In the fall of 2022, journalist Zarina Zabrisky visits Pripyat and Chornobyl, Ukraine, after being “asked to investigate whether the Russian Army dug trenches in the radioactive zona during the invasion.” She meets with samosel—members of the community who returned to the exclusion zone to try and live out their lives in peace—despite the radioactive fallout of the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion and the Russian army’s 2022 invasion.

The church buried Valentyna’s family house by the river—“like a person”—in 1988. She was born in that house, gave birth to her kids and cared for her grandchildren there. Later, in 1996, her second house was buried too. Then, she buried her husband and, still refusing to leave Chornobyl, moved to a third house. In 2022, Russians came knocking on the door with their machine guns, looking for Nazis.

Water pipes were damaged on the first day of the invasion. Samosely had no power or heat, no communication. All stores were closed. Some tried to climb trees to pick up a cell signal and speak to their family in other parts of Ukraine, but Russian snipers could see them, even in their yards.

“In Chornobyl, we got lucky. They didn’t kill anyone—not a person, not a dog or a cat. Still, Russians robbed the laboratories in town and dug trenches in the Red Forest. As they were finally leaving, retreating, they didn’t have a map and couldn’t figure out which way to flee. They asked us, ‘Which way do we go?’”

She heads outside to meet her son, still talking, “They tried to remove my birthplace, my homeland. But homeland is everything—the walls are holding you up. I tried to leave so many times, but no!—Chornobyl pulls you back. You can’t leave.”

Standing in a doorway, a light curtain billowing in the breeze, she reads me her poem: “The church stands on guard on the hill. It sees everything—yet it is silent. No one’s here to heal the wounds.”