RIP Phoebe Snow, who died in Edison, N.J., on Tuesday. She had some of the coolest pipes on the planet.

Did the world suffer the loss of one of your cool friends in the past 12 months?

1) In Pictures – Children of the World

São Félix, Brazil: A boy of the Kayapo tribe plays in front of his house (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

Masaya, Nicaragua: Girls disguised as angels are carried during a Holy Week procession (Esteban Felix/AP)

Karachi, Pakistan Girls wish prawns at a fishery, earning about $1.15 a day (Fareed Khan / AP)

2) Chernobyl – 25 years, 25 Stories – http://tinyurl.com/3oqhr45

Valentina Grigorievna Koltunenko, known to her neighbours as ‘Baba Valja’ (Grandma Valja) is one of them.

“Although it is technically illegal for anyone to live permanently in the Exclusion Zone, some former residents have defied the rules and slipped back over the years. The authorities turn a blind eye to these mainly elderly ‘self-settlers’, whose numbers have dwindled through age to just a few hundred scattered in Chernobyl village and across other former settlements.

Valentina Grigorievna Koltunenko, known to her neighbours as ‘Baba Valja’ (Grandma Valja) is one of them. Now 76 years old, she lives alone in her four-roomed wooden house in the village of Opachichi. Her husband died before the accident, and her three children were living in Pripyat. The village was not evacuated immediately, since the wind was blowing the radioactive plume northwards from the plant into Belarus. But then it changed direction, radiation levels rose and the authorities moved everyone out.

She spent the winter in makeshift, shared accommodation in Makariv, west of Kiev, but got tired of waiting for the permanent housing that was promised. The following spring she returned to her old home and took up a cleaning job in Chernobyl, which had become a hub of emergency activities.

Now she lives on a small state pension, growing vegetables – potatoes, onions, beetroot, carrots – and buying other provisions from a shop that delivers once a week. Sympathetic forest wardens bring her wood and organise help to harvest her garden crops. Her home is warmed from the centre by a huge, wood-burning oven, and a radio-telephone chirrups quietly in a corner.

Scientists regularly monitor radiation around her house. In the uneven patchwork of contamination left by the accident, Opachichi survived with relatively low levels compared to other parts of the Exclusion Zone. This, and the advanced age of the self-settlers, helps explain the official tolerance.

“In autumn they come and measure beetroot, potatoes, everything that grows in the soil,” she says. “A special lab comes too, to check the water. They say it’s ok for us – we’re elderly people.”

One of the greatest tragedies of the Chernobyl accident has been the traumatic psychological impact on the population, fostering feelings of fear, uncertainty and helplessness. Attachment to the land runs deep, and many evacuees long to return to their native villages. Studies have shown that self-settlers like Baba Valja have generally coped better psychologically than those who were resettled and have not been able to return.

She says her children, who now live in Kiev and other parts of Ukraine, would have gone back to Pripyat if they could. “We like it here,” she says. “It’s good to live here.”

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