Entire territories of our planet are forever contaminated by human activity, places that have become unfit for human development, but where men, women and children have no choice but to live although their lives are at stake. This is the story of Dzerjink – a "forgotten" place, located 400km from Moscow. Dzerjink produced Soviet chemical weapons and was for a long time a no-go zone for foreigners. Today it has become a toxic time bomb.

By Isabelle Mandraud

Thick billows of dust rise from the dirt road. At its end an apocalyptic scene awaits us. In the midst of a forest of disemboweled birches, lies a black hole, brimming, shapeless, with a circumference some hundreds of meters in size. It is as deep as an inverted seven-story building, maybe even deeper – who knows – no one has ever measured it accurately. Containers jut out from its depths, misshapen, as if ancient. You can’t approach the edges too closely for fear the soft earth will give way. Clingy fibers the texture of chewing gum stretch and stick to the soles of your shoes. The smell has been heightened by an unusually hot sun in spring. It is suffocating.