New Life near the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
26 April, 2018

Ukraine has 1.4 million officially registered displaced persons from the war zone in Donbas. These people have moved to different parts of the country, attempting to start new lives. Some have even gone to live near the Chernobyl exclusion zone – in villages, which are not officially recognized as radioactively dangerous, but bordering the territory where entry is forbidden. Hromadske tells the story of a family of displaced persons from one of these villages in the Kyiv region.

The distance from the village of Zelena Polyana in the Kyiv region to the Poliske checkpoint where the Chernobyl exclusion zone begins is nine kilometers. Compared with other villages in this zone, Zelena Polyana looks unusually well-kept. Although there are many abandoned homes here, the ones that remain have been taken care of. There are storks nesting on pillars, a horse grazes in a small field, and some geese walk along the road. Beyond lies a forest and still further – the exclusion zone.

Up to 300 people live here now. Many left immediately after the accident, others a little later. There’s no work in the village, aside from the local forestry enterprise but even it has only a few dozen people working there. People go to Kyiv, traveling 150 kilometers. As a result, they leave for good. Even at the entrance to the village, you can see that someone has decided not to stay here: on the first house a large banner reads “For Sale.”

Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov/HROMADSKE

“There are those who left, the houses remained,” explains the head of Zelena Polyana’s village council, Kateryna Vitkovska. She speaks in a special dialect – mixing Ukrainian and Russian and pronouncing her vowels softly. Many in the Polisia region speak this way. “They go up for sale, but now no one is buying them.”

Some of those who left put ads on the internet for displaced persons – there are empty houses, whoever wants them, come. In total five families came, but only two remain now. Vitkovska explains that one family left for Kyiv, while the other returned to Donbas. “There’s no work, just the garden. And you can’t live off the garden alone. You need money. So they left.”

“We’re here without documents”

Valeriya Kostyuk has been living in Zelena Polyana for half a year. She came there from the city of Snizhne in the Donetsk region. Today, the city is controlled by separatists, but in 2014-2015 there was constant shelling there. Even now it hasn’t stopped.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov/HROMADSKE

For a long time, Kostyuk hesitated over whether or not to go. She has three children Serhiy, the oldest, is 10; Olya, the middle child is 7, and the youngest, Sonya, is only 2. Sonya’s birth was the deciding factor when it came to leaving Snizhne. Then began constant travel across the demarcation line, because Sonya needed Ukrainian documents, from the government-controlled territories. The decision to leave had been a long time coming when Kostyuk finally accepted it, although she admits it was very difficult – more so because her relatives refused to go.

“When the baby was born, documents needed to be filled out,” Kostyuk recalls. “I remember, it was at the tax office. I went, walked and walked, searched and searched – nothing. I asked some passersby, and they said: Yes, there’s the tax office. I looked over, and it was a pile of bricks. And that was it. Explosions at night, again. At one point they started firing heavily. I understood that going was necessary. Leaving the children in such conditions was very dangerous.”

Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov/HROMADSKE

As Kostyuk recounts her story, little Sonya runs around and watches what is happening with interest. The older children are at school in the neighboring village. They go there by bus in the morning and come back in the afternoon – in the meantime Kostyuk does housework. The place is small – just a house with a little garden. Kostyuk came here almost by accident – an acquaintance learned that she was leaving Snizhne and suggested living here, in Zelena Polyana. Before that, another family from Luhansk lived here, but they weren’t able to establish themselves. They returned to the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic.

When leaving Snizhne, Kostyuk traveled light – she worried that there would be problems at the contact line. But in fact, it was the opposite, the soldiers at the checkpoints offered support. She left almost everything in Snizhne – parents, friends, her own apartment. Relatives sent some of their things later – but Valeriya came here alone. She divorced her first husband long ago and the second left when Kostyuk was expecting Sonya. She talks about her personal drama calmly, as if it were long forgotten. In general, she gives off the impression of a strong person. Others probably wouldn’t have dared to go so far from home, and there are many difficulties here.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov/HROMADSKE

“Even basic things – getting [migrant] documents,” Kostyuk explains. “We need to go to the regional center, and the bus is only at 7 a.m. and at 11. If I go at 7 in the morning, the children will have to get themselves to school. And if I go at 11 – the children will come back from school alone. So, we’re here without documents.”

Life in the Village

Zelena Polyana wasn’t part of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and people were not resettled immediately after the accident, unlike those from neighboring villages. But all the locals are sure that the radioactive cloud fell here.

At one of the houses, we meet a cheerful, 80-year-old grandmother. She introduces herself as Halyna and immediately invites us to lunch. She has spent her entire life in Zelena Polyana and remembers the day of the accident very well.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov/HROMADSKE

“Our village wasn’t resettled but on that day buses transported people from Chernobyl via Martynovychi [a village in the exclusion zone, 9 kilometers from Zelena Polyana],” Halyna recalls. “They were taken and settled in houses. I had eight people in my house.”

When asked if there was radiation here, Halyna smiles and answers as if she’s explaining something to a child: “Well, how couldn’t there be? There was; we even had black potatoes. Everyone says it was because the frost got to them, but the cloud fell. This is where the cloud fell, and this is where it didn’t. Where it fell, there are chanterelles, mushrooms, berries. There is a large amount of radiation where it fell, and a little bit where it didn’t.”

However, the head of the village council, Kateryna Vitkovska, says there was no radiation in Zelena Polyana. Their village is a “category four,” as opposed to a “category three” – a settlement included in the 30-kilometer exclusion zone.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov/HROMADSKE

“We are classed as category four. This means it’s clean. Three kilometers further up, there’s a category three village. And the surrounding area is all category three,” Kateryna insists. “We are in the middle, although closer to Martynovychi [a village in the exclusion zone], they made it category four.”

Vitkovska explains that there are no displaced persons in the exclusion zone itself – only squatters, and there are around 80 of them there. She says that people regularly come from there for milk or bread, and if someone from the Donbas did live there, they would have been told already.

In reality, the migrants come to villages not far from the zone where there are many empty houses, and they can settle without the permission of the owners. They don’t pay rent, only for electricity, gas, and water. For many, this is salvation. Although Halyna is sure that they come to Zelena Polyana because of its natural beauty.

“Of course, nature, what else!” she says definitely. “We have ponds, swans, and fish. Mushrooms, berries. Everyone comes here for the nature.”

“Good, hardworking people came here”

Kostyuk explains that in the winter she pays 500 hryvnia ($20) for utilities. For now, she doesn’t work – she’s waiting for Sonya to be old enough to send to daycare. And here, in Zelena Polyana, they locals began to help right away.

“The world is not without good people,” she says. “And every time they prove to us again and again that they get better and better. With every problem, we get more supporters and helpers. As soon as we got here, people came immediately, some with potatoes, some with cucumbers, tomatoes, mushrooms. One man came with grapes: ‘I’m your neighbor, let’s get to know each other.’ The children are given treats here and there.”  

“Some came without clothes, without anything,” says Kateryna Vitovska, nodding her head sympathetically. “But our people gather what they had and gave.”

When asked if there were any local conflicts with migrants, Kateryna, Halyna, and Valeriya looked shocked – what conflicts?

“If a person is good, then he is good, and wherever he is he will be kind,” says Halyna. “And good, hardworking people came here.”

“Everything is good here,” Kostyuk confirms. “I know the stories when they said you are separatists and Moskals [a slur for Russians]. But this didn’t happen to me. Really, I just decided that I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone.”

Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov/HROMADSKE

In the village, they know about the war firsthand. In the four years of military action, six people from here were mobilized – and that’s quite a lot for tiny Zelena Polyana. The first man we met at the entrance to the village said that he fought in Donbas. He introduced himself as Nikolai – his son-in-law was with him in the war. Both were demobilized in 2015.

“We also went to the Donbas. For a retreat,” jokes Nikolai, leaning on a bicycle. “We’re old men. It’s easier for us; it was difficult for the young ones – they got drunk and stoned. I call my son-in-law – well, how is it? It’s okay, dad, he says. But it was during the Battle of Debaltseve, when only every other one of them survived.”

Nikolai says that no one was looking for conflict with the migrants. For many in the village, their misfortune hit close to home.

Daily life in Zelena Polyana is calm and measured. Now and again, trucks carrying spruce trees pass – cars go by less often. The local store in the village center is supposed to be open until 4 p.m., but by two in the afternoon the doors are locked – there aren’t any customers. The silence in the streets is broken only by dogs that begin to bark immediately when they notice strangers.

Kostyuk says that she likes it here – there’s really beautiful nature, the people are good. However, she realizes that it’s unlikely that she will be able to live in someone else’s home without work for long. But she says that all difficulties can be overcome – especially when you’re together.

“I wouldn’t say this is a catastrophe for me. I try to keep going, although it’s harder, of course. But, what can you do? We’ll pull through, isn’t that right, Sonya?”

“Yes!” – the little girl yells, joyfully.

Produced with the support of Russian-Language News Exchange

/By Yuliana Skibitska

/Translated by Eilish Hart