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Hugs, Tears and Bitter Memories Mark Chernobyl’s 10th Anniversary

April 27, 1996

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ Embracing and weeping openly in the streets, the living marked the Chernobyl nuclear accident’s 10th anniversary Friday by invoking memories of their dead and _ still _ trying to make sense of the event that changed them forever.

Across Ukraine and the former Soviet Union, victims struggled with sad recollections. Some visited their contaminated, deserted homes. Environmentalists channeled feelings into direct protests. And survivors occupied themselves with the thoughts of friends and family gone for a decade.

``I feel guilty being alive while my friends lie here,″ said Yuri Rusnak, an electrician who worked at the plant at the time of the accident. He joined more than 1,000 mourners who laid flowers and burning candles on the graves of Chernobyl workers and firefighters in western Moscow.

In Minsk, the capital of Belarus, the former Soviet republic that suffered much of the effects of the accident, an anniversary march turned into an anti-government protest Friday. Dozens of people were injured in clashes with police after 50,000 people held an unauthorized rally to coincide with the official commemoration ceremony.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, at the official ceremony, said he approves of people eventually returning to the contaminated lands, comments that opposition leaders ridiculed.

Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing a radioactive cloud across Europe and releasing 200 times as much radiation as the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. At least 32 people died, but thousands more are thought to be suffering from radiation-related illnesses.

A decade later, the plant’s fate remains unclear, though the world’s industrialized nations have promised to help shut it down.

It continued operating as usual Friday. Workers monitored the plant’s two functioning reactors, just a few hundred yards from the badly cracked, 24-story steel-and-concrete sarcophagus covering the destroyed reactor No. 4.

Environmental activists marked the anniversary with demands for the immediate closure of Chernobyl and other plants that still use RBMK graphite-cooled nuclear reactors. One group was arrested after they chained themselves to railroad tracks leading into the 18-mile exclusion zone around the plant.

Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma on Friday reaffirmed his commitment to shut down the plant but also reiterated his demand for foreign aid to do so.

``The planetary character of the catastrophe gives us basis to call upon the world community to increase help _ not only in the name of the future Ukrainian nation but for all humanity,″ he said in a speech at the National Opera House.

``With our joint effort,″ he said, ``the planet Earth will never again know such a tragedy.″

Not far from the Lenin statue at the plant’s entrance, a military band played and Russian Orthodox priests prayed as officials unveiled a monument to the firefighters who battled the blaze, many of who received fatal doses of radiation.

In Moscow, Anatoly Sitnikov was one of 28 Chernobyl workers and firefighters buried in the Mitinskoye cemetery beneath a gray stone monument shaped like an atomic mushroom cloud.

``He gave his life so that we could live,″ Elvira Sitnikova said, tears welling in her eyes before the grave of her husband, who was Chernobyl’s deputy chief engineer.

Her husband was called at home when Chernobyl’s reactor exploded during a routine midnight test. He went to the shattered reactor to help contain the damage and died of radiation illness a month later.

Even today, Ukrainians and the world watch Chernobyl with suspicious eyes.

The Group of Seven industrialized nations has pledged $3.1 billion to help close the plant by the year 2000, but concern over Chernobyl’s immediate safety has increased in recent days.

On Thursday, a worker used an improperly sealed container to dispose of radioactive material. Plant officials said the incident did not raise radiation levels.

Earlier this week, forest fires swept across contaminated land around the plant, kicking up radioactive particles left over from the accident.

Though changes have been made in the design of Chernobyl’s and other RBMK reactors still working across the former Soviet bloc, Western scientists insist the reactors are badly flawed.

In the abandoned town of Pripyat adjacent to the plant, former residents returned to see their gutted, contaminated homes.

Nina Klimenko, whose husband worked as a firefighter the night of the blast, wept when describing the sight of her dusty, crumbling apartment.

``It pierced my heart. But I had to see it,″ she said. She gave birth to one of her daughters in Pripyat the year before the accident.

In the city of Slavutich, about 3,000 mourners raised candles at exactly 1:24 a.m. for a moment of silence at a monument for victims. The city was built in the northern Ukraine wetlands after the accident to house plant workers just outside the exclusion zone.

Ukrainians cried openly in Kiev’s streets Friday, embracing each other and reminiscing about the blast.

``We must do everything so that the `glowing sarcophagus’ and exclusion zone don’t become the only symbols of Ukraine,″ Kuchma told the nation in a special televised address. He awarded medals to some 150 cleanup workers, including six who died after rushing to the scene.

Ukrainian television began airing a two-day telethon to raise money for children suffering from Chernobyl-related illnesses, showing chilling footage from the reactor.

Health effects of the accident remain controversial. Most research indicates the only direct consequence has been a hundred-fold increase in the incidence of childhood thyroid cancers in the affected region. Other cancers are not expected to appear for years, perhaps decades.