Ukrainians remember Chernobyl tragedy

Bells tolled across Ukraine and mourners carried red carnations and flickering candles to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion Wednesday, an event that continues to scar the psyche of the ex-Soviet republic.

The April 26, 1986, pre-dawn explosion, to be marked in Ukraine with daylong events, became the world's worst ever nuclear accident, spewing radiation across vast stretches of Europe. It cast a radioactive shadow over the health of millions of people; many believe it contributed to the Soviet Union's eventual collapse.

My friends were dying under my eyes," said Konstantyn Sokolov, 68, a former Chernobyl worker whose voice was hoarse from throat and lip cancer. Sokolov was among hundreds who gathered for a pre-dawn ceremony Wednesday in the Ukrainian capital, which President Viktor Yushchenko attended.

"I try not to recollect my memories," Sokolov said as Orthodox priests led the mourners in a somber procession. "They are very terrible."

In Kiev, bells tolled 20 times starting at 1:23 a.m., marking the exact time of the explosion at Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

Closer to Chernobyl in Slavutych,  the town built to house the Chernobyl workers displaced by the acciden, the commemorations began an hour earlier to coincide with Moscow time, which was used in the then-Soviet Republic of Ukraine at the time of the accident. Residents laid flowers and placed candles at a monument dedicated to Chernobyl as sirens blared.

Mykola Malyshev, 66, was working in the control room of Chernobyl's Reactor No. 1 at the time of the explosion. He said the lights flickered and the room shook. The workers were ordered to the destroyed reactor, but when they got there, their co-workers ordered them to flee and save themselves. "They told us, 'We are already dead. Go away,'" Malyshev recalled at the Kiev ceremony, reports Washington Post.

I.L.