On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s No. 4 reactor blew up after a routine test, releasing large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The resulting fire lasted 10 days and released 400 times as much radiation as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Two Chernobyl plant workers died on the night of the accident and 28 others died within a few weeks from radiation poisoning. The government declared the area uninhabitable and relocated the 116,000 residents who had occupied the area.
“Chernobyl's soil, water and air, are among the most highly contaminated on Earth, and the reactor sits at the center of a tightly regulated exclusion zone, or dead zone; it's a nuclear police state, complete with border guards. The point being, no human being should be living anywhere near the dead zone,” writer and filmmaker Holly Morris said in a TED talk. “But they are. Why would they return to such deadly soil? I mean, were they unaware of the risks or crazy enough to ignore them, or both? The thing is, they see their lives and the risks they run decidedly differently.”
Watch Morris' TED talk below.
In 2010, Morris discovered there was a community living within the exclusion zone, or dead zone, while she was covering the 25th anniversary of the disaster. In an article titled “Ukraine: A Country of Women,” she wrote about the women living there.
Her award-winning documentary film, “The Babushkas of Chernobyl,” expands on this story, focusing on three women who were among the 1,200 who returned to their ancestral homes located in the dead zone.
“It’s complicated,” Morris said of why these women returned to live in the dead zone. “The primary reason is because they don’t want to be separated from their homes. That is a very deep cultural tie and familial tie. As Americans it’s a little bit hard for us to understand.
“But they say, ‘if you leave your village, your soul dies. If you leave your village, you never come back. I want to be where my babies are buried, where my parents are buried, where everything that’s happened in my life has occurred.’ And so they went back.”
Only about 100 or so remain in the dead zone, and those numbers may be lower because the community is not well tracked, Morris said. The remaining population is in or approaching their 80s.
“The film really captures, I hope, a part of Ukrainian culture … that will disappear with the women,” Morris said. “So not only is it a film about Chernobyl, but really in the end it’s a film about home which trumps radiation.”
On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster Morris joins “Chicago Tonight” to talk more about the project.
Below, watch a trailer for the documentary.
"The Babushkas of Chernobyl" is being screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center through Thursday. For screening times and more information, visit the center's website.
April 18: In 1986, Karolina Kowalczyk’s mother was pregnant and living in Poland when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded. Kowalczyk's intricate paper art is now part of an exhibition at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art commemorating the 30-year anniversary of the disaster.