YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–It took Norayr Manaserian two years to realize that he is no longer the healthy man he was before a powerful explosion destroyed one of the reactors of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26–1986. He was among the hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens who were sent to the scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster just days after it sent radiation billowing throughout Europe.
"At first–my mouth would dry up but I didn’t care," recalls the 58-year-old retired KGB officer. "One day I got really sick and could barely breathe. Then my stomach and eventually my kidneys began to hurt."
Manaserian has barely been able to work and lead a normal life since then. "I am hospitalized three or four times a year," he said at a Yerevan clinic specializing in treatment of serious burns and nuclear radiation.
His fate is typical of the 600,000 firefighters–servicemen and other people from across the Soviet Union who joined in frantic efforts to contain the unprecedented accident. Their heroic efforts spared Europe an even greater calamity.
More than 3,000 of the people known as "liquidators" in the ex-USSR were from Armenia. Nearly 400 of them have since died of radiation and other diseases caused by it. Those who have survived seem largely neglected by the government and forgotten by a society that has gone through other catastrophes since 1986.
The 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster was solemnly marked on Wednesday–with world leaders–including US President George W. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI–paying tribute to its thousands of victims. The main official ceremony took place in the Ukrainian town of Slavutych that was built to house the Chernobyl plant’s workers. Hundreds of people–each bearing a candle and some with red carnations–filed slowly through its streets in the morning.
Ukraine as well as neighboring Belarus and Russia together estimate that more than five million persons currently suffer health problems to some extent–as a result of Chernobyl. The accident forced the permanent evacuation of more than 300,000 people from over 5,000 towns and villages in the three nations.
In Armenia–a low-key commemoration of the disaster anniversary was mainly attended by members of an organization uniting Armenian "liquidators." Some of them were received and honored by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian on Tuesday. Markarian admitted that assistance provided by his government is too modest to address their problems.
Health is by far the most serious of those problems. According to a senior doctor at the Yerevan radiation hospital–Marina Mirijanian–some 2,000 local "liquidators," still fight for their lives 20 years after the tragedy–regularly receiving treatment at the specialized facility. She said most of those who die are below the age of 50.
"We do our best to help them–but not all conditions are adequate," said Mirijanian. "Our equipment is old. We would love to replace it but can’t afford doing that. Also–there are some very expensive drugs which the hospital doesn’t have and which patients themselves have to buy."
There were only two patients at the clinic on Wednesday: Manaserian and a 45-year-old man who did not want to be identified. He served as an officer at a Soviet army detachment stationed in Kiev when a massive fireball ripped through the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl plant.
"Early in the morning of May 3 –our entire regiment was put on alert and taken to the reactor number four," he said. "All troops in the area were sent there. It didn’t matter if you were with interior troops–army infantry–or tank detachmen’s."
Like the vast majority of other rescuers–the officer and his soldiers were not given any personal protective equipment as they helped to evacuate residents of nearby Ukrainian towns and villages. The ex-officer received vast doses of radiation and has been effectively disabled since 1992.
"As a former officer–I get a military pension of about 30,000 drams ($67) a month," he said. "Other guys are paid only 9,000 drams by social security bodies. Those are ridiculous sums."
Manaserian–for his part–has to live on 23,000 drams but shies away from complaining about his plight. "How can a man complain?" he said. "Some men become ministers–prosecutors–presidents–or prime ministers–while others end up like me. What can we do?"