Entering the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
 Maria in her house in her native village of Paryshev, now inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, not more than a few kilometres from reactor n.4. She and her husband Michail returned to live there several years after being evacuated.  "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."
 Maria helps her husband Michail to the outhouse. Michail was a contractor in charge of pouring asphalt roads throughout the Zone in order to facilitate the evacuation and the clean up. He has since lost the ability to speak and to move about independently. He spends his days laying in bed.   "We were given an apartment in Kiev. We refused to take it. I had an old mother here, so we refused and 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."
  "We were evacuated. I fell ill. I told my son I wanted to return, but he got angry. Tears were streaming down his face. I told him that I really wanted to stay with him, but the climate there wasn't suitable for my health. I felt ill there. I had a feeling that my throat was full of cotton wool, I couldn't swallow."       "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?', they asked. 'Because 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.'"
 Maria's kitchen.   "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's photographs.   "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 in front of her house inside the Chernobyl Exclusion zone.   "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."     "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."
  "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, 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."
  "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..."    "And 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 know how... a lot of people died. It really was an enormous disaster."
 A military attache walking passed reactor building number 4
 Prypiat - the city build for the nuclear engineers and technicians that worked at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Approximately fifty thousand people lived here. They were all evacuated within three days of the accident.
 The Chernobyl reactor building n°4 looms over the city of Prypiat.
 View of the Prypiat central square from the top floor of one of the abandoned hotels in the city.
           Text © Filip Huygens & Sam Asaert - 2011     Photographs © Sam Asaert - 2011                
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