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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 16:46 GMT
Chernobyl trauma lives on
Chernobyl nuclear plant, BBC
The Chernobyl disaster has left deep scars on Ukraine
Nearly 16 years after the explosions at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the then-Soviet Republic of Ukraine, the repercussions of the world's worst nuclear accident are still being felt across the region.

The official number of people affected by the disaster is put at about seven million, but only a small fraction of these were people killed by the explosions or emergency workers who died or became seriously ill after exposure to intense nuclear radiation.

Since the accident, many other victims have reportedly suffered from a range of health problems.

Some 2,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been identified.

The accident has deprived me of any perspective; I had my dreams and hopes. I became no one and belong to no where.

Helena Kostuchenko
But a forthcoming UN report is expected to blame many health problems not on radiation, but on the trauma of mass evacuation and official systems of compensation.

Patrick Gray, who led the research team, told the BBC that many people were classified as victims either because they lost their homes or were involved in the clean-up and at risk of illness.

"Basically the system was one which was established in the Soviet period which involved compensating people for exposure to risk rather than actual medical need," he said.

One of the radiation victims is Helena Kostuchenko, a 34-year-old single mother who is now living in Ukraine's capital, Kiev.

Experts measuring radioactivity near Chernobyl, AP
Some villages near the nuclear plant are still contaminated
She was 19 and pregnant when the accident happened. In a BBC interview, she recalls the confusion surrounding the evacuation from her home village near Chernobyl to western Ukraine.

"We saw all these busses leaving, but it looked like they were not going to evacuate us."

In the end, Helena left only by chance: "Thanks to one policeman who saw I was pregnant and told my mother-in-law to send me somewhere at any cost," she said.

Like so many others, she did not realise until much later how much danger she had been exposed to.

"Radiation does not bite. You cannot see it or feel it. And we always thought they would let us know in case it is something serious.

"I realised I am a victim of Chernobyl when my daughter Anna was born. She is handicapped from her birth. She has liver and bone disorders, which lead to blood problems."

Psychological scars

And then there is the psychological damage. Helena says Chernobyl has ruined her life.

"The accident has deprived me of any perspective. I was 19 when it all happened. I had my dreams and hopes. I became no one. I am nothing. I belong to nowhere.

"All these 15 years we have been trying to survive. My daughter has no perspective too. She is sick. She doesn't go to school. The teacher comes to us twice a week. So what is her future?"

Researcher Patrick Gray says the deep-rooted pessimism among many people in the region is often passed on to the next generation:

Many people were unable to find employment because they were farmers and peasants, and had to be moved into blocks of flats in cities

Chernobyl expert Patrick Gray
"Many people believe that they are, if you like, condemned by the accident."

That feeling even affects people in areas where there was little or no radioactive contamination.

"It is very difficult to persuade people in Belarus, and Ukraine and parts of western Russia that they have the same life expectancy as people who live in other parts of the world," Mr Gray says.

Five years after the disaster, in 1991, Helena Kostuchenko was officially classified as a Chernobyl victim and received compensation.


But that has proved only a small relief, she says, because her new neighbours in Kiev are jealous.

The resentment felt by some Ukrainians towards the official Chernobyl victims stems partly from the haphazard compensation system and partly from the collapse of the welfare state, explains Patrick Gray.

"With the break-up of the Soviet Union and the economic crisis that followed, the special pensions that were paid for people who were considered to be invalids or severely affected by Chernobyl, took the place of the welfare state."

The mass evacuations - about 400,000 people were forced to leave their homes in 1986 - had their own side-effects too, impoverishing some areas and causing severe problems in places where people moved to.

Lenin statue near Chernobyl, AP
The legacy of the Soviet Union is still being felt
"Many of these people were unable to find employment because they were farmers and peasants, and they had to be moved into blocks of flats in cities in some cases, " said Mr Gray.

But, he says, it would be wrong to blame it all on the authorities as they did what they thought was best at the time.

For Helena Kostuchenko though, bitterness is all that remains.

"There was a village named Kopachi - my home. It does not exist anymore," she said. "They have ruined it all with bulldozers. So I don't have a place to come back to even if I wished to.

"It is a very awkward feeling - when you know that you have lost your childhood. There is no place you can show to your children. There is only this ruined reactor one kilometre north from this place."

See also:

23 Oct 01 | Health
Chernobyl's cancer world record
03 Jan 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Ukraine
08 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Chernobyl children show DNA changes
26 Apr 01 | Media reports
Media recalls Chernobyl
28 Sep 01 | Europe
Timeline: Ukraine
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