(AS UKRAINE PREPARES FOR A TURBULENT SPRING, BOSNEWSLIFE RE-PRINTS A KEY STORY BOSNEWSLIFE COVERED IN 2006).
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
CHERNOBYL, UKRAINE (BosNewsLife)– Fresh flowers in front of a small statue resembling the Virgin Mary revealed that at least some Ukrainians returned Wednesday, April 26, to the 30 kilometers (19 miles) “exclusion zone” around the country’s leaking Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which exploded 20 years ago.
Praying is what people did here Wednesday, April 26, as they walked towards the Maria statue near a police checkpoint outside the Chernobyl complex, to remember the 20th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Residents living in this region were evacuated after Moscow finally admitted that Reactor Four of the plant blew up on that fateful April 26, 1986,
“Moscow’s secrecy” surrounding the world’s worst nuclear disaster, compelled Ukraine to become independent in 1991 from the Soviet Union, recalled President Victor Yushenko at a ceremony near the Chernobyl power plant to remember those who died. Victims included young firemen and conscripts who in many cases worked with their bare hands, armed with shovels, to put out the fire.
“I was almost send in my t-shirt from my post in Belarus where I was part of a unit guarding nuclear weapons,” confirmed Aleg Golovko, 40, in an interview with BosNewsLife. Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia were among the worst effected countries by the huge radioactive cloud spewed by the burning reactor.
However Yushenko urged Ukrainians to burry the past. “After 20 years of pain and fear, this land must feel progress,” Yushenko told mourners in Chernobyl –epicenter of the still-contaminated “exclusion zone” that straddles parts of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus.
Ukraine has been left to deal with a legacy of contamination, ill health among its people and a reactor that, though entombed in a concrete, but leaking, shelter, or “sarcophagus”, is expected to remain radioactive for centuries.
Yushenko this week urged the international community to organize an international donor conference and raise up to $1.4 billion to improve the protection around the plant.
Yet the president, who came to prominence during the Orange Revolution for democratic changes, urged his people to realize that “the trance we were left with in by Chernobyl is over. We are a strong and brave people and we are looking to the future.”
But don’t tell that to 21-year old driver Sergei Sidyko. He is still in trance, seven years after his father died of blood cancer, which was apparently caused by his involvement in distinguishing the Chernobyl fire. His mother has breast cancer, his girlfriend died recently of blood cancer. “I find it painful to speak about this,” he said, as he drove a BosNewsLife team through what is locally known as the “dead zone.”
Orthodox Christians and their priests also gathered in Chernobyl and surrounding villages to pray and remember the many victims.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said ahead of the 20th anniversary ceremony that up to 9,000 people would die because of the incifdent while environmental group Greenpeace, mentioned 93,000 killed. Critics say the discripencies are linked to the coisy relationship between WHO and the International Automic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Ukrainians say that adequate statistics are difficult to get, as most prefer to die in silence without talking about their suffering with the outside world. Millions still suffer the impact of the blast in there everyday lives. “It is frightening to see how many people have cancer here,” added Sidyko who says his faith in Christ gives him strengh.
Former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko agreed. “A good friend of mine who was only in his thirties died of cancer, we believe it was because of Chernobyl. I was deeply shocked by his death,” he exolained as he left an early morning memorial service in Kiev.
Altough about 200,000 people were evacuated in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, an increasing number of people have returned, BosNewsLife established. With radiation levels making ‘Geiger counters’ go off the scale, people can still be seen planting and harvesting fruit and vergetables from apparently contaminated land. Many products end up in local food markets and stores, BosNewsLife learned.
“This is our land, our birth place. We can not leave it…,” said Vasilij Ponomarenko, 47, a married father of two daughters. “We don’t want to leave, this is our life.”
He spoke as hundreds of people, each bearing a candle and some with carnations, filed slowly through the streets of Slavutych, the town built to house the Chernobyl plant’s workers following the accident.
Wednesday’s ceremonies began in the small hours in the Ukrainian capital Kiev at 1.23am when a single bell tolled 20 times. An outdoor memorial service was held at the exact moment that one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded. Hundreds of people were seen gathering for the Orthodox Christian ceremony in a small white church dedicated to the Chernobyl accident.
About the time of the explosion and ensuing fire — a minute of silence was declared. Lyudmila Snizhok was among those attending a memorial service where she remembered her husband who died, so others could live. Her husband Leonid, a paramedic, spent the first six months after the accident in the “exclusion zone”, treating victims.
“He died three years ago .. from the effects of radiation,” she said. “He left three children.” One thing has become clear: “The disaster changed Ukraine for ever. A tragedy like this should never be allowed to happen again,” stressed Klitschko.