Live from TEDGlobal 2013

Living in the dead zone of Chernobyl: Holly Morris at TEDGlobal 2013

Posted by: Helen Walters
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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Holly Morris tells the stories of women through documentary, television, print and the web. One story she certainly didn’t expect stemmed from a reporting trip to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. She just wanted to get out of the contaminated zone as quickly as possible … and then she noticed smoke rising from a farmhouse somewhere in the background. “How was this possible?” she wondered. Who could be living here? Chernobyl’s soil, water and air are among the most contaminated on earth. No human beings should live in the Dead Zone.

And yet some do. Despite the draconian rules and regulations that govern the area, a community of some 200 “self-settler” women (they are mostly all women) continue to live illegally in the otherwise deserted ghost villages around Chernobyl. As one of them explained to a soldier trying to evacuate her after the nuclear disaster, “Shoot me and dig the grave. Otherwise, I’m going home.” Another, Hanna Zavortyna, the self-proclaimed mayor of a village with all of eight residents, explained to Morris: “Radiation doesn’t scare me, starvation does.”

It turns out, if you’ve lived through the worst atrocities of the 20th century, including Stalin and the Nazis, a little radiation isn’t so terrifying. The women stayed put after the evacuation to live out their lives in their ancestral homes, figuring that five years there would be better than ten years living in a highrise resettlement in a nearby city. Now, decades later, the women still display a heroic resilience along with what Morris describes as “a patina of simple defiance: ‘They told us our legs would hurt, and they do. So what?’”

Figures don’t agree, but it is estimated that many thousands of people will have died from the effects of Chernobyl. Yet here’s the surprising truth. “Women who returned to their homes and lived off some of the most radioactive land on Earth for the last 27 years, have actually outlived their counterparts who accepted relocation – by some estimates, by up to 10 years.” It seems the fact that these elderly women stuck with a lifestyle and a home they knew might have helped them to survive. “The power of motherland is so fundamental to that part of the world, it seems palliative,” says Morris. “Home and community are forces that rival even radiation.”

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

The women are already in their 70s and 80s. In the next decade, they’ll all be gone. Their numbers have halved in the three years since Morris met them. When the last has died, this empty, radioactive place will revert to the wild, but it will retain the brave spirit of these determined women who demonstrate, she says, “the magnificent tonic of personal agency and self-determination.”

Holly Morris’ talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com »