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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tears and Anger Over Chernobyl

ReutersA woman holding a portrait of a relative, a victim of the Chernobyl disaster, as she visits a Kiev cemetery on Saturday.
MINSK — Several thousand supporters of Belarus' opposition marched through Minsk on Saturday to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident and protest an alleged government coverup of the disaster's consequences.

Many of the 3,000 marchers expressed particular dismay over the government's policy of assigning recent university graduates to work in areas contaminated by the explosion.

Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl, in what is now northern Ukraine, exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing radiation over a large swath of the former Soviet Union and much of northern Europe in the world's worst nuclear accident.

Belarus, downwind from the plant, was severely affected. Statistics about illness in the contaminated parts of Belarus — about 23 percent of its territory — are kept under wraps by the government. Protesters said the government was denying help to people affected by the disaster, including those who were sent in to clean up radioactive fallout.

Kasya Markouskaya, 23, has been ordered to spend two years in Buda-Koshelyovo, a contamination-area town, when she graduates this spring.

"My situation is little different from that of a slave who has been forced to do dangerous work," she said. If she refuses, she will be stripped of her diploma or required to reimburse the state for her education. When she entered the university, there were no such strings attached.

Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Kosinets said Friday that if the work assignments were canceled, the region would be left without the doctors, teachers and other specialists it needs.

In Kiev, meanwhile, dozens of mourners laid flowers at a memorial to victims of the accident. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko prayed and lit candles before dawn Saturday to mark the precise time the reactor exploded.