Chernobyl survivor on musical mission

Soprano sings to keep memory alive, and to further her healing process

by Miya Tanaka

from

News photo
Oksana Stepanyuk
Since being invited by a church group in 2003, Stepanyuk has stayed in Japan, performing at numerous charity concerts to support the disaster survivors while making a living as a professional musician."Wondering why I'm in Japan, I think I have been given a mission to help those who were affected by the accident through my songs . . . who can help, if not me? I was born near Chernobyl," Stepanyuk, who is also a victim, said in a recent interview in Tokyo.She was 8 years old and living in the village of Synyava, roughly 200 km south of the accident site, when the explosion occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986."On that day, I was playing with other children in the forest. I saw black rain fall, and couldn't understand why it had a different color," she said, remembering the fatal accident 20 years ago. "Various fish in the river have disappeared and we can no longer eat fruit from the forest or drink water from wells for fear of contamination."Stepanyuk suffers health problems and her immune system is weakening, but she graduated first on the list in her major courses at National P.I. Tchaikovsky Musical Academy in Ukraine, achieving her childhood dream of becoming a musician.Remaining in Tokyo on an artist visa, she said she can feel her health improve due to "good water and nice climate." Her husband, a camera shop manager, stayed behind in Kiev.The experience and hardships of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the wake of the 1945 atomic bombings strike a chord with Stepanyuk."In elementary school, we studied about the tragedy in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even so far away, I think Ukraine and Japan share the same history," she said, adding she hopes her songs make people strive for a world without such tragedies."I dream to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki one day to hold a charity concert there to share our experiences and call for peace in the world," she said.Stepanyuk, who has won titles in international music competitions, also said she sings for her own rehabilitation, on the advice of a doctor who told her she could improve her health by breathing deeply and moving her diaphragm. Her clear soprano -- often accompanied by the bandura, a Ukrainian folk instrument that she plays -- has pulled in audiences."I wanted to do something for my health, and I tried to sing every day," she said. "I want to sing to touch people's hearts, but it's also for myself."The 20 years since the nuclear meltdown has raised concerns about women who were children at the time of the accident, as they experience marriage and childbirth."Many couples in Ukraine cannot have children, apparently because of the Chernobyl tragedy. My sister had to stay in a hospital because her womb couldn't keep her baby even in the early stages of pregnancy," she said. "My friend who graduated in the same class lost her baby, although she kept hiding the fact – me.”

International reports have shown conflicting views over the effects related to childbirth.

A resolution adopted in Kiev in 2003 referred to the risk of offspring with congenital and hereditary diseases among Chernobyl survivors living in contaminated areas, although another report initiated by the International Atomic Energy Agency said last September there was no evidence that low doses in contaminated areas caused any reproductive woes.

“I talked with my husband about having a child, but he said he wants me to focus on music now. Maybe later, I hope,” Stepanyuk said.

Planning to continue pursuing her musical career in Japan, Stepanyuk added sadly, “I’m afraid that when I go back to Ukraine someday, my health will become worse again. Even returning one month for a holiday is tough for me. I don’t think I can live in Kiev or in my village.”

Yuri Scherbak, a former Ukrainian environment minister, said in a recent symposium on the Chernobyl accident in Tokyo that the disaster has had a “cumulative effect” on people’s health, and “problems seem to increase rather than decrease as time passes.”

About 5 million people live in contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, and have continually been exposed to radioactive materials deposited in the ground and via intake of radionuclides from food, water and air.

Although many matters remain unresolved, Yukiko Mukai, chief secretary of the Tokyo-based Chernobyl Children’s Fund, Japan, said the general relief funds, most of which are from individuals, dropped to 19.8 million yen in 2005 from 42.3 million yen in 2000.

“There are other disasters, including earthquakes or tsunami. The number shows that the Chernobyl accident does not have much urgency (anymore),” Mukai said, admitting such a tendency cannot be helped, considering the time that has passed since the accident.

Ryuichi Hirokawa, founder of the fund and a photojournalist who has been covering the Chernobyl issue, said during the Tokyo symposium that the 20th anniversary should not be used as an opportunity to draw a curtain on the issue.

“I don’t think people have learned lessons from the Chernobyl tragedy. Twenty years have passed without us even clearly knowing how to take measures when the next disaster happens,” he said.