January

January 25, Tetiana Kharchenko

Lessons From the Wolves Land

The elderly woman tucks her salt-and-pepper hair under her scarf. It’s a cold winter day, but she stands on the snow in her slippers, pretending she feels just fine. Her only regret is that she hadn’t had time to change her dress for a better one before the journalists arrived.

I am among those journalists, holding a small tape recorder in my hand. Several TV cameras point toward the woman’s wrinkled face. The First Lady of the country asks her if she needs any help. “No, thank you. I am very happy here,” the old lady smiles without confidence. “I only wish somebody could put the fence around my house.”

She pauses and seems not to trust that we would believe her words anyway. “The wolves are coming too close to my windows,” the old woman continues. “I got used to them, but you never know. They even follow me when I walk to the cemetery.”

This woman’s experience is just one small memory from the report I made in the Ukrainian Chernobyl “exclusion zone.” The meltdown that occurred at the Soviet plant there in 1986 was the worst nuclear disaster in history. As a journalist, I visited the Chernobyl zone several times and produced stories about the extinction of the local culture.

That particular time, we came together with the First Lady of Ukraine and some other influential women. The First Lady came to visit just on the eve of the new year. She brought some presents (tangerines, cheese, bread, and sparkling wine) for the people who decided to stay in the “exclusion zone” despite all the risks for their health and despite the absence of the grocery shops and hospitals.

There is something scary yet magical about this place, something I learned from locals that inspired gratitude. People in Chernobyl don’t wear any social masks. They don’t pretend to be somebody. They are just who they are. They meet visitors with such hospitality that every encounter seems like their last chance to show their kindness and love.

Some may consider this simplistic, but I observed from the people of Chernobyl something that I consider one of the most important lessons I have ever learned: for a decent life, people don’t need to be ambitious or rich but should keep gratitude and love in their hearts. After all, when something goes wrong, these are the only things that help us to stay strong and to be grateful for another day of life. Each day is a treasure we so often take for granted.

–Tetiana Kharchenko

London, England

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