Many Contacts

Home is where the heart is

Sign for Chernobyl spelled in Ukrainian (Courtesy Photo)
Originally written November 2013

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: Isolated. Toxic. Home.
It’s been nearly 28 years since the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s reactor No. 4 blew, releasing 400 times as much radiation as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Yet, 130 people—most of whom are women—inhabit the hazardous wasteland.
The No.4 reactor lies on a 1,000-square-mile “Exclusion Zone,” a quarantined area that is filled with border guards, passport control, and radiation monitoring. The vicinity, along with the rest of Chernobyl, is one of the most highly contaminated places on Earth, and continues to be one of the worst nuclear accidents the world has ever witnessed.
Yet, in an environment that places death at the forefront of reality, why would anyone choose to confront it?
Because it’s home. It’s a place of comfort, memories, and sadly, unimaginable fear.
“If you leave, you die,” said a group of Ukrainian babushkas in an interview with Holly Morris, co-producer and director of the upcoming documentary The Babushkas of Chernobyl, who has been filming and interviewing the community since 2010. “Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness. Motherland is Motherland. I will never leave.”
The situation is astonishing, at least for me. Although I was born in Russia, I will never know the attachment these women have to their ancestral home. I immigrated to America when I was four, and remember very little of my surroundings back in Russia. I can only retrace a few memories, such as my sister walking me to daycare, or my mom handing me a leaf to keep as a remembrance of the Motherland. Yet, even then, at times these memories seem like a fragment of my imagination.
To the 130 individuals who inhabit the Zone, their lives are just as real now as they were before the nuclear explosion. Of the remaining group: women, who are now in their 70s and 80s, are the last of the survivors who defied authority and illegally returned to their homes after the accident in 1986. About 116,000 people evacuated, while 1,200 resisted. Now, most villages are deserted, and home to the prevalent wild boar. Yet others house 1 to 12 babushkas.
One of the remaining settlers, Hanna Zavorotnya, documents in an interview with Morris her return to Chernobyl in the summer of 1986.
“Shoot us and dig the grave,” Zavorotnya told soldiers who tried to stop her and other family members from entering, “otherwise we’re staying.”
Zavorotnya, among many other women, is at home—no matter how contaminated or death-defying that home may be. With radioactive contamination lurking behind every corner, it’s difficult for most people to stay in even the most of beloved of homes. Yet, for these women, the thought of relocation is impossible.
The fear of the unknown and the refusal to adapt to a foreign environment is enough for them to stay in a place they are used to. Daily routine, familiar faces and landscape are all things to cling to, and reasons to refuse change. We adapt to our surroundings, and eventually find ourselves reluctant to let go of them.
As for me, coming to America at a young age, I did not know the extent of what I was letting go—extended family, rich Russian culture, and life in the Motherland. Yet, my “letting go” does not diminish my connection to my birthplace. The promise of eating home-cooked Russian meals with my family, speaking in my native tongue, and engaging in conversations about my mom’s life during the Soviet era, is what brings me closer to my Russian roots. I don’t have to be in the Motherland to know it.
No matter where I am, “home” is always with me—something these women have yet to realize.
[Holly Morris conducted all interviews]

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