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Chernobyl's Beach Children

BLOND, blue-eyed, and gangly, the Soviet kids look both at home and out of place beneath the Cuban palms. ``I like it here. I feel much better,'' says Serge, a sun-bronzed Ukranian eight-year old.

Four years after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, the Soviet Union called for help. Their medical facilities could not treat all of the 100,000 to 200,000 children that needed care as a result of radiation exposure.

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Last year, Cuba answered. Since March, 2,638 Soviet children have visited a seaside Cuban hospital complex designed for treating children. President Fidel Castro has promised to accept at least 10,000 children and to pick up the tab.

``It's a way of saying thank you for 30 years of Soviet help,'' a Cuban official says.

The Soviet children arrive in groups of 300 to 400. Most do not need hospital care. The average stay is 40 days. Cuban doctors say the change in mental and physical climate is generally as important as the medical treatment.

``To play at the beach, it's like a vacation for them,'' says Dr. Carlos Dotres Mart'inez, director of the hospital. A Soviet diplomat reinforces this assessment:

``Chernobyl has given us the first real understanding of what a nuclear war could be like. What happens to people living in a territory contaminated?'' Thus far, two-thirds of Soviet children return home two pounds heavier.

``Twenty percent go back with diminished symptoms,'' says Dr. Quintana Mart'inez, vice president of the complex. ``Ideally, they return to an area less contaminated. But perhaps most importantly, they're in better physical and mental shape to deal with the conditions at home.''

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