The only child known to have been born and raised inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone now a happy, healthy college student approaching her 20th birthday.
Mariyka Sovenko, now 19, was born to mother Lydia and husband Mikhail deep inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone in 1999 – a decade after the disaster.
Her birth was initially covered up by the Ukrainian authorities, embarrassed that some people were still living inside the deeply irradiated zone, but details have resurfaced as interest in the disaster has peaked thanks to the Sky Atlantic series.
Mariyka Sovenko, now 19, is the only child known to have been born and raised inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone
Mother Lydia (right) had refused to move out of the zone after the disaster because she was not offered alternative housing by the Soviet Union
Mariyka grew up drinking milk from irradiated cows and fish from polluted rivers, leading many to accuse her parents of ‘killing’ her
Though Mariyka does not feature in the series, for many in Ukraine her life marks one of the defining chapters of the ongoing saga.
Lydia and husband Mikhail, who was a firefighter called to reactor 4 on the night of the explosion in 1986, had refused to leave the exclusion zone because they were not offered evacuation housing by the Soviet Union.
Lydia had not realised she was pregnant until she gave birth with Mikhail’s help – who cut his daughter’s umbilical chord before giving her a wash.
Once news of Mariyka’s birth spread, Lydia recalled being treated ‘like a criminal’ for giving birth at Chernobyl and refusing to budge from one of the only family homes in the zone.
But she continued to raise Mariyka there, ignoring government health warnings that she was putting her daughter in mortal danger as young Marikya drank milk from a cow grazing on irradiated pastures and swam in streams where the fish sent Geiger counters bleeping wildly.
Lydia had not known she was pregnant until giving birth with partner Mikhail (right) in 1999, who cut the umbilical chord and washed his new daughter
Mikhail had been a firefighter called to the power plant on the night of the disaster
As rumours swirled about her daughter’s health, mother Lydia spoke out to say that Mariyka was ‘a lovely child who is absolutely healthy as far as we can see’
Rumours swirled and by the time her daughter was five, Lydia – then in her mid-40s – 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.’
Interviewed in 2006 she said she was lonely with no playmates in a zone where visitors without a special reason were banned.
She said: ‘I wish there was just one other kid here. I would show him or her around my house and the village – we could have real fun together.’
Her parents continued to face pressure form the authorities to move but 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.
Now as Chernobyl once again captures headlines, Mariyka spoke to the Sunday Express newspaper.
Mariyka is now a healthy student in Kiev, where she works in a bar and wants to get a job in the hospitality industry
Asked what she feels about her past, Mariyka said: ‘I am doing well, I am working. I’m providing for myself. This is it’
The entrance to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which exploded in 1986 in the world’s worst nuclear disaster
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, telling the Sunday Express: ‘I am doing well, I am working. I’m providing for myself. This is it.’
Though Mariyka now lives and works outside the exclusion zone, she occasionally obtains a permit to visit her mother – now aged 66 – who still lives and works there.
Her mother confirmed that Mariyka is healthy, and is known to be ‘proud’ of her daughter’s success in getting on in life after her unique start.
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.’