The town of Muslyumovo has to be one of the saddest places on earth. The thousands of people who have little choice but to live here, on the banks of the Techa river not far from Russia’s southern border with Kazakhstan, are the victims of a nuclear disaster that began more than six decades ago.
They are still suffering with the consequences of life next door to the Mayak nuclear plant , and still dying from the radiation-related illnesses that have claimed the lives of so many before them.
On the way to the plant, constructed in the 1940s, our crew was forced to avoid several checkpoints, and to conceal our cameras – we made do, in the end, with a small camera mounted on the windscreen.
Thus equipped, we drove to within a hundred metres of the plant gates.
It’s like a city. Families work and live here. Teenagers chased each other in the snow just beyond the fence.
Mayak is surrounded by silver birch forests, and signs by the road warn people not to enter the woodland or pick the wild mushrooms.
It also once provided the Soviet Union with around 40 per cent of the world’s weapons-grade plutonium. The country’s first atomic bomb was built here, too. Between 1949 and 1951, the plant dumped hundreds of tonnes of highly radioactive waste into the nearby Techa.
Hundreds of villages have been resettled since then but, incredibly, four remain in the contaminated area. Residents say they don’t know why they were never moved.
Many people we spoke to say they are being used as human guinea pigs. They talk of a secret government experiment looking at the effects of radiation exposure on humans.
Further, the nearest hospital that can treat the various radiation-related illnesses they suffer from is in the regional capital of Chelyabinsk, about 50km away.
One woman described her visits:
They must have tested new drugs on us. You come from the hospital where you spend a month then get sick for a month at home. They don’t treat you. They hurt you. They don’t say anything.”
Some of the old Muslyumovo village has been moved in recent years, but only to a place that is a short walk from the radiation-polluted river. The Geiger counter readings we took by the river showed radiation levels 50 times higher than the level experts say is safe for humans.
Our driver, who himself suffers chronic radiation illness pointed to a car tyre frozen solid in icy marsh. He said if we tested our Geiger counter there, we would get a reading at least three times higher than the one we currently had.
There were no barriers or fences to keep people out. And there were footprints in the snow everywhere. A rusty sign warned people not to enter or pick the berries.
Despite the warnings, though, fishermen still come here, and, in the summer, children still swim in the toxic waters.
Most people in the village know the dangers, but seem resigned to their fate. They don’t have the money to move to a safer place. Many others seem ignorant of the risks. One woman said:
We get sick and many get cancer because of the atoms. We can’t stop our children from swimming in the river.”
The government gave some of the Muslyumovo residents the choice of around $35,000 to find a new home of their choice, or be moved to a house on the new site two kilometres from the river. That programme is now over.
Most say the sum was never enough to afford a home further away.
They also say much of the money that  was supposed to go towards building new homes was stolen by contractors or officials.
Most of the residents we spoke to complain of the Radon gas that they claim seeps from the soil and into their homes.
“Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” says one man. “It’s only two kilometres to the river. We are still in radioactive territory. There is radioactive Radon gas in the houses. We think this was arranged to embezzle the money.”
“We bought soil from the old place. When we moved here they didn’t tell us it was dangerous here. They found Radon gas later when the houses were already built.”
Russia’s state nuclear agency Rosatom has launched an inquiry into claims the money was stolen, but no conclusions have been announced yet.
Residents complain their new homes are poorly insulated against the brutal winter cold that can reach lows of minus 30 degrees.
Said one man:
You cannot treat people like this. After we suffered from the radiation river and now they move us here to unsuitable houses, to this land. People are tired – tired of the fighting.”
Most of the children in this area suffer some form or other of radiation-related illness.
Symptoms of chronic radiation sickness include recurrent infections, swellings, anemia, unhealed wounds, hair loss and bruises. Long term exposure to high rates of radiation causes birth defects and cancer.
Locals call it the “river sickness”.
The boy in our report with the growth on his neck is 17-years-old.
He has eight brothers and sisters. They all suffer from radiation-related illness.
His mother says she took him to the local doctor to get his neck checked.
She says the doctor told her the lump would disappear. She says her son was never even offered a biopsy.
This, in a place where people have died of cancer for decades. An area that has some of the highest levels of radiation pollution in the world.
We are afraid, the consequences are terrifying. But where can we move to?” she said.
So many people we spoke to kept asking the same thing “Why haven’t we been moved further away from the river?”
The government says it recognises that thousands of people still live in the contaminated zone.
It offers the insultingly meagre sum of around $4 a month compensation. It offers approximately $30 a month towards medical costs.
We tried speaking to local government health workers.
We waited five hours to speak to the doctor in our report.
When he did finally show up, he seemed embarrassed – as if he wanted to answer our questions but couldn’t.
The conversation he had on the phone which we secretly filmed is evidence there’s perhaps much the government doesn’t want outsiders to know.
And then there are the hundreds of families that were never moved at all. Not even the 2km up the road to the new village.
We met 87-year-old Ekaterina. Her family was originally from Germany.
During World War Two, Stalin moved thousands of Germans living in Russia as far away from urban areas as he could.
Ekaterina and her family were moved to one of the villages near Mayak.
In 1957, when an explosion at a plant storage tank forced an evacuation of the area she and her family were relocated again.
They were moved to Muslyumovo next to the radiation polluted river. Fifty years later she is still there.
She breaks down in tears when we ask her how she survives. She says she was never able to have children. Her husband died years ago.
Many people have died of cancer in this area. People are always sick. I want to move but I was never asked. I don’t understand why.”
Between 2001-2004 up to 40 million cubic meters of more radioactive slush ended up in the Techa river. The government acknowledges this as fact.
A criminal investigation was launched.
In 2005, prosecutors moved to charge the head of the Mayak Nuclear plant.
He was convicted but soon after pardoned in a general amnesty to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the Russian parliament.