Chernobyl Charity: Self-Settlers
“If we live in a world where everyone only cares about themselves, then it would be a cruel and selfish world. That is not the world that I want to live in” - Timothy Lam.
If you have known us for a while, you've certainly noticed that we regularly organize activities to help settlers of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Thanks to you, we are able to contribute to making the Zone a better place. From each tour you buy, CHERNOBYLwel.come dedicates 1% to support the Chernobyl self-settlers. We buy food, medicine, help them pay for the electricity, gas and water, basically help to make ends meet. We are so proud of the tourists that have become our family and have contributed extra help during their visit to these babushkas homes. People in the Chernobyl Zone know us well, that is why we are the first they call in case they need help.
Thanks to you we financially support the program Dogs of Chernobyl (run by an International Futures Fund), the children affected by the Chernobyl aftermath (cancer etc.) in the city of Slavutych (Ukraine), as well as sick children in Slovakia via a NGO called, Good Angel (Dobry Anjel) that claims to deliver 100% of money raised to people in need.
If you have heard about us for the first time, you may be wondering, why do we do it? You may even suspect a marketing trick, undercover plan, or political ambition. Well, one must be really cautious these days and we do not blame you. Just simply ask that you learn more by reading the story of a charity tour that we organised last October.
“Charity starts at home” and we understand it. Chernobyl is our home too, so we try to help this place in every possible way.
The October Charity tour
When we had planned our regular charity tour, nobody even knew what we would discover on that day. It had all started with a plan to visit and help the self-settlers in the exclusion zone. Our primary goal is still the same, as it has been for years. We go to help the people who have chosen to live in their motherland after the biggest nuclear disaster of the 20th century and who have been cut off from their country and its social life.
Yulia and Marusya in village Kupuvate, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
This time, the charity tour was extended to six days and it was led by our guide, Yulia. As the daughter of a Chernobyl firefighter, her connection to the Zone is strong and her mind is filled with so many stories and interesting details, that she could talk for weeks.
“During my work, I already knew many self-settlers of the Exclusion Zone, and therefore on the first day of our trip we went to the village of Kupovate, where about a dozen self-settlers now live”, says Yulia.
The next morning, we met Lindsay. She turned out to be an extremely bright and open person, and her story about why she decided to come to Chernobyl just amazed us!
Our guide Yulia and Lindsay in Chernobyl during the charity tour, 23-28 of October, 2020.
The main inspiration for her was Covid-19, or rather the story of isolation. Since now the whole world has been forced to be in isolation, and there are a huge number of places in the world where people live in isolation by their own decision. Lindsay is a well experienced traveller. She has already visited one of the settlements in Siberia, and her next stop was Chernobyl. Why Chernobyl? This brave girl has Ukrainian origins, so it was very interesting for her to go deeper into Ukrainian life.
Many people now know that a huge number of self-settlers live in Chernobyl, or rather, people who had returned to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone after the evacuation from the contaminated territories. These are mainly elderly people, the average age of self-settlers is about 75-80 years.
Self-settlers, who returned to their homes in the village of Kupuvate, Chernobyl Zone, 1987.
Chernobyl is one of the most isolated locations in Ukraine. In addition to the lack of shops, clinics and any infrastructure in general, there are also clear borders with checkpoints around the place. Therefore even relatives of self-settlers have restrictions on the number of visits. In spite of all this, the self-settlers of the Chernobyl Zone do not even think about moving out of their father's house. Here, as they say, everyone has their own home, vegetable garden, forest, sky and rivers.
Otherwise, the Chernobyl people's lifestyle is very similar to that of any other villagers. Housework, gardening and taking care of their produce and general maintenance alters with fishing, hiking in the forest for mushrooms, picking berries... and occasional visits of family or tourists, which they always welcome with a bright smile.
Still, due to a respectful age and hard conditions they live in, help is always welcome. We are always happy to visit them, and even more excited to provide the same experience to our tourists. Self-settlers are happy to share their homes, food and stories with visitors in return, telling stories about their life in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, showing some of their traditions, and inviting you a thousand times to stay overnight!
The Self-Settlers Who Came Back To Village of Kupovate and Our First Day with The Self-Settlers
Marusya and Masha, mom and daughter, Kupuvate village.
First we visited two of the self-settlers - mom and daughter, who now live on the outskirts of the village, in the wilderness near the forest. Marusya is a very positive and sweet old woman who survived both World War II and Chernobyl, and she has lived in the village all her life. Masha, her daughter, returned to the village only because she understood that her mother simply could not cope with life in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on her own.
Marusya and Yulia, Kupuvate village, 2020.
When we approached the house, they greeted us with wide open doors, sincere smiles and even tears of happiness in their eyes. The fact is that due to such a remote area where their house is located, guests do not come to them often. Their happiness from our visit was indescribable.
We brought warm felt winter boots, colorful warm scarves and some food for them. Masha went to the mirror to try on a new scarf immediately. And Marusya was so touched that she did not even look at the things we brought, but simply rushed to hug and kiss us. When we entered the house, there was extraordinary aromas and a table set in all Ukrainian traditions. Fascinated by their hospitality and openness, Lindsay agreed to meet again.
Babuska Marusya and her house.
After lunch our path headed to another part of the village to visit Baba Marusya - one of the most charismatic girls in the Exclusion Zone! Marusya lives alone in the house where she has lived her entire life with her husband. Since Marusya's husband passed away 2 years ago, it became more and more difficult for her to cope with the household chores, which Marusya will never admit to.
Marusya is standing in front of her house, Kupuvate village, the Chernobyl Zone, 2020.
She loves to receive guests so much that even with our persuasion not to cook so much food, she waved her hand and said “Pff, don't you know me ?!” She invited us to the table and, pouring vodka into glasses, she began to tell stories. We had visited Marusya until late in the evening, and she very much wanted us to stay overnight, but we didn't want to oppress her.
At seven o'clock in the evening - back to the city of Chernobyl, where our hotel was located. During our visits to babushkas in Kupovate, we ate so much Ukrainian food that it was decided to skip the dinner.
Second Day and Moonshine Still
The next day, after breakfast, we headed back to the village of Kupovate, to visit grandma Sofia and Ghana.
Babushka Sofia, October 2020.
Sofia lives near the former kolkhoz (the Soviet collective farm) in the village of Kupovate and was previously one of the most influential people in the village!
And now she is the “most important grandmother” in the village! We, as always, entered the house with bags full of clothes and food, but Sofia was so glad to see us that she did not even look into the bags and instantly called us to the table.
Lindsay is showing Sofia videos, after filming her on a drone, in the village of Kupuvate.
She told us a huge amount of stories - funny and touching, joyful and sad, showed us her garden and vegetable patch, of which she is so proud. And like all the proud self-settlers, she refused in every possible way any form of help. She was very worried about the other self-settlers in Kupovate, and before our departure she gave us instructions on who needed help in the village.
On our way to other self-settler Hannas, we met Masha and Marusya, who were just going to pick mushrooms and invited us to go to the funeral reception of one of the self-settlers the next day.
Sisters, Hanna and Sonya.
Babushka Hanna is Sofia's cousin and despite her age (82), she easily copes with the household, the garden and cooks amazing dishes. She lives in her father's house with her younger sister, Sonya, who is unfortunately disabled, she can neither speak nor walk. Hanna and Sonya never had children, which is why tourists visits are like a holiday for them every time!
Hanna told us the story of probably her entire life and stressed several times that she would never ever want to live outside of Chernobyl. She proudly showed us the place “where miracles happen” - a moonshine still. During our lovely gatherings, we learned about her favourite sweets, and decided to surprise her next morning.
Third Day and The Cottage Cheese
The first thing in the morning of the third day, we went to the store to buy more supplies and especially ice cream to surprise Hanna. For many people it is such a trifle, but it was worth it! Hanna and Sofia were so pleased!
We continued into the depths of the Kupovate village to visit dedushka (grandpa), Vasya and babushka, Olya. Olya is one of the youngest residents of Kupovate, and of the entire Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. They greeted us with wide smiles on their faces and sweetly began to tell us a great number of stories. Well, Olya told them to be more precise. A very memorable couple - on the one hand, calm and good-natured Vasya, and on the other, bright, charismatic and talkative Olya.
After lunch, we followed Masha and headed towards the cemetery, where Hanna and her cousin Marusya were also. This was one of the most sensual and unusual parts of our trip. We came to the cemetery in order to remember the sister of Masha and grandfather Vasya, who recently left the world of the living. It was both sad to be there and happy to understand that Kupovate's self-settlers were friends with each other, they communicated, and in fact live like one family.
Marusya - big lover of mushrooms.
By 15:00, we went to visit Marusya (Hanna's cousin). One of the most adorable babushkas of the Chernobyl Zone. She is one of the ardent lovers of picking mushrooms and berries. As soon as we arrived, she decided to show us how to properly peel the chanterelles. After the chanterelles were cleaned, we sat by the table.
On that day, the electricity went out in the village, so we helped Marusya to arrange portable lamps and candles. Marusya had known for a long time that we were in Kupovate, and therefore she prepared for us her signature pancakes with cottage cheese in the oven. It was a warm dinner, as if with your own grandmother.
By eight in the evening, returned to the hotel, tired of all the emotions we had experienced during the day, and simply exhausted. It was time to go to bed.
Fourth Day and Vasya’s Golden Smile
On the 4th day of our trip, we visited another remote village of the Exclusion Zone - Teremtsi. The first stop was by the most hospitable self-settlers of Chernobyl - Uncle Vasil and Tanya. It seems to us that probably everyone who was interested in the ChEZ deeper than at the Wikipedia level saw photographs of "the richest self-settler of Chernobyl" - this is what Vasil calls himself because of his golden smile.
Dedushka (grandpa) Vasya in Teremtsi village, Chernobyl Zone.
Vasil has lived in the village of Teremtsi all his life, and after the accident he returned to Chernobyl with his wife. But soon she was gone and Vasil became, as they say now, "the most enviable bachelor of the ChEZ". Later he married the cute giggling Tanya, and now they are the happiest couple of Teremtsi.
From the first step over the threshold of the gate, we were instantly enveloped in hugs and sincere smiles and invited to the table. Between sharing their numerous stories, they proudly presented their huge catch from fishing, a huge farm, and a flower bed with beautiful flowers.
Fifth Day with Singing Dog Dana
The following day was our next to last day of our charity tour, and we decided to walk a little around the city of Chernobyl, before going to visit Valentina Borisovna, one might say, a celebrity of the Zone.
Valentina Borisovna and her singing dog Dana, Chernobyl town.
And at 11am, we finally met Valentina with a prepared accordion and her dog Dana. First of all, when Dana had seen all of us including Lindsay, she started to sing, so Valentina then sat down to play the accordion and Dana began to actively sing along to the song, Katyusha.
Later we sat down at the table and Valentina told us many stories, and even shared her difficult memories of the Second World War. She emphasized that even the events of 1941-45 did not force her family to leave Chernobyl for good, therefore she is not going to leave now either.
One of the oldest self-settlers of Kupovate - babushka Olya.
At about 14:00 in the afternoon, we went back to the village of Kupovate to see grandmother Olya. Arriving there, we realized that we definitely had to help her. We brought her food and various provisions, warm clothes and helped to bring water from the well and wood for the fire. Grandma Olya was one of the oldest self-settlers of Kupovate, when we met her she was already in her late 80s. Olya never had children, and unlike Hanna, she did not have a guardian, so tourists and guides have become her only help.
She returned to the Chernobyl Zone with her mother, at her request. Olya simply could not leave her sick mother alone. She confessed to us that if there was an opportunity to turn back time and stay in Kyiv, she would do it. But despite her state of health, she is still remembered by us as one of the most smiling grandmothers of the Exclusion Zone. She was so happy to see us, talk to us and even pose for photographs, that she was already glowing with happiness! But the time was already late and we had to leave.
In less than a month after our visit, we received the sad news that grandmother Olya passed away…
We are so grateful to get a chance to know this wonderful bright strong woman. Rest in piece Olya, you will be always in our hearts.
Last Day in the Nunnery
Nunnery in Bychki village, Chernobyl Zone, 2020.
On the last day of our trip, we went to the village of Bychki, where a nunnery is now located. This historical place has always been, so to speak, under the protection of God. Several centuries ago there was a huge monastery here, which was destroyed during the Second World War, and then by the Soviet authorities.
But after the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the monks decided to return the church to these lands, and ten years ago the Nunnery was built. The sisters of the monastery live an ordinary rural life, they have their own farm, a huge number of cattle, chickens, their own cheese-making equipment, and fields. They were very hospitable and showed us all the peculiarities of their life in the ChEZ.
As a Conclusion....
Self-settler's house, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 2020.
While visiting the city of Chernobyl and other villages, you may get acquainted with many hospitable inhabitants who will treat you as good friends and guests, and will tell you various interesting stories of their lives - this sums up our six day charity tour with Lindsay in October.
When you come to Chernobyl, you do not need to bring anything extra for the Chernobyl self-settlers, they are just happy to see you. You are the highlight of their day and they are happy to answer all your questions, sometimes even offering their own vodka or food. They are sad when you leave after a short visit.
The next charity tours will be held during 2021 and if you are interested in participating and helping Chernobyl babushkas in person, please let us know by sending an email to [email protected] with the subject " I want to help Chernobyl babushkas".
Or would you like to contribute directly? You can!
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Thank you for considering, we will keep you posted how you made a BIG difference in the small world of Chernobyl. All donations will be solely used for goods for Chernobyl babushkas purchases, transparently using the funds on PayPal account. This collectible is run until 30 JAN 2021.
P.S. On behalf of all employees of CHERNOBYLwel.come, we would like to express our immense gratitude to Lindsay - the warm-hearted girl, who brought so much joy and kindness to self-settlers by helping them. Lindsay, you are now a member of the CHERNOBYLwel.com family and will always be in the babushka’s heart. Thank you.
Radioactively yours ChernobylWelcome