Yalta, Soviet Union — ``Shall we be afraid of the sun for the rest of our lives?'' The strapping, raven-haired 15-year-old was burdened by a ``great sadness'' as he posed that question, recalls Sergei Lazarov, the chief physician at Artek, a Soviet children's camp on the Black Sea.
The reason? He was among those children exposed to radiation as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear accident April 26. Physicians, concerned that solar rays could aggravate some of the radiation's potentially damaging effects, advised him to avoid long stays in the sun.
But the boy, Kostya Avramenko, brightened, says Dr. Lazarov, when told he will be able to greet the sun again -- as often and as long as he likes -- in three to four months' time, if medical tests continue to indicate that the radiation has had no lasting health effect.
That first stroll in the sunlight will be a small but important benchmark in the healing process for the children of Chernobyl, a process that is far more than physical. Thousands of young people like Kostya -- the exact number hasn't been disclosed -- were uprooted from Chernobyl, Pripyat, and other towns close to the site of the nuclear reactor. Tens of thousands more from nearby Kiev left school early when airborne contaminants from the reactor dusted their city.
At least a quarter of a million children have felt the impact of the accident in a deeply personal way, ranging from disruption of their education to temporary separation from their families or, in the more extreme cases, the loss of a parent.
One hundred and ten children -- all of them the children of workers at the nuclear power complex -- were brought here to Artek, the best of this country's many youth retreats. Amid 620 acres of breathtakingly beautiful land, they're mingling with thousands of other children from across the country.
Acceptance to Artek is much sought after, and usually reserved for the best, brightest, and most ideologically committed of Soviet youth. The price can be more than $400 (for a 40-day program) -- high by Soviet standards. The 110 children of Chernobyl workers are attending free of charge. And 1,300 more children whose parents work at the Chernobyl complex are waiting at a camp near Kiev for a session at Artek later this summer.
With such gestures, the Soviet state is going to extraordinary lengths to comfort, reassure -- and in some measure compensate -- the children whose lives were thrown into turmoil by the accident.
But the state is also having to grapple with the troubling knowledge that perhaps thousands of children experienced unnecessary exposure to radiation as a result of delays in evacuating them.
Officials waited more than 36 hours after the initial explosion to begin evacuating people from the 38-mile-wide contaminated zone around the plant. Some of the children at Artek lived less than two miles from the reactor. Yet even as it emitted radiation, heated up, and broke into flames, the children were not evacuated. Instead, they were sent to school on Saturday (a Soviet school day).
``At school, we were told, `When you go home, don't go into the street. Listen to the radio. There may be an announcement,' '' says 14-year-old Oleg Zorin.
There was. It said that on the following day -- Sunday, April 27, at 2 p.m. -- there would be an evacuation.
``Everything was well organized,'' says 13-year-old Sergei Zelinsky. Buses came to the entrances of every apartment building, then formed a long caravan for the journey.
The most vivid memory of Kostya Avramenko was ``the faces of the people'' as they left. ``Their faces were worried,'' he recalls, ``but there was also certainty. . . . No one cried.''
The exodus was interrupted by periodic roadblocks, where buses were stopped and passengers and luggage were checked for radiation.
Clothes were washed, says Igor Gegel, and, in some cases, discarded. New clothing was provided by the state. Yet the decontamination effort was apparently not complete. On May 17, more than three weeks after the accident, 25 children arriving at Artek were found to be wearing contaminated clothing.
The levels were ``higher than background, but within limits,'' says Lazarov, the camp physician. The clothing was decontaminated and the 25 are under special monitoring. So far, ``there have been no health consequences at all,'' he says.
Educational director Nikolai Pervukhin says companionship of other children -- and the setting's serenity -- has helped children at Artek overcome worries about their families and themselves.
``We felt the support of the country, and we feel it even now,'' says Oleg Zorin.
Oleg Telyatnikov, 12, said he was grateful other countries helped, too. His father was the head of the fire-fighting team that contained the blaze.
``Now he is in the hospital in Moscow,'' explains Oleg. ``American doctors did their best to help him.''
The goal at Artek, says Pervukhin, is ``not that they forget, but that they understand events [at Chernobyl] correctly.''
And how are they to be understood?
``Nuclear power,'' says one boy, ``has a useful face and a destructive face. In both cases, it needs to be used very carefully.''
Concludes Dima Sokolov, ``It was a big accident. But if the atomic bomb goes off, it will be far worse.''
``Then,'' he says, ``there will be no place to run.''