Ukrainian mourners carried single red carnations and flickering candles during a solemn memorial ceremony early today to remember the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, an event that continues to scar the psyche of the ex-Soviet republic 20 years later.
The pre-dawn explosion, to be marked here during day-long events, became the world’s worst ever nuclear accident, spewing radiation across vast stretches of Europe.
It cast a radioactive shadow over the health of millions of people, spooked the world and many say contributed to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
“My friends were dying under my eyes,” said Konstantyn Sokolov, 68, a former Chernobyl worker whose voice was hoarse from throat and lip cancer. Sokolov was among hundreds gathering for a middle of the night ceremony today in the Ukrainian capital, which President Viktor Yushchenko attended.
“I try not to recollect my memories,” Sokolov said as Orthodox priests led the mourners in a sombre procession. ”They are very terrible.”
The explosion on April 26, 1986 tore off the plant’s roof, spewing radioactive fallout for 10 days over 200,000 square kilometres (77,220 square miles) of the then-Soviet Union and Europe. In Kiev, bells tolled 20 times starting at 1:23am (2223 GMT yesterday), marking the exact time of the explosion at Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station.
Closer to Chernobyl in Slavutych – the town built to house the Chernobyl workers displaced in the accident – the commemorations began an hour earlier to coincide with Moscow time, which was used in the then-Soviet Republic of Ukraine at the time of the accident.
Residents laid flowers and placed candles at a monument dedicated to Chernobyl as sirens blared.
One plant worker was killed instantly and his body has never been recovered.
Twenty-nine rescuers, firefighters and plant workers died later from radiation poisoning and burns they suffered trying to contain the explosion and keep it from spreading to the plant’s three other operating reactors. One more died from an apparent heart attack.
Mykola Malyshev, 66, was working in the control room of Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 1 at the time of the explosion. He said the lights went off-and-on and the room shook.
The workers were ordered to the destroyed reactor, but when they got there, their co-workers ordered them to flee and save themselves.
“They told us, ’We are already dead. Go away,”’ Malyshev recalled at the Kiev ceremony.
Thousands of those affected have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the UN health agency said about 9,300 people were likely to die of cancers caused by radiation.
The United Nations has said that the aim now should be to reduce the feeling of malaise and doom that grips many in the affected region.
Some groups, however, including Greenpeace, have warned that death tolls could be 10 times higher than the UN agency predicted, accusing it of whitewashing the impact of the accident as a bid to restore trust in the safety of atomic power.
Around 350,000 people were evacuated forever from their homes, leaving a whole city, Pripyat, and dozens of villages to decay – experts say some may not be habitable again for centuries, perhaps even longer.
Some five million people live in areas covered by the radioactive fallout, in Ukraine, neighbouring Belarus and Russia.
Valentyna Abramovych, 50, came to the Kiev church to mark that night that forever changed her family’s life.
Abramovych, her husband, Chernobyl plant worker Mykola, and their infant son, Anton, were forced to evacuate their home in Pripyat, the Soviet town built for the plant’s employees, leaving behind all of their cherished belongings.
They were shuffled around, first to a nearby village then to a relative’s house.
“Everyday, I would watch television and expect to hear when we could come back,” said Abramovych, one of the first to gather on this balmy spring night for the memorial commemorations.
“When they said we could never come back, I burst into tears … We feel like outcasts. No one needs us.”
After the ceremony in Kiev, mourners were invited to a big tent for vodka toasts – a Ukrainian tradition – in honour of the accident’s victims.
Ukraine hosted competing scientific conferences yesterday as this nation of 47 million and the international community tried to make sense of the catastrophe.
Radiation and health experts from international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organisation, the European Commission and the United Nations, discussed what the world has learned from Chernobyl – and what it can do better to prevent a similar tragedy.
Some Ukrainians sought out more private places to remember.
“The whole country grieves and the whole world joins us in this grief,” Lena Makarova, 27, said as she visited the Chernobyl museum in Kiev.