The long shadow of Chernobyl
Sun, April 23, 2006

For her daughter Zoya’s 12th birthday, Raissa Galechko was hosting a picnic in the woods of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.

The infamous date was April 26, 1986.
“It was a beautiful day,” recalls Galechko, 60, as she pores over old photos in her Mississauga home. “We were in bikinis taking suntans. The mothers were picking sorrel and the kids were playing ball and climbing trees.”

She shakes her head at all they did not know then, and all that still lay ahead.
“And at the same time the reactor was on fire and we didn’t know anything. Heavy radiation was spreading over the sorrel we were picking and over the trees our kids were playing in and nobody knew.”

That just 90 km away, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor had exploded and their lives would never be the same.
For 10 days the fire raged, expelling 172 tonnes of toxic materials into the atmosphere, clouds of which drifted across northern Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and more than 14 European countries. It wasn’t until alarm bells went off at a Swedish power station that the world learned of the disaster the Soviets had tried to hide.

The USSR waited almost three long days before it confirmed the “minor accident” with a terse statement read by a Moscow broadcaster. Still, they gave no warning of the poison that had been unleashed.

Galechko was a well-known journalist at the state-run Ukraine magazine when she heard rumours that all communist party officials had suddenly moved their families out of Kiev. “Even if I’d seen the fire at Chernobyl I wouldn’t have known what it meant,” she explains. “But when you’re a mother you have this security trigger inside. You know nothing, but you have the intuition that something is very wrong and my first thought was my daughter, my daughter.”

The single mother hastily made plans for them to spend the next few months by the Azov Sea thousands of kilometres away. But for her daughter Zoya, it may have already been too late.

Those living within 30 km of the power plant were evacuated within days. But there was nowhere to hide from the cloud of radiation that drifted over the former USSR.

Nadia Zastavna remembers it as the most glorious spring. On May Day, the biggest Soviet holiday, she and her children joined thousands in her Ukrainian town of Ternopil to celebrate with a traditional parade. “Everybody was outside, my oldest son and my youngest — he had just been born that January,” recalls Zastavna, now the senior administrator of the Children of Chornobyl Canadian Fund. “The weather was gorgeous. Your skin got red but we thought it was from the sun. But it wasn’t.”

Just a few days later came the terrifying edicts: Wash your clothes, stay indoors, close your windows, don’t drink the water. “Everybody was furious and scared to death,” she says. “Mentally, it was very difficult.”

Her baby would grow to become such a sickly child that doctors feared it might have leukemia. “You can’t say it was from radiation 100%, but he was born a very healthy child and after he was constantly sick.”

High incidences of childhood thyroid cancer, sudden premature deaths. Two decades have passed and the great debate still rages: To what degree is Chernobyl responsible for the health problems that seemed to follow in its wake?

“There’s no real consensus on the effects yet,” notes Dr. David Marples, a professor of history at the University of Alberta who has written extensively on Chernobyl. “There’s so much controversy over the health effects, the number of casualties, the number of long-term illnesses and what we might expect in the future.”

Just 50 direct victims
The answers tend to depend on a group’s views on the nuclear debate. At one end of the spectrum is the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency report last fall, which suggested health effects had been largely exaggerated and that most of the problems were actually psychological. The IAEA report argued there were only 50 direct victims of the Chernobyl disaster and no more than 4,000 will eventually die because of radiation exposure.

Countering that view is a recent Greenpeace study that claims the atomic agency grossly underestimated the effects. “The IAEA has a vested interest in minimizing the impact of Chernobyl,” argues Shawn-Patrick Stensil, of Greenpeace Canada, which launched a haunting photo exhibit of Chernobyl victims commissioned for the anniversary.

The Greenpeace report predicts 93,000 will die of fatal cancers linked to Chernobyl radiation and more than 200,000 in all will eventually die from the disaster. But then, they are hardly objective themselves — the environmental group has a decidedly anti-nuclear agenda.

“There’s no middle ground on Chernobyl,” says Marples, who tends to lean more towards the Greenpeace version. “The secrecy that occurred in the Soviet period was really one of the biggest problems because that’s why we’re in such doubt today about what really happened. All that data was officially classified.”

Ruslana Wrzesnewskyj doesn’t care about warring statistics; she knows what she has seen. When she adopted her daughter from Ukraine in 1993, the orphanages were crowded with children who had been born with deformities or left by parents who had suddenly died young. The Toronto realtor was so shaken by what she saw that she founded Help us Help the Children, a project of the Children of Chornobyl Canadian Fund that has assisted thousands of orphan victims with summer camps, medicines and scholarships.

‘Called the silent killer’
“All you have to do is travel through Ukraine,” she says. “It’s called the silent killer. It’s a horrible thing to come into a town and see that half of the people in their 40s are dead.”

To this day, Raissa Galechko doesn’t know if her daughter’s brush with cancer was caused by the nuclear disaster. No one can prove that it was. No one can prove that it wasn’t. All she does know is that it opened her eyes to seeking a new life.

Zoya had always had moles, but they suddenly began to change during the year after the Chernobyl explosion. When one turned bloody, her mother rushed her to the local cancer hospital. She will never forget the doctor’s advice after he diagnosed melanoma and said her daughter needed immediate surgery: “After the operation, leave for a clean zone.”

Escape suddenly became her goal. “When this happened to Zoya, I knew where my clean zone was — Canada,” she says. “Chernobyl was the turning point. It pushed me to leave.”

When she arrived here in 1989, penniless and unknown, the journalist refused advice to seek charity as a victim of Chernobyl.

“I couldn’t show my daughter like a bear in a circus — look at her scars, give me money,” says the publisher of the satirical Ukrainian monthly Bcecmix (Laughter). “So many abuse the term ‘victim.’ We are survivors.”

Unlike Galechko, Mychailo “Mike” Ryndzak has no doubt that Chernobyl is directly responsible for his suffering.
It was just two months after the explosion when the 19-year-old military conscript was ordered to report to the nuclear plant and run evening films and other propoganda for the “liquidators” who spent their days cleaning the disaster zone.

“To me, radiation and death were synonyms. I was preparing myself to die,” he recalls from his home in Ottawa.
“According to the officials, everything was calm, under control and beautiful. But as you know and we learned from western media sources, obviously it was not under control.”

He could see the mutated plants that surrounded Chernobyl and how all the surrounding grass and leaves had turned the colour of metal. “I didn’t have any protection at all. I didn’t have any training at all,” he says bitterly. “What was happening inside us? Radiation is something invisible but it has such severe power to change who you are.”

5 weeks ‘hot’
Yet the only time he was issued a respirator was when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived for a few hours to survey the damage.

“And after that, it was taken away.”
Due to the high levels of radiation, crews were replaced every 10 days. But there was a scarcity of projectionists, so Ryndzak was left in the hot zone for five weeks.

His body would never be the same.
In 1989, after his arrival in Canada, his teeth suddenly began to crumble. Blood tests revealed an almost fatally low red cell count.

But he believes his time in the radioactive zone left him with a far more crushing legacy.
“It affected my fertility,” the 39-year-old says softly. “I will never have children.”
So he cannot forget Chernobyl on its 20th anniversary, not when its shadow haunts him to this day.
“This is a tragedy that is ongoing,” Ryndzak warns. “God knows what consequences are waiting in the future.”

• You can call Michele Mandel at (416) 947-2231 or
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