The Chernobyl survivors who refused to leave the Exclusion Zone

The Chernobyl survivors who refused to leave the Exclusion Zone

Chernobyl – the worst nuclear disaster in history – sparked 100,000 residents to abandon their homes in 1986, but between 150 and 300 defied Soviet orders and refused to flee the radiation-soaked lands.

In recent years, Robyn Von Swank, a Canadian photographer, has ventured into the 20-mile Exclusion Zone to document the aftermath – and while doing so encountered families living in the toxic wasteland still deemed unfit for humans.

The disaster started on April 26, when horrified workers saw the control panels indicating a major meltdown was imminent. Radioactive material was then blasted skyward, as the reactor shattered and ignited into an inferno.

The explosion released 100 times more radiation than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and experts say between 4,000 and 27,000 people died as a result (estimates vary due to lost reports when the Soviet Union broke up).

Just over 33 years on, Robyn ventured into the barren lands and found residents wearing stoney-faced expressions, continuing with their lives unfazed and tending to their modest wooden houses.

She visited some locals – mostly aged over 80 – and was invited into their homes and fed various Ukrainian cuisine.

"The people were warm and welcoming and spoke openly about their histories," she said, according to the Mail Online . "Some sobbed when speaking of the incident, having been affected so personally."

Despite the warnings, many families are still relocating to the area – particularly amid ongoing conflicts currently raging between Ukraine and Russia.

One of the residents, Maria, survived the Nazi invasion, the Chernobyl disaster and Soviet rule, and vowed to never leave her home.

Robyn's remarkable snaps show the elderly residents in humble wooden homes, wrapped in several layers to protect against the harsh snowy conditions. Inside are mostly just life's essentials: furniture, clothes, pots, pans and food.

Following the 1986 blast, the blaze spewed radiation for 10 days – with after effects being felt as far afield as Greece and the UK – while radioactive clouds moved across Europe as poisonous rain wreaked havoc on plants and animals in Belarus.

Numerous creatures were later found with genetic mutations – including some with extra limbs, and barn swallows with deformed beaks and smaller brains.

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