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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 April 2006, 16:55 GMT 17:55 UK
Chernobyl voices: Lena and Anya Kostuchenko
Lena and Anna Kostuchenko

Lena Kostuchenko, 39, and her daughter Anya, 19
Chernobyl zone evacuees in Kiev

I was five months' pregnant when the accident occurred. My husband and I were spending the weekend at my mother's house in Kopachi (a village just south of the power station). We woke up on Saturday morning and decided to go to Chernihiv, the nearest big town, to buy maternity clothes.

At the bus stop we saw lots of fire engines and troop carriers on the main road. We waited and waited, but no bus came. Eventually a policeman told us there would be no buses, because there had been an accident.

There had been small accidents before, so we did not worry. We worked in the garden all day.

In 2004, Anya caught meningitis and was in a coma for three days
On the Sunday I had to go to work in Pripyat. Again there were no buses, so we set off on foot. But I began to feel very ill, before I had got half way. My husband helped me home, then walked to Pripyat alone.

When he got back, he said the town had been evacuated. By then I had got out of bed and wandered outside. Another policeman finally told me the truth - he said there was high radiation and pregnant women should get out at all costs. At that time I did not know what radiation was.

Abortions

Police were blocking the main road, but we drove to Ivankiv via back roads. Two days later I ended up in hospital. Doctors threw away my clothes, and "decontaminated" me with a cold shower.

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There were lots of other pregnant women there. The doctors said all would have abortions, or induced births. They did some of the abortions quickly, then changed their mind and said we would all give birth, after all.

We went to Chop (on the Hungarian border) then to Mykolayiv (near the Black Sea). In each new town, I had to throw away the clothes I had bought in the last one. They must have been contaminated by my own radioactive body.

I gave birth to Anya two months early. She was big - 2.5kg (5.5lbs) and 49cm tall - but her nails had not formed and she was a yellowish colour, so she was put in an incubator. I was not allowed to see her for eight days.

Blood disease

Later, when we moved to Kiev, specialists hospitalised her on sight. Her haemoglobin count was about a quarter or a third of the normal level. At that time you could not say it was because of Chernobyl - it could be anything except Chernobyl. Much later a haematology professor told me I had been very unlucky: I was in the wrong place at the wrong time of my pregnancy.

Anya is like a house plant. She has a very rare blood disease and almost no immunity. In 2004 she caught meningitis and was in a coma for three days. A doctor told me it was all over, but she pulled through.

In the 1990s a law was passed, which promised benefits to Chernobyl invalids, but it said nothing about child invalids. Together with some other parents I formed an organisation, Flowers in the Wormwood, which successfully lobbied for the law to be changed.

There is a tendency now to play down the problem of Chernobyl, and, if possible, to forget it. Once the 20th anniversary has passed, I think the state will begin to withdraw support.



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