On the morning of April the 26th, 1986, a power surge caused a reactor explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in what was then part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union. The resulting blast released 100 times the level of radiation found at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, springing forth a putrid cloud of contamination so large that traces were discovered as far away as Ireland.
Radioactive miasma infected the air, the soil and residents, causing birth defects and thyroid cancer in infants, and inflicting future generations of livestock with grotesque mutations. Thirty years later, Chernobyl has become a morbid tourist attraction, a lesson on the extreme human cost of government hubris – and, to a group of around 140 people, home.
Photographer Esther Hessing and writer Sophieke Thurmer travelled to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (the area worst affected by radiation) to visit the "Samosely" – the last generation of a formerly thriving community. Many of the settlers are elderly, and covertly returned to their former homes against the advice of the Ukrainian government. Others settled out of desperation, squatting illegally in the thousands of abandoned structures, surviving on crops cultivated in contaminated soil.
In their new publication, Bound to the Ground, the pair document the day-to-day lives of the residents, collecting firsthand accounts of life in the Exclusion Zone, as well as the stories of the current employees at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (CNPP). I spoke to Esther about the project, and she explained the reason so many people have returned to this dangerous region: "First of all, this area has a long tradition of misery," she said. "In the 1930s there was hunger due to the regime of Stalin, and after that because of WWII. People were used to a tough life."
"People had little money and were depending on the harvest from their own land. The government moved most of these farmers to apartment blocks specially prepared for them in Kyiv. They decided they were better off living in a nuclear zone for only a short period of time, [rather] than growing old and miserable in Kyiv. They also believed that you are only able to be reunited with deceased loved ones if you are buried in the same place."
Chernobyl victims suffered terrible discrimination from the general populace in the years following the disaster. Self-settlers returning to the Exclusion Zone were often on foot, faced with a 130km trek from Kyiv. Understandably, they needed rest during their journey, but were often refused a place to sleep from residents who were afraid of becoming infected by radiation.
Esther described how even the children of the area were stigmatised: "The children of Pripyat were called 'Chernobyl-hogs'. This was an abusive word used in the years after the disaster to the children who were infected by radiation. These children were not allowed to play with other children. It only stopped when the city of Slavutych was finished in 1988, as many of these children were moved to this new town because their parents were working in the CNPP."
Upon arrival, Esther and Sophieke were surprised to discover that over 2,000 people were actively working at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Unlike the Samosely, who live off the land in abandoned villages outside Pripyat, the plant employees live in a specially built town called Slavutych.
"Many of the current employees are children of the employees who worked in the CNPP during the disaster," Esther explained. "They grew up in Pripyat, and now their children, who have grown up in Slavutych, are working in the power plant."
Lack of opportunities emerged as the driving force behind their employment: "There's not enough work in Ukraine, the unemployment rate is huge and the facilities for healthcare and children are generally poor," said Esther. "The CNPP still offers well-paid jobs, and Slavutych has good schools and nurseries. It's a safe town for raising children. It provides extra care facilities and attention for the consequences of exposure to radioactivity for first, second and third generation victims."
As well speaking to the Samosely and plant workers, the pair explored the abandoned town of Pripyat – a municipality that was originally constructed for the employees of the CNPP. Pripyat now stands a desolate ghost town, but was once devised as a "city of hope" by the government of Ukraine – hope pinned on a future powered by nuclear technology.
Without the detrimental impact of human intervention, nature has fought back for control of large sections of Pripyat, enveloping the grey structures and suburban streets with greenery and wildlife: "Instead of fear, horror, death and a lost country, we found a beautiful area with lots of flowers and trees, fertile soil and loving, hospitable people who gave us a warm welcome every time we dropped by unannounced," said Esther.
"We found a community who still works on a decommissioned power plant with a strong belief in the future. We found people brave enough to work in this dangerous place just to make the world a bit safer. They showed us the remarkable strength of mankind and how strong nature really is."
Any future Samolesly have now effectively been banned by government policy, with an order introduced that prevents any new settlers to the area for 1,000 years – once the current residents have all died.
Preserving this secretive and temporary community was the underlying inspiration behind Esthers's work: "It's important to tell this story, because the self-setters are all very old," she said. "As the babushkas in the [Exclusion] Zone continue to age and no new residents are allowed to move into the area, we expect that, in ten years from now, their stories and memories will be forgotten. We wanted to tell their stories and show the faces of the villagers before they fall silent."