08:52
TEDGlobal 2013

Holly Morris: Why stay in Chernobyl? Because it's home.

Filmed:

Chernobyl was the site of the world's worst nuclear accident and, for the past 27 years, the area around the plant has been known as the Exclusion Zone. And yet, a community of about 200 people live there -- almost all of them elderly women. These proud grandmas defied orders to relocate because their connection to their homeland and to their community are "forces that rival even radiation."

- Explorer and filmmaker
Holly Morris tells the stories of women around the world through documentary, television, print and the web. Full bio

Three years ago, I was standing about a hundred yards
00:12
from Chernobyl nuclear reactor number four.
00:15
My Geiger counter dosimeter, which measures radiation,
00:19
was going berserk,
00:22
and the closer I got, the more frenetic it became,
00:23
and frantic. My God.
00:27
I was there covering the 25th anniversary
00:30
of the world's worst nuclear accident,
00:32
as you can see by the look on my face,
00:35
reluctantly so, but with good reason,
00:37
because the nuclear fire that burned for 11 days
00:40
back in 1986 released 400 times as much radiation
00:44
as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima,
00:48
and the sarcophagus, which is the covering
00:50
over reactor number four,
00:53
which was hastily built 27 years ago,
00:54
now sits cracked and rusted
00:57
and leaking radiation.
00:59
So I was filming.
01:01
I just wanted to get the job done
01:03
and get out of there fast.
01:04
But then, I looked into the distance,
01:07
and I saw some smoke coming from a farmhouse,
01:09
and I'm thinking, who could be living here?
01:12
I mean, after all, Chernobyl's soil, water and air,
01:15
are among the most highly contaminated on Earth,
01:18
and the reactor sits at the the center of
01:21
a tightly regulated exclusion zone, or dead zone,
01:23
and it's a nuclear police state, complete with border guards.
01:26
You have to have dosimeter at all times, clicking away,
01:30
you have to have a government minder,
01:32
and there's draconian radiation rules
01:34
and constant contamination monitoring.
01:37
The point being, no human being
01:41
should be living anywhere near the dead zone.
01:44
But they are.
01:46
It turns out an unlikely community
01:48
of some 200 people are living inside the zone.
01:51
They're called self-settlers.
01:54
And almost all of them are women,
01:56
the men having shorter lifespans
01:59
in part due to overuse of alcohol, cigarettes,
02:00
if not radiation.
02:03
Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated
02:05
at the time of the accident,
02:07
but not everybody accepted that fate.
02:09
The women in the zone, now in their 70s and 80s,
02:11
are the last survivors of a group who defied authorities
02:14
and, it would seem, common sense,
02:17
and returned to their ancestral homes inside the zone.
02:19
They did so illegally.
02:23
As one woman put it to a soldier
02:25
who was trying to evacuate her for a second time,
02:27
"Shoot me and dig the grave.
02:30
Otherwise, I'm going home."
02:32
Now why would they return to such deadly soil?
02:34
I mean, were they unaware of the risks
02:37
or crazy enough to ignore them, or both?
02:39
The thing is, they see their lives
02:42
and the risks they run decidedly differently.
02:43
Now around Chernobyl, there are scattered ghost villages,
02:47
eerily silent, strangely charming, bucolic,
02:50
totally contaminated.
02:54
Many were bulldozed under at the time of the accident,
02:56
but a few are left like this,
02:59
kind of silent vestiges to the tragedy.
03:01
Others have a few residents in them,
03:05
one or two "babushkas," or "babas,"
03:07
which are the Russian and Ukrainian words for grandmother.
03:10
Another village might have six or seven residents.
03:13
So this is the strange demographic of the zone --
03:16
isolated alone together.
03:19
And when I made my way to that piping chimney
03:21
I'd seen in the distance,
03:24
I saw Hanna Zavorotnya, and I met her.
03:25
She's the self-declared mayor of Kapavati village,
03:29
population eight.
03:32
(Laughter)
03:34
And she said to me, when I asked her the obvious,
03:36
"Radiation doesn't scare me. Starvation does."
03:39
And you have to remember, these women have
03:43
survived the worst atrocities of the 20th century.
03:44
Stalin's enforced famines of the 1930s, the Holodomor,
03:48
killed millions of Ukrainians,
03:52
and they faced the Nazis in the '40s,
03:54
who came through slashing, burning, raping,
03:56
and in fact many of these women
03:59
were shipped to Germany as forced labor.
04:00
So when a couple decades into Soviet rule,
04:03
Chernobyl happened,
04:06
they were unwilling to flee in the face of an enemy
04:07
that was invisible.
04:10
So they returned to their villages
04:12
and are told they're going to get sick and die soon,
04:14
but five happy years, their logic goes,
04:18
is better than 10 stuck in a high rise
04:20
on the outskirts of Kiev,
04:23
separated from the graves of their mothers
04:25
and fathers and babies,
04:27
the whisper of stork wings on a spring afternoon.
04:29
For them, environmental contamination
04:33
may not be the worst sort of devastation.
04:35
It turns out this holds true
04:38
for other species as well.
04:39
Wild boar, lynx, moose, they've all returned
04:41
to the region in force,
04:44
the very real, very negative effects of radiation
04:46
being trumped by the upside of a mass exodus
04:49
of humans.
04:53
The dead zone, it turns out, is full of life.
04:55
And there is a kind of heroic resilience,
04:59
a kind of plain-spoken pragmatism to those
05:02
who start their day at 5 a.m.
05:05
pulling water from a well
05:08
and end it at midnight
05:10
poised to beat a bucket with a stick
05:12
and scare off wild boar that might mess with their potatoes,
05:14
their only company a bit of homemade moonshine vodka.
05:17
And there's a patina of simple defiance among them.
05:22
"They told us our legs would hurt, and they do. So what?"
05:25
I mean, what about their health?
05:29
The benefits of hardy, physical living,
05:31
but an environment made toxic
05:34
by a complicated, little-understood enemy, radiation.
05:35
It's incredibly difficult to parse.
05:39
Health studies from the region
05:41
are conflicting and fraught.
05:43
The World Health Organization
05:46
puts the number of Chernobyl-related deaths
05:47
at 4,000, eventually.
05:50
Greenpeace and other organizations
05:52
put that number in the tens of thousands.
05:55
Now everybody agrees that thyroid cancers
05:58
are sky high, and that Chernobyl evacuees
06:01
suffer the trauma of relocated peoples everywhere:
06:04
higher levels of anxiety, depression, alcoholism,
06:07
unemployment and, importantly,
06:10
disrupted social networks.
06:12
Now, like many of you,
06:15
I have moved maybe 20, 25 times in my life.
06:18
Home is a transient concept.
06:22
I have a deeper connection to my laptop
06:26
than any bit of soil.
06:28
So it's hard for us to understand, but home
06:32
is the entire cosmos of the rural babushka,
06:35
and connection to the land is palpable.
06:38
And perhaps because these Ukrainian women
06:41
were schooled under the Soviets
06:43
and versed in the Russian poets,
06:45
aphorisms about these ideas
06:47
slip from their mouths all the time.
06:49
"If you leave, you die."
06:51
"Those who left are worse off now.
06:54
They are dying of sadness."
06:56
"Motherland is motherland. I will never leave."
06:58
What sounds like faith, soft faith,
07:02
may actually be fact,
07:05
because the surprising truth --
07:09
I mean, there are no studies, but the truth seems to be
07:10
that these women who returned to their homes
07:13
and have lived on some of the most radioactive land
07:15
on Earth for the last 27 years,
07:17
have actually outlived their counterparts
07:19
who accepted relocation,
07:22
by some estimates up to 10 years.
07:24
How could this be?
07:28
Here's a theory: Could it be
07:30
that those ties to ancestral soil,
07:32
the soft variables reflected in their aphorisms,
07:35
actually affect longevity?
07:37
The power of motherland
07:40
so fundamental to that part of the world
07:42
seems palliative.
07:45
Home and community are forces
07:46
that rival even radiation.
07:49
Now radiation or not,
07:53
these women are at the end of their lives.
07:56
In the next decade, the zone's human residents will be gone,
07:58
and it will revert to a wild, radioactive place,
08:02
full only of animals and occasionally
08:07
daring, flummoxed scientists.
08:10
But the spirit and existence of the babushkas,
08:13
whose numbers have been halved
08:16
in the three years I've known them,
08:18
will leave us with powerful new templates
08:20
to think about and grapple with,
08:22
about the relative nature of risk,
08:24
about transformative connections to home,
08:28
and about the magnificent tonic
08:31
of personal agency and self-determination.
08:35
Thank you.
08:39
(Applause)
08:41

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About the Speaker:

Holly Morris - Explorer and filmmaker
Holly Morris tells the stories of women around the world through documentary, television, print and the web.

Why you should listen

Holly Morris is a director, producer, writer and storyteller whose work spans media and continents. She is the author of Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for a New Kind of Heroine (Random House) and writer/director and executuve producer of its companion PBS documentary series, "Adventure Divas". A former National Geographic Adventure columnist and widely anthologized essayist, Morris is also a regular contributor to The New York Times, among other publications. She presents the PBS televisin series "Globe Trekker," and "Treks in a Wild World," and also hosted "Outdoor Investigations" -- a series in which she investigates the scientific side of today's environmental and natural world mysteries. 

Morris has reported on the illegal caviar trade from Iran's Caspian Sea, sex trafficking from the brothels of India, and the global diaspora of Black Panthers from Cuba. Whether she's exploring underground Soviet missile silos, or the ship breaking yards of Bangladesh, Morris goes to the grassroots to tell a global story.

Her new film, The Babushkas of Chernobyl is about a surprising group of survivors living in the shadow of Chernobyl. Based on her award-winning essay of the same name (also published as "Ukraine: A Country of Women"), it won the Meredith Editorial Excellence Award, was reprinted in London's Daily Telegraph, and The Week and was selected for the book The Best Travel Writing (2012). The film, which has won numerous awards, including the Los Angeles Film Festival Jury Award for Directing, is being widely released in Spring 2016 for the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.

 

More profile about the speaker
Holly Morris | Speaker | TED.com