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CHERNOBYL; Leukaemia, stunted growth, cancer, stomach problems, bronchitis, diabetes, anaemia, foetal deformities and kidney disease, welcome to.. I don't feel any danger here. I just get double vision and headches 20 years on.

Byline: ANTON ANTONOWICZ in Ukraine

THE temperature registers four degrees below freezing. The radiation meter registers red "ALARM".

We're standing 200 yards from the concrete sarcophagus that entombs reactor 4 at Chernobyl, site of the world's worst nuclear accident. We are allowed less than two minutes to do so.

It is 20 years since the reactor overheated and exploded during a bungled electrical test. Another generation has been born. It, too, is about to produce families.

And their children are fated - like so many of their parents before them - to be victims of Chernobyl.

A report about to be published by Greenpeace suggests that at least 30,000 people will die around the world from cancers caused by the catastrophe which unfolded in 44 seconds after operators activated their "experiment" at 1.23am on April 26, 1986.

Other studies claim 180,000 will die. Ukrainian statisticians produce figures of more than 500,000 deaths in Ukraine alone. No one knows for sure. But all fly in the face of the International Atomic Energy Agency's estimate last year that no more than 4,000 will eventually die.

We discovered the real cost of this catastrophe. Hospitals staggering under a relentless tide of children with leukaemia, thyroid cancer, intestinal problems. Once-strong men barely able to walk. Women having to abort one in three pregnancies after scans showed deformities.

"They assured us that we would fulfil our dream of having a peaceful atom in every home," says Konstantin Tatuyan, 56, a radio engineer who spent seven years as a "liquidator", cleaning Chernobyl's contaminated remains. "But it was no dream. It was the Devil's nightmare."

I thought of him as I stood in the power plant's observation room. He helped build it. Now he is an invalid with arteriosclerosis, chronic bronchitis, diabetes, thyroid swelling. Of his 11 colleagues, four are dead.

When he suffered his last heart attack the hospital refused to send an ambulance. It did not want an irradiated liquidator contaminating the building and staff. Liquidators were once hailed as heroes.

More than 600,000 helped the clean-up. Most of those first to arrive, particularly the firefighters, died early. For others it took longer.

We travel to Pripiat, a mile from the plant. It was evacuated 36 hours after the blast. Its 52,000 people were told they would be back within three days. They never returned.

Now it is a city of the dead. A restaurant, hotel, Palace of Culture and sports stadium ring a square once blazing with red roses. Around them are five-storey blocks of flats, windowless, trashed, looted.

The hotel roof is buckling after 20 seasons of snow. Trees, some 30ft high, sprout on the centre spot of the football pitch. A yellow Ferris wheel rusts in the playground. My dosimeter crackles with radiation.

IRINA, our translator, begins to cry when we enter the kindergarten and see little shoes, rotting rag dolls, twisted iron beds.

And mini gas masks from a safety drill two days before the explosion, redundant symbols of safety against an unscented, invisible killer.

The snow lies a foot deep. The wild boar shelter here at night. So do the wolves. The river abounds in giant catfish. It is wildlife as nature intended. Untended. Mushrooms, berries, bright green moss. All irradiated.

And, at its centre, this city like a forgotten set from Mad Max - or a snapshot of the apocalypse.

Though the villages seem abandoned, there are returnees. Maria and Mikhail Urupa receive us like relatives. They live at house No 39 in Parishev village. There used to be 700 villagers. Now there are 15. There are no children.

The couple, both 71, returned in 1987. They say this is their land, the place of their ancestors. Maria says: "Thank God, we must be loved by Him because we are still healthy. Many of the people who were relocated died quickly. Of course, some here are sick. But not us. Why? I don't know. But I'm positive we'd have died if we had been relocated."

They keep chickens and turkeys and grow vegetables. A food lorry brings supplies twice a month. They have a phone, a freezer, a TV and, in a corner, a gold icon of St Ilya which they took from the abandoned parish church "for safe keeping".

"My son tells us not to eat the mushrooms or berries. I promise not to, but..." Maria adds with a shrug.

Ivan Gnydenko is eating goulash and potatoes at his home in Chernobyl town. He returned with his two sons seven years ago. "I don't have a dosimeter and I don't care," says the tiny 70-year-old. `"Danger? I don't feel it here. I get headaches and double vision. That's all."

We travel 500 kilometres east to Budymla, a hamlet in the Polissya marshes. The people live off the forest. The radioactive soot which fell here remains near the surface, absorbed by the plants.

It is a contaminated zone, with 335 villages more irradiated than many areas far closer to Chernobyl.

I came after meeting a 10-year-old girl, Yana Molchanovich, in a hospital two hours' drive away. Her thin face was pale as moonlight. She has anaemia, kidney disease, stunted growth. She is one of 30 such children receiving treatment there.

Five-year-old Anastasia Shevnya lies quiet as the chemotherapy line pumps drugs to fight her leukaemia. "She is a child who rarely smiles," says her nurse. "Just a single smile is a present for us."

But Yana smiles. She laughs as she describes Budymla and all her friends and her family.

Her mother Valentyna has seven other children. She shrugs: "Chernobyl is a sorrow for the nation. But for me... radiation? I can't feel it, see it. So I'm not afraid of it." Her pretty daughter Svieta is eight but can't run. Her knees are weak from radioactive caesium.

Thyroid cancer multiplied 100 times in children after 1986. Respiratory diseases, birth abnormalities, skin complaints, digestive problems, cataracts, organ malfunction all soared.

But worse. It is increasing. "And now we see the real nightmare," says Professor Evgeniya Stepanova of the Centre for Radiation Medicine in the capital, Kiev.

"There is an increase in chromosome aberrations, mutations in DNA construction. And as time passes there are more and more children being born with these problems.

"The highest number are the kids born to liquidators. But we don't know for how many generations this will go on.

"What will happen when such men and women now meet and their children inherit these mutations? The problem is getting worse while world attention is becoming less."

At Chernobyl itself the sarcophagus is leaking. It will soon be replaced by an all-encompassing concrete arc costing $2billion with a life of 100 years.

After that, another arc. And another, until we find a way of dealing with a killer lasting thousands of years.

That is the Chernobyl legacy whose sky-high footprint contaminated half of Europe, including hundreds of farms in North West England and Scotland.

ALEGACY, experts said this month, which caused 1,000 British babies to die of cancer. A legacy for millennia.

I remember ex-liquidator Majorov Volodamir Antonovich, 69, crying in his hospital bed. "Don't listen to any International Atomic whatnot," he said. "This stuff is killing people.

"You see the children sick, the newborn with eight fingers and no ears. You see women afraid to give birth. I see my son with his 'Chernobyl necklace' - the scar left after they removed the gland.

"Ask the men about their sexual problems. Ask many of them if they can perform in bed. That is Chernobyl. Not radiophobia or mass hysteria. It's Chernobyl. It's people not understanding the box of snakes they opened."

And I think of Einstein's words: "The splitting of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe."

It is 20 years since this catastrophe, a generation's span, yet we still cannot measure its unparalleled consequences.


SILENT: Leukaemia victim Anastasia, 5, rarely smiles' Pictures: IAN VOGLER' DEFIANT: Mum Valentyna says she's not afraid' DEAD ZONE: The reactor's ruins in 1986' VICTIM: A baby struggles for life' DESOLATE: Abandoned nursery in Pripiat
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 17, 2006
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