THE only child born and raised in the highly-polluted Chernobyl exclusion zone has turned into a healthy young woman as she approaches her 20th birthday.
Mariyka’s amazing story did not feature in the critically-acclaimed Sky drama about the Soviet atomic power station catastrophe.
But she gives hope for the recovery of blighted Chernobyl.
When she was born and later as she grew up living close to blitzed reactor number four, she hit the headlines around the world.
But she has not been seen for years.
Now a 19-year-old student at a leading higher education institution in Ukraine’s capital Kiev, she was tracked down by the Sunday Express and said: “I am doing well, I am working.
“I’m providing for myself. This is it.”
When she was born in 1999, the Ukrainian authorities sought to hide the “embarrassment” of her arrival to a family of Chernobyl workers living illegally in the 19-mile exclusion zone.
Her parents refused to leave the zone because the authorities offered them no alternative housing.
But they were harassed and accused of “murdering” their daughter.
She swam in a river where fish – which her father Mikhail caught to feed the family – sent Geiger counters bleeping wildly, says the newspaper.
She drank milk from a cow fed on Chernobyl pastures irradiated by the nuclear explosion.
Her mother Lydia Sovenko was forced to deny rumours over her daughter’s health.
"If people think she is a mutant, or has two heads, they are quite wrong,” she said in one interview.
"She is a lovely child who is absolutely healthy as far as we can see.”
Today Mariyka does not wish to highlight her past as she funds her studies working at a fashionable bar.
"She really doesn't care about being unique through being born in Chernobyl," said a friend.
"In fact, knowing that she is the only child who was born here after the explosion, and who grew up in Chernobyl, is rather painful for her.
“She sees it as a stigma."
Her health and success – confirmed by her mother and friends – comes as the nature of Chernobyl is fighting back against the appalling nuclear decimation it suffered 43 years ago.
Wildlife is teeming in the area with elk, deer, wild boar and wolves thriving as well as rare wild birds and flowers, some of them from the Red Book.
As her mother, now 66, has said: "People here believe that Mariyka is a symbol of Chernobyl's renaissance, a sign from God which they interpret as a blessing to live here, and that life is coming back to this blighted place.”
WHAT WAS THE CHERNOBYL NUCLEAR DISASTER?
POWER PLANT MELTDOWN
An alarm bellowed out at the nuclear plant on April 26, 1986, as workers looked on in horror at the control panels signalling a major meltdown in the number four reactor.
The safety switches had been switched off in the early hours to test the turbine but the reactor overheated and generated a blast the equivalent of 500 nuclear bombs.
The reactor's roof was blown off and a plume of radioactive material was blasted into the atmosphere.
As air was sucked into the shattered reactor, it ignited flammable carbon monoxide gas causing a fire which burned for nine days.
The catastrophe released at least 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Soviet authorities waited 24 hours before evacuating the nearby town of Pripyat – giving the 50,000 residents just three hours to leave their homes.
After the accident traces of radioactive deposits were found in Belarus where poisonous rain damaged plants and caused animal mutations.
But the devastating impact was also felt in Scandinavia, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, France and the UK.
An 18-mile radius known as the “Exclusion Zone” was set up around the reactor following the disaster.
At least 31 people died in the accident – including two who were killed at the scene and more who passed away a few months later from Acute Radiation Syndrome.
The actual death toll is hard to predict as mortality rates have been hidden by propaganda and reports were lost when the Soviet Union broke up.
In 2005, the World Health Organisation revealed a total of 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure.
About 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been seen since the disaster – mainly in people who were children or teenagers at the time.
Farmers noticed an increase in genetic abnormalities in farm animals immediately after the disaster.
This spiked again in 1990 when around 400 deformed animals were born – possibly as a result of radiation released from the sarcophagus intended to isolate the nuclear core.
Some animals were born with extra limbs, abnormal colouring and a smaller size.
Animals that remained in the exclusion zone became radioactive – including as many as 400 wolves, which is the highest density wolf population on the entire planet.
The Eurasian lynx – once believed to have disappeared from Europe – thrived in Chernobyl as there were no humans to run them out.
Birds were also affected by radiation, with barn swallows having deformed beaks, albinism and even smaller brains.
The radioactive animals all live in the "Red Forest", which got its name after the trees turned crimson in the fallout.
The site and Pripyat has been safe for tourists to visit since 2010.
There are around 160 villages in the Exclusion Zone.
Reactor No4 sits within the radiation-blasted 30km Exclusion Zone
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