Chernobyl: The people who've stayed

Chernobyl: The people who've stayed

The contagious optimism of Baba Gania

Baba Gania (left) is 86 years old. She survived her husband who died a decade ago. For the past 25 years, Gania has taken care of her mentally disabled sister Sonya (right). "I am not afraid of radiation. I boil the mushrooms till all the radiation is gone!" she says proudly. Photographer Alina Rudya visited her several times over the past years: "She is the warmest and kindest person I know."

Chernobyl: The people who've stayed

Hastily left: Abandoned houses in the Zone

Gania and her sister live in Kupuvate, a village in the 30-kilometer (19-mile) exclusion zone around the ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. After the accident in April 1986, hundreds of thousands of residents in the area were hastily evacuated. Most houses in Kupovate remained abandoned. Gania is using this one in the neighborhood to store her and her sister’s coffins.

Chernobyl: The people who've stayed

Where the dead return

"The cemetery of Kupuvate looks like any other village cemetery in Ukraine," photographer Alina Rudya reports. "Many people who are buried here were evacuated and spent their lives outside of the nuclear radiated zone, only to return after their death."

Chernobyl: The people who've stayed

The last wish of Baba Marusia

The returnees look after the remains of their family — like Baba Marusia, who came to clean her mother's grave. Her daughter lives in Kyiv, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with her husband and two children. "I am happy I stayed here, though. It is my homeland. That is where I want to be buried." And she adds: "But next to my mother, not my husband."

Chernobyl: The people who've stayed

Samosely: Those who returned to stay

Galyna Ivanivna is another of the few self-settlers in the zone, the so-called samosely. "My life flew by in a blink of an eye. I am 82 years old right now and it is as if I’ve never lived. When I was younger, I wanted to travel the world. I remember dreaming of having a free ticket which would take me around the globe. But I never managed to go further than Kyiv."

Chernobyl: The people who've stayed

Living in a world of his own

Ivan Ivanovych and his wife were also among the few hundred who decided to move back to the contaminated area in the 80s. Ivan has become somewhat of a local star among the tourists visiting the area. His wife died some years ago — "But every time I visit him, he tells me it happened 'last year.' He is full of stories, which vary between truth and imagination," says the photographer.

Chernobyl: The people who've stayed

Witnesses of the past

One week before the 32nd anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster on April 26, Ukranian photographer Alina Rudya visited the village of Opachichi. She found one old woman who still lives there, but most of the other self-settlers have died. Empty houses have been left open with old pictures, letters, Ukrainian embroidered towels and furniture silently serving witness.

Chernobyl: The people who've stayed

Slowly saying goodbye

Marusia is watching over her husband Ivan, who recently had a stroke and suffers from dementia. "Sometimes he wakes up at night and goes searching for his tractor. He worked on one for 42 years." She herself is concerned about dying slowly. "I don’t want to be a burden to my kids and grandkids."

Chernobyl: The people who've stayed

Providing for death

Before Ivan fell ill, he built two coffins to prepare for both his death and the death of his wife. They are stored in a shed next to the house. "The lower one is for me and the upper one for my old man," Marusia explains.

Chernobyl: The people who've stayed

The last self-settlers

Only a few "samosely" are still living in the exclusion zone. Alina Rudya, who was herself born near Chernobyl, has returned several times and photographed them for her long-term project, which she is planning to publish as a book. "Visiting abandoned villages feels more and more sad each time. Every time I come, someone has died, since almost all of the self-settlers are over 70 years old."

More than three decades after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, a 30-kilometer-area around it is labeled "uninhabitable." Some refused to abandon their homes and returned. Ukrainian photographer Alina Rudya met them.