Old Nastya Avramchuk, the only inhabitant of Velyki Klishchi.

Now, thirteen years after the Chernobyl (Chernobyl in Ukrainian) nuclear power disaster, there are still vast stretches of land in Ukraine that are not good for people to live in because of high radiation levels.

But within wide contaminated areas there are "islands" in which the level of radiation is low enough to allow more or less normal life there to go on. One of such "islands" is the Narodytsky Raion (Raion is a further administrative division within an Oblast). There are "contaminated patches" in this area too where no one is allowed to live, but in general the Narodytsky Raion is officially designated as "an area of limited human habitation."

The Narodytsky Raion lies about 150 kilometres from Kyiv and about a hundred kilometres from Chernobyl. At one point on the road you have to stop your car at a barrier of the swing-beam type. A policeman will write down your car's license-plate number and then will wave you on. The scenery is probably the most bizarre in the world. All around you can see empty fields, stretching to the horizon, with abandoned agriculture machinery here and there, neglected orchards, deserted villages. One begins to wonder how come the whole area has not overgrown completely with tall weeds and forests in the Chernobyl disaster. Everything looks as though people have just left to return any moment. One begins to wonder how come the whole area has not overgrown completely with tall weeds and forests in the thirteen years that have just left to return any moment. One feels as though one were watching a horror movie. But the reality of it makes it double horrible.

If you keep driving though this improbable landscape for about an hour, you arrive at a small town standing on the bank of a picturesque river. The town is called Narodychi and it is not deserted - there are people living in it.
From the point of view of the state, the Narodytsky Raion is nit likely to come back to normal life in a long time, hence it should be left as it is, without any considerable development being undertaken. The people living in Narodychi are of a different opinion and are somewhat bitter about the state not paying enough attention to them. In Narodychi I met Dmytro Hensitsky, deputy head of the local administration. He is not a native of the place - he moved to Narodychi after the Chernobyl disaster to join his wife there. His son, who is ten, has been living in Narodychi all his life. Mr Hensitsky is a teacher of French and English by education, and he says that his knowledge of foreign languages comes in handy when he meets delegations from many European countries. People come on humanitarian missions, many are eager to help any way they can. Even tourist come, which, all things considering, is hardly surprising. Every year groups of children from Narodychi go to Italy to stay there for a length of time, and many of them have already picked enough Italian to understand the language be understood.
Mr Hensitsky told me that according to the official data there were about 12 thousand people living in the Narodytsky Raion, but in fact there are about 14 thousand.

The last village, leaving their native place, sat at this table to big farewell to Velyki Klishchi before their final departure.

About four thousand of them are those who were evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster, spent some time away in other parts of Ukraine and now they have returned to their native land. There are a lot of refugees from several places of the former Soviet Union where life became unbearable because of the armed conflicts (there are some people even from faraway Tadzhykistan). One family arrived with ten children and the eleventh was born in Narodychi. It is curious fact that the birth rates in the Narodytsky Raion are the highest in the Zhytomyr Oblast. Incidentally, the population in Ukraine as a whole has been decreasing in the last few years: there are more people dying in Ukraine - or immigrating - than there are children born.
Thanks to the local pressure groups, the state is now paying more attention to the development of Narodychi. Mr Hensitsky says that there are investors who are willing to invest into the economic - agriculture in particular - development of the Narodytsky Raion. Part of the once contaminated land can be reclaimed and then used for agricultural purposes. The milk of the local cows is good enough to drink - it meets all the stringent requirements of healthy food and exported to Kyiv and Zhytomyr.

Children at the Narodychi cemetery.

The local patriots insist that it is not only economic considerations that make them stay put. The land has a long history. Archaeologists unearthed evidence that there were human settlements there many thousand of years ago. One of the theories has it that it was from the land of Narodychi that Slavic people migrated to those parts of Europe, which now have predominantly Slavic population. There are several world champions in different sports who hail from Narodychi. Apart from all other considerations, the Narodytsky Raion is a very beautiful place indeed. Some of the tourists and other foreigners who come to Narodychi are fascinated with the beauty of it, comparing it to other places in the world, famous for their beauty.
On the way back, we stopped at the village of Velyki Klishchi. It is a completely deserted place now, all the inhabitants have left or have been evacuated. Nevertheless, we met there a seventy-year old woman, Nastya Avranchuk, the sole inhabitant of the once thriving village. There is no electricity, no means of communication with the outside world. One gets a very strange feeling, walking through the empty streets. A post office, a monument to war victims, an old wooden church. And silence. Quite uncanny. We walked into the church, were surprised to find it clean and evidently looked after. There were no icons though. Just a framed print of a religious picture with embroidered towels for adornment.

Once a year people, natives of the village now living elsewhere, come here to worship and remember the dead.
When we returned to old Avramchuk's house, we saw a cat that was sitting near the gate. Seeing us arrive, the cat walked with great dignity towards the house as though to warn the old woman of our arrival. We did not see any dogs though, not anywhere, and old Avramchuk told us later that there had been a lot of dogs once but then they either had left or "died of boredom."
Our first question, naturally, was why she was living there all alone. She quietly, without any hesitation, answered: "Because this is my native place and to leave it would be wrong and treacherous."
The nearest place where she can get medical help is seven kilometres (more than four miles) away. She walks there to buy bread, drops into the post office, chats with someone; once in a while she takes her cow there for "her to see a bull." At home, she keeps listening to the radio; complains that the batteries run out of energy much too soon. Recently, she has been paid a visit by a group of forty Dutch people and "they sure enjoyed the visit. I enjoyed it too!" The old woman is a very interesting person to talk to. Some of her ideas, induced by loneliness, are touchingly preposterous, but listening to her I suddenly realized that it would be so good if some of her wishful thinking came true. "All of them bad bosses, all them nincompoops who used to run things here done died out."
Old Nastya Avramchuk is like a female Robinzon Crusoe living in the man-made wilderness. And she manages no less successfully.
If you ever pay her a visit - she welcomes all the visitors - bring her some bread or candies. Don't give her money. She has no use for it.

By Vitaliy Zhexhera
Photos by Olexandr Klymenko