Hanging Out With the Only Residents of Chernobyl's Exclusion Zone

There's no water or electricity and all the children have cancer.

The Chernobyl disaster single-handedly crushes any other nuclear catastrophe since the day Ernest Rutherford worked out how to successfully split an atom and irreversibly changed the face of widespread massacring forever. On the 26th of April, 1984, a meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant released a massive amount of radiation thousands of feet into the air. As a result, the area around Chernobyl was evacuated, forcing people living within the 30 km exclusion zone to pack up and leave.

However, despite the exclusion zone being guarded by the Ukrainian military (and being heavily radioactive), thousands of people later returned to their homes, illegally and apparently with no concern for the fact that their immediate surroundings were now a severe health risk. Less than 200 of them remain alive and many families have young children, all of whom are seriously ill. But with no health care within the “dead zone”, there’s nothing that they can do about it.

Photographer Jake Baggaley visited Obihodi, the only village in exclusion zone where people still live, to document the remaining residents' lifestyle and increase his risk of getting cancer tenfold. I caught up with Jake to ask him about his time in Chernobyl.

VICE: Hey Jake. Why did you end up visiting Chernobyl?
Jake Baggaley: My brother told me about Chernobyl and what had happened there about a year before I went. I did a lot of research into it, thought it looked awesome and decided that I’d really love to go there. I was doing research for a photography project the following year and I thought 'Fuck it, I might as well go to Chernobyl.' I got in contact with 10 or 20 different charities and one of them – Chernobyl Children's Life Line – got back to me, so I went out with them as a contact.

Cool. Did you originally intend to go and take photos, or just to help out?
I originally went to take photos. Chernobyl is such a heavily documented subject and I wanted to find a different angle. My project focuses on Obihodi, this one village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone that still has people living in it and it’s the only village with children and families.

What did you want to get across with the pictures?
I wanted to raise awareness of the fact that this was going on and that people were choosing to live like this. The outcome of the project was a book with 60 photos in it. The photos were showing the contrast between the people who had been evacuated from the area – who now live in big cities and blame all their problems on radiation – with the people who live in the radioactive area and are oblivious to the radiation as a factor towards their lives.

A doctor at a health centre 60 km away from the exclusion zone.

What's the standard of living like in the exclusion zone?
It's really bad. There are no schools or healthcare because it’s illegal to live there. All of the kids were really, really ill and had cancer and weak immune systems. But their parents were completely oblivious to it and ignorant to the fact that radiation was causing those problems.

God, that's so dark. And also kind of shitty on their parents' behalf.
Yeah, that’s what I thought. I don’t care if old people want to move back to their old houses and die from the radiation, because it's their decision, but these kids don’t have a choice and they’re just going to die and have a shit life.

Are there any kind of amenities there?
No, everything is self-sustained. They grow their own food and get their water from wells. It’s really bad, though, because the radiation from the fire rose up in an ash cloud and fell to the ground, so all the vegetables are going to be really bad for them.

A view across Pripyat, the largest city in the exclusion zone, now deserted.

They're going to get radiation poisoning from the vegetables?
Yeah, and from the animals that eat the grass. They’re just making it worse for themselves, really.

If the kids don’t go to school, what do they do with their time?
I don’t really know what they did with their time. Most of them were pretty ill. I went to this village and met one family who had three kids. Two of them were completely bed-ridden and, as far as I could get across from my translator, they literally spent all their time in bed because they were so unwell. One of them had cancer and the other had a really bad immune system – she was mentally and physically disabled. She only had one finger. It's to think what these kids are going to do when they grow up.

Do any of the parents try to take their kids out of the exclusion zone to a hospital?
No. There’s a priest who lives near the exclusion zone who sneaks past the guards. The parents get him to do services for their kids. The only thing they seem to care about is religion.

The mayor showing Jake around one of the villages built for evacuation.

Is it illegal to enter the exclusion zone?
Well, it’s illegal to live there. To go in you need a military escort and a driver. Basically, anything illegal in the ex-Soviet Union is really easy to get past if you have enough money.

Were the military escorts bothered about people living there illegally?
No, there seems to be an understanding between the guards and the people who live there. Some of the older people said that the guards bring them things from towns outside the exclusion zone.

Do you reckon that’s a sign of corruption or were the guards just being nice?
I think it was just them being nice. In the village I went to, they didn’t mention anything about the guards.

This woman lived within the zone. She has three children and is pregnant with another.

Was everyone in the town ill? Or were some people doing OK?
No, a lot of the old people seemed fine. Or as good as old people could be. I met 80 year olds who were fine, but the majority of kids I met were ill. The parents were happy to tell me how their kids had something wrong with them, but wouldn't admit that where they lived was the problem.

Where are you looking to cover next?
My next project is in Siberia, but it probably won’t be until next summer because Siberia is unbearable in the winter. An ex-traffic cop who lives out there decided that he was the messiah. He’s started a religion and moved to the mountains. He’s got a big presence globally and now he’s got his own community and church on top of the mountain. The villages underneath accept that he’s the messiah, which is quite crazy, so I'm going to track him down.

Sounds good. Thanks, Jake!

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanbassil and check out more of Jake's work at jakebaggaley.com.