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Ukraine marks the 24th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on Monday, but after nearly a quarter of a century the scars left by the catastrophic explosion are still plain to see.
Families still mourn those who died as a result of Chernobyl
Shortly after 1am, on April 26th 1986, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine exploded, sending massive amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere.
Denis Zabarin works within the 30 kilometer exclusion zone, leading tours of the now-defunct power plant and the surrounding towns and villages. As he takes a group through the security checkpoint, he points to fresh cut flowers which have been left near the gates.
"That was put there for the anniversary. People who used to live here, they come here. They are the veterans of Chernobyl."
A dead city
The city of Pripyat lies just two kilometers from the Chernobyl plant. It was a model city, created to house Chernobyl employees and their families. These days, it is a ghost town. Wire, debris and old furniture litter the darkened hallways of the deserted Soviet apartment blocks.
But despite continued looting, Zabarin says it is too dangerous to knock the buildings down.
Pripyat was completely abandoned following the explosion
"If they explode buildings, a radiation cloud will spread all over Europe. Even to Canada and the United States. Now we are waiting. All these buildings will fall down in ten or fifteen years. One school already collapsed."
The road out of Pripyat is dotted with dilapidated cottages which are sinking into their own foundations. They are masked from the road by a tangle of wild shrubs and tree branches.
116,000 people were evacuated from this region.
Today, it is unclear if the evacuations were necessary. Uprooted communities have suffered severe social problems.
When the reactor exploded, the Soviet government, which controlled Ukraine at the time, failed to notify the people who lived here. For days, people went about their lives completely unaware that they were being exposed to radiation.
According to Pavlo Zamostyan of the United Nations Development Program, this had serious social and psychological consequences for Chernobyl-affected communities.
"Fears and uncertainty created in the first months and years, when the Soviet government failed to tell the truth about the scale of the accident, created a specific psychological trauma in the affected population. A so-called 'victim syndrome.'"
Radiation exposure led to an increase in cancer and widespread birth defects. But Zamostyan says the most toxic element in Chernobyl-affected communities now, is a deep-rooted pessimism which has prevented survivors from moving forward with their lives.
The stigma of Chernobyl has convinced many survivors that they are sick and incapable – and Zamostyan says the government compensation program is making the problem worse.
"We have to combat the paternalistic system, which is fine for an emergency situation, when ...a strong centralised system of actions is needed - military type operations, evacuation, resettlement. But for longtime recovery, it’s not acceptable."
The explosion threw up a cloud of radioactive dust
As part of its effort to combat the psychological and social effects of the Chernobyl incident, the UNDP is supporting the Borodianka Center of Psycho-Social Rehabilitation.
Sasha Starovoitenko is a radiation educator with the center. He was a liquidator who was deployed to the exclusion zone after Chernobyl exploded. His crew carried appliances and furniture out of the deserted apartments and dumped them in 100 meter deep pits, where they remain buried to this day.
He remembers standing on a bridge near Pripyat after the evacuation.
"Barbed wire. Empty houses. It felt like being in outer space. No one is there. I remember big black dogs. What were they doing there? What were they eating?"
Thousands of survivors were resettled in the region of Borodianka, which is where Starovoitenko lives. But he says even those who didn’t get sick were marked by the experience.
"They had no work. Poor health and no money to improve their health. So, they started drinking vodka, as if that would help," says Starovoitenko. He was told by a doctor that drinking vodka would help stimulate his circulation and make the radiation "fly away."
"So we were drinking. Even driving drunk. I got so drunk I almost lost my family," he explains.
Starovoitenko decided he wanted to change things. With the support of the Borodianka Center of Psycho-Social Rehabilitation, he started a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. He now works at the center, offering radiation education programs for people in Chernobyl-affected communities.
This is the kind of change the Pavlo Zamostyan from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says he wants to see: Chernobyl survivors becoming advocates for change in their own lives.
The UNDP is challenging Chernobyl-affected communities to move away from government compensation and to dream up plans for businesses and social enterprises. If they can raise half the money themselves, the UNDP will step in with the rest. Zamostyan says this helps break the cycle of dependence which has paralyzed Chernobyl survivors.
"At that moment, people change psychology, attitude towards life. They understand that in order to have something in village you don’t have to wait for government – you can initiate. The psychological part is more important - people see they have power and everything depends on their wish and willingness to live normally."
Author: Saroja Coelho
Editor: Rob Turner