Ukraine’s other crisis: Living in the shadow of Chernobyl – where victims receive just 9p a month and are left to fend for themselves

Twenty-eight years after the world's worst nuclear tragedy, forgotten victims are preparing for more pain

The yellow and blue flag of Ukraine is an imaginary landscape. It supposedly symbolizes the endless fields and blue skies of a Ukrainian rural idyll.

Gazing north near the border with Chernobyl, one can be forgiven for being taken in by this fantasy; the yellow unploughed fields stretching out to the horizon. The illusion is broken however, by a distant strip of green conifer trees and disused pylons where the sky meets the earth. Beyond these trees lies the Exclusion Zone.

“We are like bugs on a potato” explains Viktor, standing on his field that backs on to the barbed wire fence of Chernobyl’s nuclear Exclusion Zone: “These bugs are not afraid of anything and nor are we, if you try to kill them - they are still alive, and we are the same”. Like many others who live on territory officially deemed contaminated by Chernobyl, he receives just 9p per month in compensation to ‘buy clean food’. “What can I do with this?” he asks, “It won’t even buy a loaf of bread”.

As the turmoil in Ukraine intensifies and the physical violence enacted upon Ukrainian citizens by bullet, truncheon or Molotov cocktail continues, another more stealthy form of violence continues to impact the lives of thousands of people - that of state-abandonment. This weekend marks the 28th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear tragedy. With Ukraine’s economy on its knees and Russia at its throat, it is Chernobyl’s marginalized citizens who rely on dwindling compensation that are placed at the thin edge of this geopolitical crisis.

 

Earlier this month Russia announced an 80% increase in gas prices for Ukraine. Likewise, the IMF loan offered by the West in the wake of Crimea’s annexation has come with many strings attached, namely a long list of austerity measures that make the 2010 deal with Greece seem like a philanthropic gesture.  Kiev’s floundering interim government are curtailing social services and slashing benefits whilst a depression on a scale not seen since the collapse of communism seems inevitable.

A baby is christened in the only functioning Church in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone A baby is christened in the only functioning Church in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Ukrainians, one in four of whom are already below the poverty line, lie sandwiched between two geopolitical antipodes and are set to feel the full force of these austerity measures and gas hikes. Perhaps no group more so than the exposed victims of Chernobyl.

“This is war without war” explains Masha, who lives a few minutes walk from the forbidden spaces of the Zone – a cordoned off area of north-central Ukraine roughly the size of Oxfordshire. Like Viktor, she too receives virtually nothing in terms of compensation. Her tiny state pension - barely enough to make ends meet – is set to decrease further in the first round of President Yatsinyuk’s austerity measures. “We have a lot of diseases too” she adds “I can’t sleep now”.

An elderly widow holds a photograph of her husband who worked as a liquidator after Chernobyl An elderly widow holds a photograph of her husband who worked as a liquidator after Chernobyl But she, like many others, has other ways of coping. She grows her own food in the contaminated soil, “cucumbers, potatoes, you name it” and even illegally sneaks through holes cut in the fence around Chernobyl, deep into the radiated forests to gather mushrooms and berries. Some she pickles in jars for the uncertain year ahead, and others are sold on the streets of Kiev.  The police sometimes catch her in the Zone but they are often more interested in eliciting bribes than arresting her.

An elderly lady who lives near Chernobyl cries while remembering events that followed the disaster An elderly lady who lives near Chernobyl cries while remembering events that followed the disaster Others collect scrap metal from the Zone in their bid to survive an absent state and failing economy. “If you can, then you steal something, if you cannot steal something – you are hungry” explains one man who regularly ventures into the forbidden forest. Selling the abandoned detritus and infrastructure of the Zone, left by the thousands of forced evacuees 28 years ago, has become an informal lifeline to many people who live in the shadows of Chernobyl.

A woman in Krasilivka village cuts grass using a traditional scythe, near the Chernobyl Zone. A woman in Krasilivka village cuts grass using a traditional scythe, near the Chernobyl Zone People affected by the tragedy have been exposed twice – once to the invisible threat of radiation, and once more to a state that does not care. Liquidators for example, who risked their health in the wake of nuclear meltdown to clean up the contaminated landscape, today regularly struggle to claim the compensation they deserve.

“Do I have to die to prove I am a liquidator?” asks one woman from Kharkhiv, desperate for compensation to help buy medicines for illnesses she relates to Chernobyl. Their damaged biologies and psychological scars are testament to a state that has failed them.

A young girl plays on her grandparent’s small farm near the edge of the nuclear Exclusion Zone A young girl plays on her grandparent’s small farm near the edge of the nuclear Exclusion Zone Estimates of fatalities from the disaster vary wildly, from the IAEA’s figure of 4000 up to nearly one million. But any number hides the real human cost of the tragedy: the lives ruined, the dismembered communities, and the invisible poison of stress.

“You should see the cemeteries there” Viktor tells me, referring to the places where the 350,000 Chernobyl evacuees were sent, “they are like cities”.

A man walks past a memorial in the abandoned city of Pripyat near the Chernobyl reactor A man walks past a memorial in the abandoned city of Pripyat near the Chernobyl reactor There is a widely held belief that those who were forcibly evacuated have died from stress.  As one evacuee tells me, who now lives 500 miles away from her childhood home in the Exclusion Zone: “We are like a tree that has been uprooted, and taken from our own land. There’s only a small chance that this tree will survive and grow in the new soil.”

Recent months have seen Lenin statues forcibly removed from Ukraine’s urban landscape, but the nuclear legacy of the Soviet Union is harder to erase. It is an inheritance that consumes around 5% of Ukraine’s budget each year, a cost that the post-IMF government will be targeting in its path towards austerity.

An elderly lady wanders into the Exclusion Zone at an informal crossing point between officially contaminated and officially ‘clean’ space An elderly lady wanders into the Exclusion Zone at an informal crossing point between officially contaminated and officially ‘clean’ space The dust will eventually settle on the ongoing unrest in Ukraine. Borders may even change. But long after the world turns away from Ukraine, people like Viktor and Masha will still be there, struggling on the edge of a forgotten tragedy – like bugs on a potato, attached to the soil.

Photographs by Alexey Furman and Thom Davies

Thom Davies is a human geographer at the University of Birmingham, School of Geography, Earth, and Environmental Sciences. He has been researching a CEELBAS funded PhD about Chernobyl for the last four years, working in contaminated spaces in Ukraine and interviewing people who survive in the shadow of Chernobyl. Follow him on twitter @ThomDavies

Alexey Furman is a photojournalist based in Ukraine who works on long-term documentary projects and has more recently covered the Euromaidan protests in Kiev. Follow him @alexeyfurman

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick