Updated: Mar 5, 2022
On the 26th April 1986 the world’s biggest nuclear disaster occurred at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine which changed the lives of the people in the surrounding areas forever. A routine test went horribly wrong and 2 massive explosions blew the roof off reactor 4 at the plant, releasing 400 times more radiation than the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima. This devastated the lives of the people of Ukraine and Belarus. Because of the direction the wind was blowing that day, 70% of the radiation fell on to the population of Belarus and affected the lives of 7 million people.
700,000 men known as the liquidators stepped in to contain this disaster. These were members of the Army, Fire brigade, and Police force. They exposed themselves to dangerous levels of radiation. At least 40,000 of these eventually lost their lives, and another 70,000 became disabled. 20% of the deaths were suicides. The official death toll from the disaster is 31!
All the damage was caused by just 3% of the content of the plant spewing into the atmosphere. It is said that these liquidators saved the rest of Europe, by preventing further devastation.
In 1986, 99% of the land in Belarus was contaminated. 2000 towns and villages had to be evacuated and the exclusion zone surrounding the plant, known as Death Valley, is still the most contaminated land in the world. As a result of the disaster, 1.7 million people live in poverty, many of these in extreme poverty. Two million people in Belarus (500,000 of them children) are high risk and live in highly contaminated areas. 1 million hectares of this land cannot be farmed for 100 years. Children continue to be born with illness and disability, so, this is a present-day disaster.
On the 25th of January 2014, my life changed. This was when I went on my first trip to the Vesnova Orphanage in Belarus with Adi Roches Chernobyl Children International. This was founded by Adi in 1991 and she has dedicated her life to helping those suffering from the effects of the disaster, developing programs that improve the lives of the people and future generations in the Chernobyl region.
It was a long trip. There were 5 of us. We left Dublin airport in the early hours of Saturday morning on a flight to Schiphol airport, Amsterdam. We then had a 4-hour wait before our next flight to Minsk. It was evening time before we arrived in Minsk to a blanket of snow and -6 degrees. We were collected at the airport and driven to the nearest Shopping Centre to buy food and water for the week. The water and earth are still contaminated so we use only bottled water and imported food. After the shopping we loaded everything in to the back of the mini bus and headed to the orphanage. 2 hours later we arrived at Vesnova. It was late evening and it was very quiet as everyone was asleep. I was exhausted from the journey but excited and slightly nervous in anticipation of the next day not knowing what to expect. We went in to the room that was to be our bedroom, sitting room and kitchen for the next week. We put away all our groceries and went to bed.
As the next day was a Sunday, all the children were in their units so it was a good opportunity to visit and meet everyone. After breakfast, we made our way to unit 5, one of the high dependency units. Trina, our team leader introduced us to each child and gave us their background stories which were heartbreaking! A lot of these children were abandoned as babies. Some parents just didn't have the means to look after them due to extreme poverty and some due to family circumstances couldn't keep them.
As we made our way through the units we met children of all ages with different levels of disability, Some had very little wrong with them. Every time we entered a room we were greeted by roars of delight, and children climbing up us and giving us hugs. Some clung on as if they never wanted to let go. Human touch is so important to these children.
The next day we got up at 7.30, had a quick cup of tea, and went down to feed the children in unit 5 and unit 2. These are the 2 high dependency units where the children can't feed themselves. I felt a bit apprehensive having had no experience with children with special needs and my own family had grown up, so hadn't fed a child in years! This was the day I met Kolya. I thought at the time he was a toddler but later found out he was 10 years old.
I approached him with a bowl of what looked like 'runny porridge'. I sat him up in the bed, (one of the carers helped me prop him up) and he didn't look happy. He kicked me, he kicked the bowl and screamed and screamed! I remember thinking maybe he picked up on my nervousness. I spent so long trying to feed him that eventually one of the carers took over and all the other children had by then been fed. I was upset at how rough the carer was with him. I left the unit feeling a bit of a failure but consoling myself with the thought that this was my first day and I needed more practice.
Day 2 I went straight to Kolya and this time sat him on my lap and he enjoyed his food. We've been pals ever since. This time I had a better look at him. His poor legs were so thin and covered in marks and bruises. Kolya has a skin condition called ichthyosis and is blind and non-verbal. He has days when he's very down and frustrated with his skin condition but on a good day he is fun-loving and loves a good laugh. One thing I've learned from these kids is to be grateful for the life I have. These children have no personal belongings, some no parents and no rights, and yet they can smile and enjoy life in their own way.
After feeding the children we headed back to our room for breakfast and talked about our schedule for the day. Every day is different but we try to work around the schedule of the orphanage so we can help out with feeding and nappy change.
We heard so many sad stories but some of them stand out in my mind. Like little Maria whose grandmother gave her an acid-based remedy for a fungal infection on her foot, but instead of applying it she gave it orally and destroyed her teeth and her whole digestive system. Feeding is difficult and painful for her and she has very little joy in her life. Yuliana was dropped on her head as a child and as a result, is badly brain-damaged. Two wonderful brothers, Sasha and Alec have told the heart-breaking story of the time their Mother brought them to the Orphanage because her partner didn’t want them. She walked to the gate, then turned around and came back as if she had a change of heart. But then changed her mind and left. The boys were aged 10 and 11.
They now live in the CCI Community house in the nearby town of Glusk. This is for young adults who grew up in the orphanage and can now live independently of institutional care. They take the ‘workers bus’ to the Orphanage every morning to work and return at 5 pm. They have carers who cook their meals and look after running the house. Before this Independent living programme, these adults would have been sent to a mental asylum at the age of 18.
We spent the next few days spending time with the kids, sometimes in the units, in the arts and crafts rooms upstairs where some of the children spend part of their day, or, sometimes we brought some of them to the lovely sensory room which has a massage table, a ball pool, music and lots of other activities for the children. It’s a nice break away from their unit. We celebrated any birthdays with cake and presents. There is also a concert hall where some of the children sometimes put on a concert with great enthusiasm which is lovely to see. They really put their heart and soul into it! Occasionally we took them on trips to the local town of Glusk (probably the bleakest place I have ever been). There is not a lot to do there but they enjoy going to the coffee shop or the pizza place. For some of the children, it is the only time they ever leave the orphanage.
We also visited some of the Adi Roches Homes of hope where children from poor, sometimes abusive backgrounds who would otherwise be placed in Orphanages are brought up in a family environment. The aim was to break the cycle of poverty and abandonment in Belarus. It’s so lovely to see how happy and well looked after they are in a warm safe environment compared to how their lives could have been. Each house has up to ten children.
We brought gifts, groceries, and anything else needed to poor families in the community and I have to say I have never in my life witnessed such extreme poverty and hardship. One mother rang the orphanage for help. Her husband had taken his own life earlier that month and she had no support. She had 3 young children and had to move in with her sister. We brought gifts for the children and some groceries. The youngest child was a baby and this woman looked only in her early twenties.
I arrived home from my first trip a bit shell shocked! I thought I knew a lot about the effects of the Chernobyl disaster but nothing prepared me for what I witnessed over there! It was like there was a dark side to life that I hadn’t known existed before. I know we hear harrowing news stories all the time, but actually being there makes it real. I cried a lot on the way back and just wanted to get on a plane and go straight back. I felt so helpless and straight away began to plan my next trip. At the time of writing this, we are in the middle of a pandemic. Around this time I should be going on my 7th trip but all trips were suspended 10 months ago. I wonder how they’re getting on without any hugs or that special attention they don’t get unless the volunteers are there. All we can do is keep them in our thoughts and prayers and hope they’re okay.
It is amazing what Adi Roche has done in Vesnova. She started working on Chernobyl in 1986 in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and founded CCI in 1991. She said herself when she walked in she was struck by the smell of excrement and death. At the time there was a very high death rate. The children were so neglected and in such a state that she didn’t know where to start. So she decided to start with the care of the children. The Orphanage isn’t somewhere you drive past. It’s away from the beaten track, literally at the end of a road, and for the children who arrive there it was the end of the road for them with the only way out being death, or at the age of 18 being sent to an adult institution similar to a prison. But thanks to Adi’s Independent living program, pioneered in 2009, this has changed. She has saved so many children and adults from a life of hardship and misery. Adi is truly an inspiration. Her relentless drive and passion to help the children of Belarus and Ukraine is second to none!
If you are interested in getting involved in any way as a volunteer or fundraiser or are just interested in finding out more please click on the link below and have a look at the website. Look out for future fundraisers.
I have my Restorative Sound Bath fundraiser in November each year and Hot Yoga Dublin host ‘Yoga in the Park’ in June each year at Malahide castle to raise funds for CCI and other charities. We appreciate any help we can get. Hope to see you there!
If you’d like to make a donation you can do so through CCI’s iDonate Page or through PayPal .