Less than two hours’ drive from the capital Kiev, along the perimeter of the exclusion zone, it’s not just families looking for opportunities in these ghost towns, but also entrepreneurs.
Every day Vadim Minzuyk walks his dog along the high wire fence marking out the beginning of the exclusion zone. It’s his favourite place to enjoy the birdsong and the quiet of the forest.
“It’s like living in the north of Finland or Alaska,” says Vadim. “This area has the lowest population density of anywhere in Ukraine – only two people per square kilometre.”
In his former hometown of Horlivka, eastern Ukraine, Vadim was a businessman turning over a million dollars a year. But after the town ended up on the front line, pounded by artillery, his once-flourishing factories and warehouses were obliterated – some are just craters now.
Horlivka is still being fought over.
Vadim remembers looking out of his back window to see the rebels erecting a barricade right against his garden fence. Sometimes the two armies would be stationed only 100m apart.
For more than a year, his family endured daily ID checks at military checkpoints across the city. They saw dead bodies left lying along the roadside. They even witnessed a murder, when a man was pulled from the car right in front of them by rebels and shot dead in broad daylight.
After evacuating his children, Vadim and his wife soon followed. Driving out of Horlivka, they left everything behind them.
For several months, living off savings, Vadim travelled around Ukraine looking for ways for his family to start again. One day, he had a tip-off.
A relative had heard about cheap property for sale near Chernobyl. He went to see an abandoned grain silo in the village of Dytyatky. Lying right on the border of the exclusion zone, property was cheap, but it was also close enough to the capital city of Kiev (115km) to make it a viable business opportunity.
“The roof was leaking where locals had stripped it of all its metal. I met the owner, and we struck a cheap deal.”
Buying up the warehouse for $1,400, and a further three houses for just $240, he connected them all to the electricity grid and started up a smelting business.
“My strategy was to start a business by producing a product made out of waste.The first year was the most difficult, but over the last two years I feel much better.”
Vadim even re-employed seven of his former workers from Donbass, offering them accommodation by converting one of his houses into a hostel.
“I can make a living and help my workers to make money too. I’m the largest taxpayer here in the village. After all, I’m Ukrainian and I want to help my country.”