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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukrainians Honor the Heroes of Chernobyl

ReutersYushchenko, left, and Yekhanurov at Kiev's "Chernobyl church" on Wednesday.
CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Ukraine marked the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster Wednesday with pealing bells, candlelit ceremonies and parliamentary debates about how much the country still does not know -- and how much it needs to do to bring relief to the millions affected by the world's worst nuclear accident.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, arriving by helicopter at the shuttered Chernobyl nuclear power plant, laid two red carnations beneath a monument to the victims of the April 26, 1986, explosion as dozens of the emergency workers who risked their lives stood nearby. He was joined by Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov.

"As I look into your eyes, I remember all those heroes who died 20 years ago for our lives, for our future," Yushchenko said. "Your feats will be remembered forever."

The explosion of Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 spewed clouds of radiation over large swathes of the Soviet Union and Europe. It forced the Soviet government to evacuate more than 300,000 people, leaving behind dozens of empty villages to rot and decay.

The accident cast a radioactive shadow over the health of millions of people, spooked the world and, many believe, contributed to the Soviet Union's collapse half a decade later. About 5 million people live in areas covered by the radioactive fallout in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

"Let God not allow this to be repeated. Let God not make our grandsons relive this," said Valentyna Mashina, 55, at a monument to victims in the town of Chernobyl, 18 kilometers from the plant, where 4,000 people still live -- but for no more than two weeks at a time -- to work in the most highly contaminated zone.

After 20 years, with international experts saying radiation levels are decreasing a hundredfold in areas around the blast, the UN has turned its attention to returning life and hope to the area -- and removing the malaise and sense of doom that it warned has left millions thinking of themselves as victims instead of survivors.

"Chernobyl must not be a mourning place, it must become a place of hope," Yushchenko said.

Dozens gathered in the town of Chernobyl for reunions with old friends, and parliament opened a special session dedicated to the accident. Many lawmakers demanded more help for the millions affected and more information to answer the still lingering questions over the accident's aftermath. Death toll numbers remain hotly disputed.

One plant worker was killed instantly in the fire and explosion and his body has never been recovered. Twenty-nine rescuers, firefighters and plant workers died later from radiation poisoning and burns they suffered trying to contain the explosion and keep it from spreading to the plant's three other reactors. One more died from an apparent heart attack.

Thousands have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the UN health agency said about 9,300 people were likely to die of cancers caused by radiation.

Some groups, including Greenpeace, have warned that death tolls could be 10 times higher than UN predictions, accusing it of whitewashing the impact of the accident as a bid to restore trust in the safety of atomic power.