Chernobyl has been back in the news, thanks to a highly praised Sky Atlantic drama depicting the nuclear disaster. Mariyka doesn’t feature in the show yet she is perhaps the biggest source of hope for this blighted nuclear zone in the Ukraine. She was born close to blitzed reactor number four, deep inside the 19-mile exclusion zone. Although it was more than a decade after the explosion, the idea of a child being born so close to the disaster was hugely controversial.
She was initially the subject of a cover-up by the Ukrainian authorities, embarrassed that a child had been born to workers not supposed to be living in this polluted place. Lydia Sovenko, then in her mid-40s, had not realised she was pregnant, and the baby was delivered by Mariyka’s father Mikhail, a Chernobyl firefighter on the night of the explosion, April 26, 1986.
He washed the newborn baby and tied her umbilical cord.
Soon headlines flashed around the world.
At the time, Lydia said: “The authorities are threatening us, they are humiliating us because they want to force us from our home.”
She was treated “like a criminal” for giving birth at Chernobyl and refusing to budge from the only family home in the zone.
Lydia dug in her heels and continued to raise Mariyka there – with the girl drinking milk from a cow grazing on irradiated pastures – ignoring dire warnings that she was putting her daughter’s life in danger.
Today she remains the only child born and raised at post-explosion Chernobyl.
Mariyka was born close to blitzed reactor number four
Rumours soon swirled about the girl’s health and by the time her daughter was five, Lydia was forced to respond: “If people think she is a mutant, or has two heads, they are quite wrong.
“She is a lovely child who is absolutely healthy as far as we can see.”
In summers she swam in a river where fish – which her father Mikhail caught to feed the family – sent Geiger counters bleeping wildly. But she was lonely with no playmates in a zone where visitors without a special reason were banned.
“I wish there was just one other kid here,” she told me plaintively on a visit to Chernobyl in 2006. “I would show him or her around my house and the village – we could have real fun together.”
All around her were the ruins of this nuclear age Pompeii, including a school abandoned on the day of the explosion with text books scattered in the rubble.
The campaign against them continued – “their main argument was to accuse us of murdering our baby daughter by living in this polluted region,” said Mikhail.
Despite this, their tumbledown house remained Mariyka’s home as she grew up – although from the age of seven she had to live outside Chernobyl in term time to attend school.
But in recent years nothing had been heard of Mariyka – until she was tracked down by the Sunday Express.
Mariyka with parents Lydia and Mikhail
Now aged 19, she is a student at a leading higher education institution and hopes to work in the hospitality industry. To pay for her studies she works in a fashionable bar.
She is reluctant to talk about her past but confirmed she is healthy, adding: “I am doing well, I am working. I’m providing for myself. This is it.”
Even as a child when she first ventured outside the exclusion zone she chided her mother in front of strangers, saying: “Mum, please don’t tell people we are from Chernobyl.”
A friend last week explained that she sees her life now as nothing to do with Chernobyl, although when she can obtain a special permit she occasionally returns to see her mother who still lives and works in the exclusion zone aged 66.
“She really doesn’t care about being unique through being born in Chernobyl,” said the 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.”
Mariyka was born in 1999, some 13 years after the Soviet-era explosion at Chernobyl.
Her mother confirmed that the student is healthy and is known to be “proud” of her daughter’s success in getting on in life after her unique start.
The Chernobyl plant three days after the disaster
Critics still say that it was irresponsible to raise the child in the zone and that Mariyka may yet suffer serious health problems due to her mother’s reluctance to move from the polluted area around the ravaged nuclear power station.
Yet all around there are signs of life returning to Chernobyl 33 years after the disaster.
Against all expectations, wildlife is teeming in the area, including elk, deer, wild boar and wolves as well as rare wild birds and flowers.
Nature is seen as fighting back in the exclusion zone which one day is expected to allow people to live here again.
Scientists say that the mainly ageing population who illegally remained here after the explosion – like Lydia – do not appear to have suffered unduly from radiation.
And as Lydia has long claimed: “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.”