Today marks the 25th anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant in northern Ukraine.   Inthe early morning hours of April 26th 1986, an explosion at the plant released a radioactive cloud that spread over large areas of Europe and western Russia.  Two and a half decades later, the wide extent of the radioactive contamination still makes it difficult to measure the total human impact of the accident.  However, the region’s samosely caught our attention.

The samosely, or self-settlers, are a group of about 400 predominantly elderly residents who illegally live in the abandoned cities and villages within the exclusion zone that surrounds the Chernobyl site.  An interview conducted by Norwegian environmental NGO Bellona sheds light on why they remain in the region.  Bellona interviewed 71-year-old Valentina, who lived in the area prior to the disaster and returned there in 1987.  She says: “the apartments given to evacuees were impossible to live in. Sometimes three complete strangers would be sent to live in your own three-room apartment. These buildings were built in a quick, slip-shod manner and were cold and damp.” As a result, Valentina chose to ignore the health risks and returned to the area she called home.  Like Valentina, hundreds of others chose to return to their old homes within the exclusion home after facing many difficulties following the disaster.

Today, these seniors receive some support from the Ukrainian and Belorussian governments and receive some funds to purchase meals.  However, few of them have access to proper medical care and most consume contaminated produce that they grow near their homes.  The lives of the samosely thus once again highlight the importance of planning for proper elder care and rescue in emergency situations.  Sadly, a recent report by our colleagues at HelpAge found that just 0.2% of humanitarian aid worldwide targets the elderly.  As the world confronts the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan, this lesson from Chernobyl will prove to be invaluable.   As the world ages over the coming decades, planning for the elderly will  become increasingly important.

Take a few minutes and look at the pictures of the daily lives of the samosely below and share your thoughts with IAHSA.  How can these seniors  be helped? Did they forfeit their right to assistance by choosing to live in the exclusion zone?  What lessons in emergency planning do they provide? Do you know of a similar situation somewhere else?

In Focus: Chernobyl Disaster

In Focus: Chernobyl Disaster

In Focus: Chernobyl Disaster

Photos from:

The Denver Post

The Economist