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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Survivors of Chernobyl Endure Its Tragic Legacy

KIEV -- Thousands of survivors of the 1986 explosion at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant mourned their dead on the eve of the tragedy's 13th anniversary.

"We want to show we are still here, we are still alive," said Mykola Bosiy, commander of a secret cleanup battalion ordered to the plant hours after its No. 4 reactor blew up early on the morning of April 26, 1986.

On Sunday, a somber column of sufferers, many with black bands tied around their foreheads and bearing black banners, marched through crowds of families and children out enjoying spring sunshine in downtown Kiev.

Hundreds of thousands of people had to abandon the immediate zone around the plant after the explosion sent a poisonous radioactive cloud billowing over Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and parts of Western Europe, killing 31 people and affecting thousands more in the world's worst civil nuclear disaster.

Red Communist flags mingled with the black in Kiev, while in neighboring Belarus, 7,000 protesters marched to the sound of a tolling church bell in the capital to commemorate the disaster, which contaminated a quarter of Belarussian territory.

The marchers in Minsk carried red-and-white nationalist flags and banners calling for more attention to the lingering consequences of the accident. They also criticized the policies of President Alexander Lukashenko. The cash-strapped former Soviet republic has struggled to pay for cleanup and health care for fallout victims.

Ukrainian Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Kholosha said last week that the Kiev government has spent about $11 billion so far to battle the consequences of the accident.

But Ukraine's cash-strapped and indebted government must stick to a tight fiscal and monetary policy to receive funds from the international lending organizations. Wages and pensions are delayed for months across the country, including at nuclear power plants.

Health officials say the number of radiation-related diseases in impoverished Ukraine is increasing. Four children have died from thyroid cancer so far, a deputy health minister said recently, while the total of cases among those who were under 18 in 1986 has hit 1,200.

President Leonid Kuchma has renewed a pledge to keep Chernobyl's last remaining reactor running until the West provides promised financial aid to finish building two replacement reactors.