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Ukraine: Fifteen Years Later, Chornobyl's Victims Still Looking For Help

At the end of this month, Ukraine will mark the 15th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, when a reactor exploded at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. This week the Ukrainian government is hosting a conference about the accident and its lingering impact. As RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports, many people whose lives were affected by the accident say they have received very little help from the Ukrainian government.

Kyiv, 18 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Fifteen years ago on April 26, a reactor at Ukraine's Chornobyl atomic power plant exploded. Today, it is generally considered the worst civil nuclear accident in history.

This week, in preparation for the anniversary, the Ukrainian government is hosting a three-day conference (April 18-20) in the capital Kyiv to discuss the effects of the accident, aid for its victims, and steps taken to ensure the safety of the Chornobyl facility and others like it.

In addition to Ukrainian government officials, conference participants include the UN coordinator for International Cooperation on Chornobyl, Kenzo Oshima, and Zygmund Domaratzki, the deputy director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

There are also representatives from Belarus, whose population in areas across the border just north of Chornobyl also suffered. The Russian government is also represented.

The UN, together with the European Union, has helped in funding last year's closure of the Chornobyl plant, and continues to aid efforts to encase the makeshift shelter erected 15 years ago around the reactor with a new, more secure one. Experts say the temporary shelter is in danger of collapsing and causing another disaster by releasing tons of nuclear waste into the atmosphere.

Oshima said that as a Japanese national from the city of Hiroshima -- which was destroyed during World War II by an American atomic bomb -- he sympathized with those who had suffered as a result of the Chornobyl catastrophe.

He said: "Over the past 15 years [Chornobyl victims] have endured the hardships of living in a contaminated land. In the face of an invisible danger they persevered in their efforts to return their families and communities to a state of normalcy."

Oshima said many of the victims were not yet born at the time of the accident, but still face physical, psychological, environmental, and socio-economic consequences. He added that many lessons had been learned from Chornobyl -- one of the most important being the need for preparedness in case of a future similar emergency.

Oshima said that much financial aid was needed to tackle the human consequences of Chornobyl and that during this 15th anniversary year, the UN would try to spotlight the accident's victims in a bid to increase international support for them.

IAEA's Domaratzki praised Ukraine for shutting down Chornobyl and pledged continuing support for Ukraine in maintaining nuclear safety.

"There's no question that decommissioning [of reactors] has to be done properly and there's also no question that within Ukraine there is the expertise to do it. And there's also no question that we from the international community are prepared to support Ukraine in its work."

Outside Kyiv's "Ukrainian Home" conference hall, where the conference is being held, around 100 demonstrators gathered to protest the plight of people affected by the Chornobyl accident.

Most of the mainly female protesters were from the town of Pripyat, which is located near the power station and was home to many of the plant's employees. Its inhabitants were evacuated following the accident and Pripyat is now a ghost town. Its former residents say they receive help from international charities in the West but little or no help from the Ukrainian government.

One of the protesters, Valentyna Rebrina, belongs to the All-Ukrainian Chornobyl Group. She says that between the group's calculations and government figures, thousands of people -- including 10,000 children -- are now suffering from radiation-linked illnesses. She said that everyone living in or around Pripyat at the time of the accident is now ill. Rebrina began crying as she described the plight of her own daughter, Olena:

"My daughter is 23 years old and she has hypergrowth of her thyroid gland. Can you imagine that, 23 years old and to have such illness -- and nobody pays any attention to us?"

Another protester, Oleksandra Lelyk, said she has a 16-year-old son who was born healthy and only began to be ill five years after the accident. Lelyk says he now has to have two complete blood transfusions each year, and that her family receives no support for medical expenses.

Lelyk said victims of the accident continue to die nearly every week:

"Each day people we know are taken out for burial. We're not even shocked any more. We just ask the name of the dead person and collect money for their family."

She says that although most of those dying are adults, everyone is worried about the health of their children. Protesters had presented a petition to the Ukrainian government pleading for legislation to make financial and medical help available for those affected by Chornobyl-related illnesses.

The person who received the petition was Ukrainian Emergencies Minister Vasyl Durdynets, whose ministry deals with Chornobyl issues. He said he understood the feelings of the protesters:

"That they (the protesters) write letters and turn to us for help, I have to say they have this right because the funds available today really are inadequate for treatment, for recuperation, and for other needs, particularly for the proper buildings needed."

He said that one of the main aims of the three-day meeting was to discuss how to put into practice aid programs already sanctioned by the UN, the European Commission, and other donors. Durdynets also said the Ukrainian parliament must act to ensure funds for victims of Chornobyl.