Of the thousands of people who initially returned to their homes illegally after the nuclear catastrophe of 1986, less than 200 remain alive. Many families have young children. They are all seriously ill.
The Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear catastrophes ever. On April 26, 1986, a meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what is now Ukraine released a massive amount of radiation thousands of feet into the air. As a result, the area around Chernobyl was evacuated, forcing the displacement of anyone living within a 30 kilometers of the power plant. That abandoned area is called the Exclusion Zone.
Even though the Exclusion Zone is still guarded by the Ukrainian military and still very radioactive, thousands of people have returned to their homes illegally, undettered by the sever health risk that their surroundings impose. Less than 200 of these people are still alive.
Photographer Jake Baggaley visited Obihodi, the only village in the exclusion zone where children still live, to document the remaining residents' lifestyle.
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, the only village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone that still has children and families living in it.
What did you want to get across with the pictures?
I wanted to raise awareness of the fact that people were choosing to live like this. The outcome of the project was a book with 60 photos in it. The photos show 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 37 miles 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 of the fact that radiation was causing those problems.
God, that's so dark. That's bad parenting, don't you think?
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 really bad for them.
A view across deserted Pripyat, the largest city in the exclusion zone. It is 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 also mentally and physically disabled. She only had one finger. It's sad 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.
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.
This woman lived within the zone. She has three children and is pregnant with another.