Ukraine, Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone - April 2011

LIKE ALL RESIDENTS of the area of Ukraine that is now known as the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone, Maria and Galina were evacuated in the aftermath of the explosion at the Lenin Nuclear Power Plant on 25 April, 1986.

Unlike most, both women illegally traveled back into the Zone—planning to live out their lives in their, now abandoned, villages, which lay scattered across the radiated 30 kilometer radius around the Nuclear Power Plant.

This is their story, told twenty five years after the Nuclear Disaster.

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Guard © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg
Map of the Zone © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg
Reacto Four behind the Prypiat River © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg


Outskirts of Paryshev Village © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg

“Oh, it really used to be such a wonderful place here. But now it is a forbidden place. I wonder why? This is my home. I built it.

My soul resides here.”


THE VILLAGE OF PARYSHEV, deep within the Nuclear Exclusion Zone—with its overgrown roads, collapsed utility poles and caved-in rooftops—stands in sharp contrast with one of its last two inhabitants.

Maria is, despite her old age, soft skinned and loud spoken. Besides heavily battered hands that betray a rough life her smile could very easily have concealed, she is fierce and energetic—pleased to meet and talk to people other than her mute and bed-ridden husband, or the scares nuclear scientists and military men that roam the Zone.

Maria in front of her house © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg

“We were evacuated and were given an apartment in Kiev. We refused to take it.”

“I told my son I wanted to return [to Paryshev]. He got angry. Tears were streaming down his face. I told him that I really wanted to stay with him, but Kiev wasn't suitable for me. I felt ill there. I had a feeling that my throat was full of cotton wool, I couldn't swallow.

And so we moved back to our village here. Everyone got angry, 'Why did you come here?'. I tell them, 'my being is accustomed to this place, the climate here is good for my health."

Maria has been living in her native house for the past 24 years—something many Chernobyl evacuees would express envy for.

The house is small, wooden, and smells of mold. Beneath the cobwebs and layers of dust and utensils, one can detect the delicate touch of someone’s attempts at making a home in dire circumstances. Maria and her husband live of what they can forage, grow on the land, and what the men working in the Zone give them.

Maria's Kitchen © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg
Maria's photographs of a family dispossessed © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg

When we came back home, crossing the Chernobyl Zone, I got a portion of radiation.”


“We were approached by the military units protecting the Zone. “Do you know it is not permitted for you to live here? The land is infected”, they said. How can you see that it is infected? I asked."

"They were standing there for a while. Some more came. “We will close off the area, your village, and you will die of starvation,” one of the soldiers said. I look at him and said, “No I won't. Just leave us alone with our souls. We will not die.” The soldiers stared at me, judging me."

"'You should not have build the power plant here. It should have been build in the steppe, where no people live. But you build it in between the villages and in between the houses, killing so many people... And today you worry about my soul? You should have worried about those people that lived so close to that power plant. All of them have died. So, tell me, who should be judged? You or me?'"

"The soldiers looked at each other and decided to leave, softly telling each other, 'She told the truth.'"

Mikhail leaning on his stick awaiting Maria's assistance © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg
Old portrait of Mikhail © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg

Maria lives with her husband, Michail, who worked a contractor in charge of pouring asphalt roads throughout the Nuclear Zone, in order to facilitate the evacuation and the clean-up. He has since lost the ability to speak and to move about independently.

Producing low-pitched groans, Mikhail spends most of the days completely bed-ridden. With the support of his walking stick he manages the get out of bed, though not much further than that. His disheveled and worn appearance nonetheless still projects the care Maria takes in dressing and feeding him daily.

The old portrait Maria keeps of him, above her bed, reveals the dapper man she once married—before the radiation and the cancers took hold of him.

Mikhail his bed is closer to the door, as to limit the distance his wife needs to support him when he needs to visit the outhouse.

Maria taking Mikhail to the outhouse © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg

"We have a wonderful fruits and vegetables garden. Always have. After work, during the accident, my husband would come home, jump into the garden and take some of our wonderful strawberries. He ate them without washing them. I looked at him and asked, 'Misha, why don't you wash them? There is a road nearby and dust fell on the garden.'"

Maria © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg

“I have seen war two times. I was 6 years old in 1941 when the war began, which took my father in 1943. And I was 51 when the war against the atom erupted.”

“At this point, I simply want to live out my days in peace and quiet, here in my beloved village were every bush can feed me and I can cultivate the land. We have mushrooms, berries, water, fish, everything…”


Galina's village © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg

"It truly used to be a marvelous village. People were really kind here. We had such wonderful forests, full of mushrooms. And we went fishing.

It used to be really great here. Really great! Forests, plants, a lot of people, beautiful...

now there is nobody left. Nothing." 


DEEPER INTO THE ZONE nature grows wilder—reclaiming much of what once were man-made structures; houses, homes, communities. The cold wind carries little sound but the eerie creaking of discolored trees and the occasional rattling of long forgotten window shutters. Here the ambience of human endeavor has been supplanted by the ominous ruffling of solitary creatures in radiated shrubs.

Galina is one of them—the only human in what once was a thriving little farming community.

Living alone in her old farm house, she quietly moves about the premise—using a long walking stick to support herself. Her strong hands hold a firm grip as her fiery eyes betray a sharp and attentive mind.

Galina on her stick in her farm © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg

“We came here in 1987, one year after the accident. My husband was commissioned for work in Chernobyl. He and other boys were digging ditches around the nuclear power plant. They did not know what had happened there. Nobody told us about it when we settled here.”

“We started experiencing aching in our bones, pressure in our knees and legs. Nobody paid attention to it. My husband died 6 years ago.”

Galina © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg

Galina keeps an axe close to the door. It is not uncommon for Chernobyl’s growing population of wolves to pay her farm a visit. Galina’s nonchalant demeanor is either testament to her strength and endurance of a life that has been unfairly hard, or her resignation to a future that is looking even harder.

"I live alone here now. It is very cold outside and I heat the house every day. I stay inside, here, in this house, alone.”

“But I am not afraid. I fear neither the radiation nor the wolves.”

“Mostly, the people that are still scattered about [the Zone], we look like wolves ourselves. I see you looking at me now, wondering if I am an old lady or some kind of animal...”

“You do not understand.”

The abandonned city of Prypiat © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg

A few kilometers from Galina her farm house, stands the massive city of Prypiat—named after the river that flows through the region. Three days after the accident, this city—which housed most of the Nuclear Power Plant employees and their families—was entirely evacuated.

Now it serves as a sinister and almost other-worldly reminder of just how alone Galina truly is.

The barking of dogs, presumed to be the offspring of the Prypiat pets that survived the liquidation efforts, echo through the empty lanes of concrete.

“So many people have died here. We had an old man, Ivan was his name. He was ordered to go to the power plant and help. He took the graphite with his bare hands to look at it...

The other guys laughed at him. Told him to take it home. He did not know what it was. He died.

A lot of them died. Especially the firefighters. Only one of them is still alive. Only God knows how...”

Reactor Four looms over Prypiat © Sam Asaert - 2011.jpg

“A lot of people died. It really was an enormous disaster."





Photographs © Sam Asaert

Texts © Sam Asaert & Filip Huygens