CHERNOBYL, Ukraine - Olga Rudchenko cried every night for eight years, desperate to return home.
Now she is happy, living once again in her town, Chernobyl.
Rudchenko's family was among 200,000 residents evacuated after an explosion ripped through the Chernobyl nuclear power station on April 26, 1986 in the world's worst nuclear accident.
She and her husband, Andriy, defied a government ban and returned 12 years ago to live on contaminated land.
The deserted city of Pripyat, December 1995. Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the background. Ukraine (Photo: Greenpeace / Shirley)
"It was a long time ago, but it is hard to forget. It was worse than a war. We were told so many lies," Rudchenko, 71, says, outside a small, shabby house in need of a coat of paint.
"They took us away in buses and said we were leaving for three days. We came back eight years later. I cried every night. I wanted to go home. Thank God, we are here in the best place on earth."
If you didn't know Chernobyl's history, you might understand her delight. A town of 9,000, it now boasts several offices, three shops, a bar and a Soviet-style canteen -- despite being in an exclusion zone where settlement is banned. It is surrounded by rich, green forests, teeming with wildlife.
But for millions around the world, Chernobyl symbolizes disaster and devastation, myth and controversy.
On April 26, 1986, several explosions destroyed reactor No. 4 at the plant, turning it into a radioactive inferno that sent a lethal plume into the night sky.
The Soviet government acknowledged the accident two days later -- after the fallout set off radiation alarms in Sweden.
The blaze raged for 10 days. Radioactive material was deposited as far away as Japan and the United States.
"I was at work on April 26, 1986. I worked with nitrogen to cool the fourth and third reactors in a room 150 meters (490 feet) away from the fourth bloc," Mykola Bondarenko said in his office in Ukraine's capital Kiev.
"After about an hour we heard a sound, then a wave came, like in an earthquake. That was the first explosion. The second one came several seconds later. We saw white smoke rising into the sky. But we kept on working."
Hundreds of staff toiled through the night after the blasts which struck just after one in the morning. Tens of thousands of soldiers, firefighters and engineers were dispatched and tonnes of material ferried in to build a shelter around the reactor.
Many received huge radiation doses. Some died instantly. Others suffered agonizing deaths in hospitals in Kiev or Moscow.
There were no official records of the doses received by the hundreds of thousands of "liquidators" who buried contaminated machinery and cleaned up poisoned land, forests and rivers in Ukraine and neighboring Belarus.
"Radiation was the last thing on our minds then," said Evhen Lushkevich, a senior operator at the fourth reactor.
A nuclear industry worker since 1964, Lushkevich knew a great deal about radiation. He came to work the day after the explosion and finished his shift nearly three weeks later.
"By that time the dose was sufficiently high. I was taken to a hospital in Moscow. When I got there in May, many of my colleagues were already dead."
Lushkevich was in hospital for about two months. Bondarenko had marrow surgery requiring a hospital stay of about two years.
Two decades later, and 5 1/2 years after Chernobyl's last reactor was shut down, the area around the plant is alive with reminders of the disaster.
The 30-km (19-mile) exclusion zone is patrolled by police and Ukraine's Emergencies Ministry. Counters show radiation in some areas far above the norm, while other villages display levels lower than in Kiev, 80 km (50 miles) to the south.
The town of Pripyat, built to house plant workers, is still deserted -- the day after the accident, 50,000 residents were evacuated in just six hours.
In empty apartments with gaping, glassless windows, clothes, shoes, dolls, books and family photos lie scattered.
Several hundred mostly elderly people have returned to their homes in Chernobyl and nearby villages despite the ban. Authorities turn a blind eye and help with food and electricity.
Dozens of curious foreigners tour the area where animals have exploited 20 years of human absence -- wild boars, wolves and deer roam the streets. Scientists want more funds to establish a nature reserve.
Debate still rages about the human cost of the accident.
This week, environmental group Greenpeace said the eventual death toll could be far higher than official estimates with up to 93,000 cancer deaths attributable to the disaster.
The World Health Organization puts at 4,000 the number of extra deaths in the worst-hit areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, with 5,000 in less affected zones.
Ukrainian doctors, who have observed patients exposed to radiation for 20 years, point to a dramatic rise in thyroid cancer among those who were children in 1986.
Thyroid cancer can be treated if detected early. Mobile laboratories conduct checks in villages near the exclusion zone, where unemployment is high and most residents worry more about making ends meet than about their health.
Doctors fear for the future.
"Though 20 years have passed, Ukraine will feel the consequences for a long time," said Hryhory Klymnyuk from the Cancer Institute at Ukraine's Academy of Sciences.
"There are not only direct medical consequences but possible changes in genes. I think future generations will be under threat from various illnesses, including tumors."
The government and Western donors have focused attention on securing the crumbling concrete and steel sarcophagus.
The actual process of making the plant safe will take many years. Officials have said the last fuel rods will not be taken away until 2008 and it will be between 30 and 100 years before the station is completely decommissioned.
Andrei Novikov, Chernobyl's deputy technical director, says there has been too much haste in dealing with the spent fuel.
"When they closed Chernobyl in December 2000, I wrote in my diary: the power station has been shut down, but Chernobyl has only just started," he said.
Additional reporting by Sergei Karazy
Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited