Chernobyl Zone Residents

Vladimir and Evdokia Muzichenko's well-kept and gaily painted cottage is an unusual sight in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power station, where most homes are being steadily swallowed up by nature. The Muzichenkos were evacuated in 1986, but soon returned to the village of Ilyinsti, in the south-west part of the zone.

The collective farm is long gone, so the Muzichenkos survive on their pensions and home-grown food. In the first year or so after the disaster, about 300 returned to Ilyintsi, which was against government policy. Now there are 30, all elderly. There are only 300 residents in the entire Ukrainian part of the zone.

Vadimir, 67, used to be a tractor driver. He carried on working for five days after the disaster. Then the evacuation began. He explains that the new homes they were given in the town of Yahotin, 100 miles (160km) away, were poorly built on waterlogged ground and soon began to subside.

Vladimir rejects the idea that farming in Ilyintsi is unsafe. "Where is the radiation? How can I be afraid of it?" he asks. Experts agree that Ilyintsi is, in fact, less contaminated than some populated areas near Kiev. However, there is heavily contaminated land to the north, east and west.

The Muzichenkos grow wheat and oats as well as potatoes and cabbage. Officials occasionally come to check their produce for radiation. Fences help to keep out the wild boars, which roam the zone. Sometimes Vladimir bangs pots and pans to frighten them away.

Birds of prey are another hazard for zone residents. They have multiplied rapidly, and some of them like eating hens. The Muzichenkos keep a close eye on their 20 birds.

The Muzichenkos also have a cat for company. The villagers may meet when they collect their pensions or visit one of two mobile shops. They have electricity so they can watch TV, and once a month the authorities provide transport to the nearest town. But Vladimir says he and Evdokia have too much work to get bored.

Some plants absorb more radiation than others. The worst are mushrooms and wild berries. Using fertiliser helps to reduce absorption of the two radionuclides most widely found in the zone, Caesium-137 and Strontium-90. These mimic Potassium and Calcium respectively. These have a half-life of about 30 years, and will have largely disappeared in 300 years from now.

The Muzichenkos have their own water supply—a well in the yard. Vladimir says the water is "better than in Kiev, 100% guaranteed".

Evdokia, 70, keeps one room in the cottage very tidy. It is full of memories of the past. A son and daughter now live in Moscow. Another son lives in Vyzhhorod, near Kiev. Evdokia's mother died in Ilyintsi in 2000, aged 100. Villagers who moved away still come back to bury their relatives in the cemetery.

Words: Stephen Mulvey. Photos: Phil Coomes