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Former Soviet republics mark 11 years since Chernobyl accident

April 26, 1997

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ On May Day 1986, Vasily Babchuk and his family were gathered around the dinner table celebrating the most sacred Soviet holiday when the phone rang in their Kiev apartment.

It was Babchuk’s boss with bad news, his wife Raisa tearily recalled Saturday: The 50-year-old laborer was needed at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where there had been an accident five days earlier.

``We did not know how serious it was then,″ said Raisa Babchuk, one of a few hundred people who attended ceremonies in Kiev marking the 11th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Similar ceremonies were held in Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus, and in Yekaterinburg, Russia. In a commemorative message, Russian President Boris Yeltsin called it ``a day of great grief for mankind.″

At 1:24 a.m. on April 26, 1986, the fourth reactor at Chernobyl exploded and caught fire during a test, sending radioactive particles into the atmosphere and contaminating the land for miles around.

Babchuk was one of the Kiev subway diggers and miners who tunneled under the destroyed reactor in early May, when physicists said liquid nitrogen had to be pumped in to avert what they feared could be a new, deadlier explosion.

He returned to Kiev in decent health after 13 days at Chernobyl, but fell sick in October and was in and out of hospitals for the next eight years. Babchuk died in 1994, after his third stroke.

``He was very healthy before,″ Raisa Babchuk said, clutching a pair of roses and a faded, framed photograph of her dead husband. ``But afterward he was always weak and sick, and the stress was too much for him.″

Ukraine is still living in the stressful shadow of Chernobyl. Residents of contaminated land are still being resettled, and millions of others are not convinced that the air they breathe and water they drink is safe.

One of the four reactors at Chernobyl is still operating and Ukraine is planning to restart another one, despite a pledge to close the plant by 2000 in exchange for a Western financial aid that is slow in arriving.

Scientists say the unstable nuclear fuel remaining in the ruins of the destroyed fourth reactor continues to pose a threat of further contamination.

The human toll remains unmeasured. Thirty-two people are known to have died from wounds and radiation doses received in the blast and fire, but estimates of the overall death toll vary wildly.

Nor are they final. The government says 773 Chernobyl ``liquidators″ _ people like Babchuk who helped clean up in the years after the explosion _ died last year alone as a result of the accident.

``I had to come here today because people are dying,″ said Tamara Prokopenko, who cried as men in black laid wreaths at the foot of a monument to Chernobyl victims. ``My friends are dying, children are dying.″

Commenting on the relatively sparse attendance at the memorial ceremonies in Kiev, Prokopenko, a 40-year-old engineer, said ``People have somehow gotten accustomed to this tragedy. ... They are afraid to admit that it will still take away many, many lives.″

In Minsk, 220 miles from Chernobyl, thousands of people gathered for two highly politicized memorials, one sponsored by the government, the other by opposition groups.

About 500 people, many sobbing and hugging each other, attended the government-sponsored ceremony at a Chernobyl memorial. Later, a crowd estimated at 10,000 gathered at the Academy of Sciences building for the opposition memorial and rally.

Last year’s opposition march to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the disaster turned into an anti-government protest and dozens of people were injured in clashes with police.

Saturday’s rally was much calmer. Authorities said two people were arrested for spreading anti-government leaflets.

About 300 people attended a rally in Yekaterinburg, in the Ural mountains. Russian authorities say about 5,500 people in the surrounding Sverdlovsk region have suffered health problems from Chernobyl, including 500 who died.

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