By Anastasia Vlasova and Alik Sardarian
From the War Zone to Chernobyl
How people displaced by the conflict in Ukraine are rebuilding villages around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.


On April 26, 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, causing one of the planet's largest nuclear disasters. Suddenly, many cities and villages located near the epicenter of the catastrophe became ghost towns.

After the authorities issued a series of official decrees calling for the voluntary and mandatory resettlement of the local population, the area around the nuclear plant also became a zone of enhanced radioecological control.

But now, thirty years after the disaster, some of the local villages are beginning to recover as a result of another catastrophe: the war in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. The new settlers are people who were internally displaced by the fighting.
Radynka
"We're eating apricots and suddenly we see a missile. It takes off and hits an airplane, which begins to smoke and falls into a cornfield. After that, we decided that it was time to leave," says Yulia Piddubnyak, a former resident of the Donbas town of Makiivka.

In August of 2014, Yulia, her husband Vitaliy, and their children moved to the village of Radynka, located 50 kilometers from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It appears to have been a smart move: In early September, she received a call from a neighbor in Makiivka — a shell had landed right in their garden.
Radinka is located seven kilometers from the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Two years ago, documents showed that the village was reclassified from the "third zone of guaranteed voluntary resettlement" to the "fourth zone of enhanced radioecological control".
Environmentalists explain this by the fact that the 30-year half-life of cesium and strontium, which over the years go deeper into the soil, has passed. But elements such as americium and plutonium still remain active.

Chalk drawings color the pavement in front of Vitaliy and Yulia's home and a toy train and a swing sit in their yard. Their house consists of two small rooms and a kitchen. All of this costs the Piddubnyaks just 100 hryvnia per month. And they have the right to buy the property in 20 years.

Vitaliy was born in Poliske, another place hit by the Chernobyl disaster. These days, it's a ghost town, with the second-highest number of evacuees after Pripyat.

"Yes, there are elevated levels of radiation but it's fine. You can live there. I've had a stage two goiter since childhood, but I've lived with it for 25 years and I don't complain," he says.
Vitaliy was born three years before the Chernobyl accident. His mother worked as a primary school teacher. After the explosion, she was tasked with evacuating the children from Pripyat. She became a liquidator, one of the civilian and military personnel tasked with managing the aftermath of the disaster. Then she became ill. She was sick for many years before she died in 1998. After she died, Vitaliy moved to the Donbas.

"There was no panic or fear, at least for us in Poliske," he recalls. "I remember, in the first grade, some guys with a dosimeter came to see us, recorded the levels of radiation, and said they were too high. So they built another school for us."
More than ten thousand people lived in the town of Poliske near the Pripyat river in the mid-1980s. Now there are a few dozens in total. Despite the fact that the authorities initially launched a campaign to discourage resettlement from the town, in 1986 Poliske residents began leaving en masse. The Ukrainian parliament only made resettlement mandatory in 1993.
The town's buildings lay in ruins. Residential areas have turned into forests, and there is almost no communications infrastructure.
Over the last 25 years, the authorities have occasionally allocated money for Poliske's restoration, but town has not yet been rebuilt. Since the start of the war in 2014, most of the new residents have been internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Donbas.

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The Piddubnyaks remember that, even in peaceful Radynka, their children were at first afraid loud sounds. "The little ones would see a plane and hide under the bed. 'Dad, it will kill us,' they would say," Vitaliy recalls.

Some neighbours are hostile towards displaced families. They call them separatists and ask them why they moved here. Local men alleged that Vitaliy used to be a separatist sniper and his eye injury was caused by recoil from a gun. In reality, it's a childhood injury.

But despite the hardships, the Piddubnyaks have no plans to return to Makiivka, even after the war. On the contrary, they encourage their friends to move to Radynka.

"There are many empty houses. If only there was the money and the will to get them fixed up…" Yulia says. "So many people were left without homes. Why don't the authorities repair these and give them to displaced persons?"
"I remember when they talked about Pripyat and Chernobyl on television. I thought, how could these people leave everything behind? They abandoned everything they had gained over the years. But when we got caught in the war, I understood. It's the same as what we did."
Poliske is not the only ghost town. Holubijevychi, in the Zhytomyr region, also found itself in the resettlement zone after the Chernobyl disaster. Moreover, evacuation was mandatory.Almost all residents were relocated to the new Holubijevychi - a village with the same name was quickly built in Kirovohrad region specifically for them.
Now in the old Holubijevychi there are more than two dozen inhabitants. There is no infrastructure there - no working school, kindergarten, or hospital. In the mid-2000s, the last state structure- the village council - stopped working.

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"When it all began, we thought the Ukrainian army would come and liberate our city. But then the Russian troops came to Ilovaisk and I realized that it was time to leave," Yevhen Denysenko says, recalling the last days he spent in his hometown.

He and his wife Olya always dreamed of retiring to the country, but they never imagined having to leave their native Yenakiieve under such extreme circumstances.
Bazar
Back home, Olya worked as the deputy director of a mine. One day, some men came demanding payment for members of the armed separatists. She refused. Then, they came a second time — and wanted to take Olya to Horlivka, to the separatists' so-called "Ministry of State Security." But other people at the mine stopped them from dragging her off. Olya went home and spent two days googling places to move to immediately. She found a house in the village of Bazar in the Zhytomyr region.
More than two thousand people lived in Bazar before the Chernobyl disaster. Afterwards, no more than a few hundred remained.
IDPs from the Donbas have been coming here since the start of the war. They found whole neighbourhoods of abandoned houses, broken windows, collapsed roofs, and deserted courtyards.
They also found local authorities they could trust. The recovery plan for rebuilding Bazar includes symbolic rent prices and simplified procedures for temporarily obtaining the empty buildings.

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Yevhen and Olya moved from Yenakiieve in stages so as not to attract the attention of their neighbours. Olya says that she managed to move almost all of her furniture, ten cats and two dogs.

"Well, could we have left the pets? The people there are so greedy they wouldn't give them a slice of bread," Yevhen says, unable to keep calm any longer.
The cats came in handy; there were a lot of mice in their new home. But this was not the only problem the Denysenkos faced. The village of Bazar lies in zone III of the guaranteed voluntary resettlement area." It is very cheap to rent property here. Yevhen and Olya pay less than 20 hryvnya ($0.75) per month for the house. But the property is also very rundown, so they have to do a lot of repair work themselves.

Shortly after Olya moved to Bazar from Luhansk, her daughter Anna, her granddaughter, and her husband joined her.

"When we were all reunited, and it got easier," Olya says with a smile.
Yevhen has made peace with the fact that he will never return to Yenakiieve:

"There's not much to miss there. It just hurts that I haven't been to my parents' graves for three years."
Zelena Polyana
"It's quiet here. There's nothing to bother us," says Misha. "Forest, fresh air, mushrooms and, in the evenings, we play football in the stadium."

Misha is 14 years old. He moved to Zelena Polyana with his mother, sister, and nephew. The family used to live in Hirske in the Luhansk region. Misha is building a three-storey treehouse with his new friend Bohdan in the middle of the forest.
Like Radynka, Zelena Polyana is in zone IV of enhanced radioecological control.

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Misha's mother found out about the opportunity to move here from her friend Olena Kachalna, who also moved to the nearby village of Steschyna. She helped them get acquainted with the area before they moved.

"Inna arrived here so wide-eyed!" Olena says, nodding at her daughter.

"And then I saw a real goat for the first time in my life!" Inna laughs.
It's not just a goat that the women have to deal with — chickens, geese, and ducks run around their backyard. They are restoring the house gradually. They recently re-pasted the wallpaper and whitewashed the doors outside. They plan to fix the ceiling next.
This is their second attempt to escape the war. Back in 2014, they all moved to Kharkiv, where they lived for a few months in a rented flat. However, there wasn't much room for seven people and the rent was too high, so they moved back to Hirske.

"We decided that, even if they bomb us, at least it's home," Olena recalls. "And surely enough, we were shelled!"
Olena even had to take her four-year-old grandson to the local psychic because he would fall to the ground any time he heard whistling sounds or other noises. Her daughter Inna recalls one night when they were still in Hirske and she could barely sleep because of the shelling:

"I held Artur in my arms. I looked out the window, and all these things were flying around! Well, that was it. I felt numb. I stood there in a daze and I didn't know what to do. In the street you could already hear the whistling. The shells did not fall on our house then, but on our neighbour's."
Olena left two apartments in Hirske, but she does not regret it. She only worries that there is no one there too look after her eldest son's grave.

"Well, radiation is better than shells flying over our heads tomorrow!"
At the time of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster, there were over 1000 people living in the village of Velyki Klishchi in the Narodychi district. In 1990, the Zhytomyr district council removed Velyki Klishchi from its register of cities and towns. Because of radioactive contamination, the village became a compulsory resettlement zone: schools, post offices, and state institutions were all closed and the residents were evacuated. But not everyone. Velyki Klishchi only became completely deserted in 2013, when its last resident died. She was one of the few people who refused to leave her native village after the Chernobyl catastrophe.

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Translated by Natalie Vikhrov and Sofia Fedeczko
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