Chernobyl 'liquidators' lament poor treatment
Veterans of the clean-up after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster received medals Monday from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev but complained of shoddy treatment by the state since their heroism.
Medvedev pinned medals to the chests of the men and champagne was served in the Kremlin ahead of the commemorations on Tuesday for the 25th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine.
But many rescue worker veterans could not hide their pain as they spoke about years of oblivion when they had to eke out a threadbare living after risking their lives for others.
Vladimir Kondrashov, one of the 16 rescue workers known in Russia as "liquidators" who received state awards, said he felt like a hero when he went to help clear up the power station at the age of 35.
That feeling all but vanished several years later when he was left to his own devices.
"Now I receive a measly 23,000 rubles (825 dollars)" in total monthly income, he told AFP. "As a hypertensive patient, I cannot afford to go to a health resort."
Soviet authorities originally offered generous benefits to clean-up workers but they were later reduced, with inflation also eating away at the value of their packages.
Kondrashov's story is similar to accounts of thousands of his fellow rescue workers who entered Chernobyl in the immediate aftermath of the disaster putting their own health at risk for the sake of others.
Many were drafted in from Russia as Ukraine was then part of the Soviet Union.
Vyacheslav Grishin, head of the Chernobyl Union, a liquidator advocacy group in Russia, estimated that 200,000 rescue workers were still around in the country. Of them, 90,000 have major long-term health problems.
However the extent of the health effects on the half million "liquidators" remains hugely controversial, with estimates ranging from only a few dozen deaths directly attributable to Chernobyl to tens of thousands.
Alexander Shabutkin, another liquidator, pleaded with Medvedev at the Kremlin ceremony to help workers' families as many had been left without a breadwinner.
"Some widows looked after their husbands for years," he told the Kremlin chief. Today, he added, "they don't even have enough to feed their children."
If the state does not help them out, "then why did all of this happen?" he said, adding clean-up veterans' widows were "defenseless before officials and fate itself."
However some of the veterans said that what happened at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan this year might actually help draw fresh attention to the many problems Chernobyl rescue workers were facing.
"Thanks to Fukushima they paid attention to us," said Grishin.
Leonid Kletsov, a clean-up worker from Russia's Bryansk region that borders Ukraine and Belarus, said he was happy to receive an award from the president himself.
He complained however that his region's only medical centre for Chernobyl veterans was falling into disrepair, calling on Medvedev to help preserve the building and modernise the equipment.
© 2011 AFP