Younger animals– this includes humans– are more susceptible to the effects of radiation.) But 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 without exception, the women of the Zone do too.
I’m traveling to Ukraine this spring to screen “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” with the film’s central characters, Hanna Zavorotyna, Valentina Ivanivna and Maria Shovkuta. They continue to gather mushrooms, brew moonshine, and scare off wild boars who would mess with their gardens. Radiation or not, the babushkas are at the end of their lives. In their 80’s now, they are frail, and smaller; it feels as if they are a whisper away from being gone. But their existence and spirit will live on, leaving us wondering about the relative nature of risk, about transformative connections to home, and about the magnificent tonic of personal agency and self-determination– unexpected lessons from a nuclear tragedy.
Check out the Babushkas of Chernobyl trailer:
Watch Holly’s TEDMED talk, Chernobyl: Flourishing lives in the dead zone.