The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 left a ring of ghost villages as
residents fled, fearing radiation poisoning.
But now people are choosing to live in the crumbling houses on the edge of
the exclusion zone.
On a warm summer's evening, Maryna Kovalenko is playing football with her
two teenage daughters in their backyard.
Iryna and Olena laugh as the family dog attempts to wrestle away the ball,
scattering the startled chickens.
But out beyond the family’s back fence, all is silent and still.
Numerous houses, a shop and a library stand vacant in the village of
Steshchyna, northern Ukraine. Only the forest is gaining ground as
creeping plants explore the cracks in this abandoned village.
An abandoned house on the outskirts of the town of Chernobyl
The family do have a few neighbours, but almost all are in their 70s and
Despite the lack of amenities or opportunities, four years ago Maryna and
her daughters packed up everything they owned and travelled hundreds of
miles across Ukraine to live here - just 30km from the Chernobyl nuclear
The exclusion zone
Toys left behind in an abandoned nursery in the city of Pripyat
On 26 April 1986, Chernobyl suffered the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
An experiment designed to test the safety of the power plant went wrong
and caused a fire which spewed radiation for 10 days. Clouds carrying
radioactive particles drifted for thousands of miles, releasing toxic rain
all over Europe.
Those living close to Chernobyl - about 116,000 people - were immediately
evacuated. A 30km exclusion zone was imposed around the damaged reactor.
This was later expanded to cover more affected areas.
Toy trucks left behind in an abandoned nursery
Toy trucks left behind in an abandoned nursery
Over the next few months a further 234,000 people were moved out. Almost
all left in a hurry. Some were given just a few hours to pack up all their
belongings. Others were told they would only be gone a few days, but were
never allowed back. Many of the evacuees, who were subsistence farmers,
found themselves rehoused in concrete tower blocks.
A child's shoes left behind in an abandoned nursery in the city of
A child's shoes left behind in an abandoned nursery in the city of Pripyat
But some people never left.
Today it is still illegal to live inside the exclusion zone. Despite this,
about 130 to 150 people do. Many are women, still farming their ancestral
land in their 70s and 80s.
And just outside of the exclusion zone, there are a number of new
Building a home
Maryna’s house is in desperate need of repair. The floors are rotting and
the metal radiators have cracked - a major problem in a place where
temperatures can drop to -20C in the winter.
They have basic amenities - gas, electricity and a mobile phone signal,
which means they can access the internet. But they only have an outside
toilet. Water is a problem - their only source is a polluted well which
connects to the house via a single pipe. They need to boil all their water
before it’s used.
A house in good condition in the village might cost $3,500, but such
properties are rare. Most of the vacant homes - many made of wood - are
being sold by their former occupants for less than a few hundred dollars.
Iryna's sketches cover the walls of the sisters' bedroom
Iryna's sketches cover the walls of the sisters' bedroom
Maryna was too poor to buy even one of those when she arrived. Instead,
the governing council offered her family an unusual house-share.
In return for their bed and board, the family cared for an elderly man in
the late stages of dementia. When he died two years ago, the family
inherited the house.
Outside in the yard, Iryna and Olena show off the rest of their “family” -
several hens, rabbits, goats, even a couple of guinea-pigs.
When not at the school - a 5km walk away - the sisters spend much of their
time helping mum in the garden, growing vegetables and looking after the
The family’s sole source of income is state benefits - $183 a month (5,135
Ukrainian hryvnia). Growing their own food and keeping livestock for milk
and meat is essential on their budget.
Maryna and her daughters fled from Toshkivka, a large industrial town in
the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. After four years of conflict in the
east of the country, an estimated 10,000 people have been killed, and
about two million displaced.
The conflict began in 2014.
After Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, armed separatists
claiming to act on behalf of local Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine
decided to act. Fighters declared two separatist enclaves around the
cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass, the heart of the Ukraine’s
As pro-Russian separatists began capturing villages and driving the
Ukrainian military out of the region’s towns and cities, Maryna and her
daughters’ home came under heavy shelling.
Except for a few hours each morning, the bombardment was relentless.
During these temporary ceasefires, everyone would attempt to regain some
sense of normality. Iryna and Olena would go to school, while Maryna went
to the market. But by noon, the firing would resume. Most nights were
spent sheltering in the cellar.
Walking home from school during one such hiatus, Iryna and Olena were
unexpectedly caught in crossfire. With mortars raining down, Maryna could
not get to them. The girls owe their survival to a shopkeeper, who dragged
them off the street and into the safety of her cellar.
That’s when Maryna decided they had to leave.
A monument to Lenin, the first leader of the USSR
There are at least ten other families from the Donbass region who have
made the same long journey to the abandoned villages close to the
Like Maryna, most of them came on the recommendation of old friends or
neighbours. One woman even says she simply Googled “cheapest place to live
in the Ukraine”. The result - near to Chernobyl.
Signposts of the evacuated "dead" villages around Chernobyl
Since the disaster, scientists have been continuously monitoring the
radiation levels in the soil, trees, plants and animals around Chernobyl,
even in areas outside the exclusion zone.
There is no longer a risk from radiation in the atmosphere, says Dr Valery
Kashparov, from the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology (UIAR).
But in some areas soil contamination could pose a threat to people’s
Kashparov and his team recently found potentially dangerous levels of
radioactive caesium-137 in cow’s milk produced in some areas outside the
exclusion zone. Caesium particles, absorbed by grass roots, had been
passed on to grazing cattle.
Olena picks apples from her garden&nbsp;
Olena picks apples from her garden
In large enough quantities, ingesting it can damage human cells, and in
some cases lead to serious diseases such as thyroid cancer.
But these risks, Kashparov says, are confined to specific hotspots. For
more than 30 years his team have been working to map such hotspots so they
can estimate the potential risk for people living and working around the
On one map, showing the dispersion of caesium-137 from the Chernobyl
nuclear reactor, Kashparov looks at the village of Steshchyna where Maryna
and her daughters live. He says the risk from growing vegetables or
drinking goats’ milk in a place like Steshchyna is very low. But the area
is currently being investigated for the risk of radiation in wild food
stuffs, such as forest mushrooms or wild berries.
Maryna says she has thought about the potential risks from radiation, but
that her family was fleeing from something much more dangerous - the
threat of war.
"Radiation may kill us slowly, but it doesn't shoot or bomb us," says
Maryna. "It's better to live with radiation than with war".
Background image: Declining caesium levels. Source: Ukrainian Institute of
Less than two hours’ drive from the capital Kiev, along the perimeter of
the exclusion zone, it’s not just families looking for opportunities in
these ghost towns, but also entrepreneurs.
Every day Vadim Minzuyk walks his dog along the high wire fence marking
out the beginning of the exclusion zone. It’s his favourite place to enjoy
the birdsong and the quiet of the forest.
"It’s like living in the north of Finland or Alaska," says Vadim. "This
area has the lowest population density of anywhere in Ukraine - only two
people per square kilometre.”
In his former hometown of Horlivka, eastern Ukraine, Vadim was a
businessman turning over a million dollars a year. But after the town
ended up on the front line, pounded by artillery, his once-flourishing
factories and warehouses were obliterated - some are just craters now.
Horlivka is still being fought over.
Vadim remembers looking out of his back window to see the rebels erecting
a barricade right against his garden fence. Sometimes the two armies would
be stationed only 100m apart.
For more than a year, his family endured daily ID checks at military
checkpoints across the city. They saw dead bodies left lying along the
roadside. They even witnessed a murder, when a man was pulled from the car
right in front of them by rebels and shot dead in broad daylight.
After evacuating his children, Vadim and his wife soon followed. Driving
out of Horlivka, they left everything behind them.
For several months, living off savings, Vadim travelled around Ukraine
looking for ways for his family to start again. One day, he had a tip-off.
A relative had heard about cheap property for sale near Chernobyl. He went
to see an abandoned grain silo in the village of Dytyatky. Lying right on
the border of the exclusion zone, property was cheap, but it was also
close enough to the capital city of Kiev (115km) to make it a viable
“The roof was leaking where locals had stripped it of all its metal. I met
the owner, and we struck a cheap deal.”
Buying up the warehouse for $1,400, and a further three houses for just
$240, he connected them all to the electricity grid and started up a
“My strategy was to start a business by producing a product made out of
waste.The first year was the most difficult, but over the last two years I
feel much better."
Vadim even re-employed seven of his former workers from Donbass, offering
them accommodation by converting one of his houses into a hostel.
"I can make a living and help my workers to make money too. I’m the
largest taxpayer here in the village. After all, I’m Ukrainian and I want
to help my country.”
Vadim says he does sometimes think about the radiation. He even bought
himself a handheld Geiger counter to measure it.
But he’s not worried. He is confident that the atmospheric radiation level
“After what you witness in war, radiation is nothing. It was a miracle we
He’s enjoying life here.
It’s not just the absence of war, but a special kind of peace.
Both Maryna and Vadim’s families talk about their love of taking long
quiet walks in the forest.
Life may be basic, but neither family wants to move to a bigger town, even
if it would mean more friends or opportunities. Their need for stillness
after fleeing from the chaos of war is sobering.
"I don’t care about the radiation," says Maryna. "I only care that there
are no shells flying over my children. It’s quiet here. We sleep well and
we don’t need to hide.”
Vadim says his wife Olena sometimes likens parts of the derelict exclusion
zone to their war-torn hometown of Horlivka. But there’s a clear
distinction - here on the edge of the exclusion zone she believes their
family has a future.
"I felt like we had lost it all," says Vadim. "But now, living here,
things are getting better.”
Our thanks to Iryna, Olena and Maryna Kovalenko and Vadim and Olena