Did you know there’s a community of 100-odd elderly women who live in the radioactive “dead zone” around Chernobyl, site of the catastrophic nuclear explosion that rocked the world 30 years ago? Despite the devastating horrors of this level 7 event (the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale) and the mandatory evacuation of all residents, these stubborn old women chose to defy the Ukrainian government, radiation scientists and common sense to settle in this toxic wasteland. Why? Because it’s home.
After Reactor No. 4 blew up, the area within an 18-mile radius was evacuated and 16,000 residents became displaced. Rather than be relocated to unfamiliar cities to live in bland government housing assigned to them after the disaster, about 1,200 people defiantly trickled back to their hometown and rolled the radioactive dice.
Alcoholism and Anxiety Are Rife
Not surprisingly, cancer rates are high. Alcoholism and anxiety are rife. Though many of their neighbors and husbands have died off throughout the years, these babushkas (Russian for “grandmothers” or “old countrywomen”) steadfastly stay put. Somehow these tough broads, now in their 70s and 80s, eek out an existence in this abandoned, contaminated, uninhabitable region that most wouldn’t dare to visit without a hazmat suit.
400 Times As Much Radiation As the Hiroshima Bomb
What’s even more perplexing is they’re not only surviving, they’re actually outliving many of their counterparts who relocated to the “safe” cities.
This is not to imply that the area around Chernobyl is actually safe. It isn’t. The explosion released 400 times as much radiation as the Hiroshima bomb. The area’s soil, water and air are one of the most contaminated on the planet. But these badass babushkas said to hell with the health and environmental risks. After all, they’ve already endured Stalin, famine, World War II, Soviet oppression and other hardships. What’s a little atomic meltdown?
Poisonous Water, Toxic Soil, and Irradiated Livestock
These hardscrabble women made the trade-off to live happily on their own terms in their beloved Motherland for however much time they have left rather than hope for a few more years of mediocre existence elsewhere. After all, longevity isn’t the only goal of life, right?
These are not divas with a death wish. They’ve simply made peace with the possible health consequences and choose to dwell in their ancestral home because that’s where they feel they belong. Against all odds, they’ve managed to live drinking poisonous water, growing vegetables in toxic soil, and butchering irradiated livestock. It defies logic, but perhaps that devil-may-care attitude has somehow protected them.
The Palliative Powers of Home
Holly Morris, who made a documentary about these fascinating women, said in a TED Talk, “It’s not that the women haven’t suffered enormously, or that nuclear contamination isn’t bad (they have and it is) – but the babushkas’ unlikely survival raises fascinating questions about the palliative powers of home, and even the tonic of living a self-determined life.”
One of the resilient women she interviewed for the film, Hannah Zavorotnya, explains that she and her family were unhappy with their relocation situation. When they and several members of their collective farm returned home three months after the nuclear accident, the Soviet officials strongly objected. However, she defiantly said, “Shoot us and dig the grave; otherwise we’re staying.” And that was that.
This isn’t the only nuclear exclusion zone in the world that is inhabited. There’s a man in Japan who defiantly opts to live about five miles from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.
Naoto Matsumura, 56, is the only remaining person in the town of Tomioka, a once thriving community of 16,000 prior to the earthquake and tsunami that hit on March 11, 2011 which triggered the world’s worst nuclear accident in 25 years.
Nicknamed “Radioactive Man,” the risk-taking rice farmer disobeyed government evacuation orders and has remained in town to feed the area’s farm animals and abandoned pets, including his own herd of 50 cows and two ostriches. While his intentions seem noble, he is exposed to about 17 times the level of radiation considered safe. He survives on relief supplies and water delivered from outside the area.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has conducted tests on Mr Matsumura and found he had the highest radiation levels of anyone they have tested.
Matsumura said, “They told me that I wouldn’t get sick for 30 or 40 years. I’ll most likely be dead by then anyway, so I couldn’t care less.”
He added, “I was born and raised in this town. When I die, it’s going to be in Tomioka.”
Is he brave or stupid? At least he is making his own choice and is fully aware of the potential consequences.
“For the Good of Mankind and to End All World Wars”
That wasn’t the case with the 167 residents of the Bikini Atoll where the US government conducted 23 atomic tests between 1946 and 1958. They were originally told they would only be leaving for a short time “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” Little thought was given to the potential health and ecological impact beyond the immediate test site. The fallout contaminated a wider area than expected, resulting in the upheaval of the residents’ lives in ways that they never anticipated.
Itchy Skin, Burning Eyes, Swelling, Vomiting, Diarrhea and Fatigue
Soon after the original detonations, virtually all the islanders in the vicinity experienced severe radiation sickness, including itchy skin, burning eyes, swelling, vomiting, diarrhea and fatigue. They were evacuated but not taken care of, left to starve in exile under appalling unsustainable conditions. They were moved several times, each time to an island inadequate to their needs. Promises were broken again and again, proving that these people were considered a low priority.
Some say they were used as unwitting guinea pigs to test the medical effects of nuclear exposure.
The Draw to Return Home Persists
Yet still, the draw to return home persists. Since then, there have been several attempts to resettle Bikini Island. Several times, officials reassured them that that it was safe to go back, but each time they would later determine that food sources were still too contaminated, and called for subsequent evacuations.
After years of mistreatment and displacement, the islanders fought for compensation for what they had endured without their informed consent. The US finally provided $150 million for the damage caused by their nuclear testing program, but no amount of money can repay them for their lost way of life and a homeland that has become uninhabitable.
While we can somewhat admire the tenacity of the Chernobyl babushkas and Mr. Matsumura’s compassion for animals in the wake of Fukushima’s nuclear cataclysm, they are taking ridiculous risks just to cling to their innate sense of home. As for the Bikini Island victims, the fallout continues any hopes of ever returning home have essentially vaporized.