"They told us our legs would hurt, and they do"

So long as they were well beyond child bearing, self-settlers were allowed to stay “semi-illegally.” Five happy years, the settlers logic went, is better than 15 condemned to a high-rise on the outskirts of Kyiv. The residents of the Chernobyl region are forest-dwelling steppe people of Ukraine’s Polesia region and did not adapt well to urban environments. There is a simple defiance common among them: “They told us our legs would hurt, and they do,” one 80-year-old woman told me. “So what.”

What about their health? There are benefits of hardy living from the land — but also complications from an environment laced with radioactive contaminants, such as cesium, strontium and americium. Health studies vary. The World Health Organization predicts more than 4,000 deaths will eventually be linked to Chernobyl.

Greenpeace and others put that projection into the tens of thousands. All agree thyroid cancers are sky high, and that Chernobyl evacuees have suffered the trauma of relocated peoples everywhere, including anxiety, depression,

Radioactive contamination from the accident has been death-dealing, to be sure, but relocation trauma is another, less-examined fallout of Chernobyl. Of the old people who relocated, one Chernobyl medical technician, whose job is to give annual radiation exposure tests to zone workers said: “Quite simply, they die of anguish.”