- 13 Sep 13
Hot Press spent a week at Vesnova Orphanage and Children’s Mental Asylum in Belarus ahead of the 10,000-Day anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster – and we talk to Derry guitarist and singer Paul Casey, who has drawn attention to the milestone in song.
9/11… BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT
September 11th 2013 marked twelve years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. But, remarkably, it was also 10,000 days since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster struck.
Here is how the tragedy unfolded: after safety systems had apparently been turned off in an effort to get more accurate results for a routine test, Reactor Four at the Chernobyl chemical plant in the Soviet Union exploded. It was two days later when Sweden raised the alarm, after detecting high levels of radiation in the atmosphere. The Soviet authorities at first spoke only about ‘damage’ to one of their reactors. But a cover-up proved to be impossible. This was one of the greatest disasters in human history and there was no hiding it...
To this day, estimates vary greatly on the death toll and the health consequences. With agendas always in play, reports range from 4,000 deaths to over one million, mostly from cancer, in the toxic aftermath. But there is no disguising the terrible, lingering effects of the explosion.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
Five years after the 1986 tragedy, while working with a nuclear disarmament organisation, Adi Roche received a fax from Belarusian doctors that simply read “For God’s sake, get the children out of here”. And so began the work of Chernobyl Children International (CCI), which aims to ensure life-saving operations and to improve the quality of life for the forgotten children of Belarus.
To date, the Irish have been unwavering in their support of those affected by the disaster, the after-effects of which are now devastating a new generation.
Each month, a CCI volunteer team visits Vesnova Children’s Mental Asylum, just 175km from the site of the Chernobyl explosion. It is home to over 170 children with physical and mental disabilities.
On August 18, I touched down at Minsk Airport, Belarus as part of a five-person CCI team. Our task? To bring some comfort to children, who are going through unimaginable pain.
After a late night supermarket sweep, we left Minsk at midnight with 10-trolley loads of supplies. It’s a two-hour drive south through the Belarusian countryside along increasingly windy roads, to Vesnova, a small town in the Mogilev region. You’ll be hard pressed to find Vesonva on any map. It is perhaps symptomatic of the country’s attitude towards those affected by Chernobyl.
Over the years, CCI – with the help of hundreds of Irish builders, volunteers and donors – has transformed the orphanage along with supplying regular humanitarian and medical aid. The organisation has also played a crucial role in changing Belarusian law to allow young adults with disability to live independently outside State-run institutions.
Two Independent Living Units for teenagers have been built at Vesnova, allowing them to undertake life-skills training. The alternative is life in Soltonovka Mental Asylum, for ex-convicts and adults with mental and physical disabilities. The threat of incarceration in this forbidding institution is very real.
Few of the young adults speak English, but language isn’t a barrier. Their smiles tell you everything. Rewind 13 years and it was a very different story. When Adi Roche and CCI discovered the orphanage, the children were living in squalor – afraid and alone – with no medical attention to speak of.
Conditions were horrendous, the smell of human waste and decay almost unbearable. It was a waiting room for their eventual journey across the fields to the local graveyard. Vesnova has come a long way since then...
It’s Monday morning. Hot Press has a quick breakfast of imported cereal – locals have little choice but to consume their contaminated produce – and a brisk wash. It’s baby wipes all the way for the next week as the water isn’t safe for showering. Sadly, contaminated water is all the children have. And then, straight to the High Dependency Unit 5...
When you first walk in the door with your CCI t-shirt, the kids’ eyes light up – they know instantly today will be different. The unit consists of 25 children, all immobile, many with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and each with intellectual disabilities. It truly is a different world.
Guessing ages isn’t easy in Unit 5. Vasia has severe physical deformities. He looks like a baby, but is 12 years old. Lena’s features belie her 16 years. She demands attention as soon as she spots me. It was her intellectual disabilities that led to her abandonment soon after birth. Not having received the required medical care, she now is relatively immobile and cannot speak. In line with her medical report, Lena immediately tries to pick at my fingernails. I place my hands on her arms and allow her to do the same in the hope that it help break the habit.
She’s content for a while but soon she’s looking for a thumb war again! I distract her with a xylophone. It is hoped that Lena will be feeding herself and crawling soon. But when she turns 18, she’ll be transferred to the prison-like environment of Soltonovka mental asylum where one fears she will be in harm’s way on a permanent basis.
Yana has been blind since birth. She has epilepsy and intellectual disabilities. Her hands are red from banging against the bed.
Across the room, someone starts crying. I look over. When I turn back to Yana, a massive smile has come over her face as she grabs the contents of her nappy and brings it towards her mouth. I catch hold of her arms just in time. The medical care team is on hand to assist and clean her up. She laughs all the way, knowing she’s been up to mischief of some sort. It’s a stark awakening about the life challenges faced by a blind orphan girl with intellectual disabilities and without the use of her legs.
The next day, I sit in the sunroom with Tatiana, the Belarusian Medical Coordinator employed by CCI, who tells me the story of Marina Kydakima, a healthy child until a couple of years ago when her grandmother accidentally fed her an anti-fungal medicine meant only for external use. It burned the enamel off her teeth and resulted in brain damage and internal injuries. For Marina, feeding time is traumatic.
As a first-timer in Vesnova, I was concerned about being able to cope, to stop the children crying, to make them smile. After a while in the sunroom with twenty five kids in wheelchairs nothing from the outside world matters. It’s all about the present – and no one is more surprised than me that slapstick comedy, silly dancing to ‘Billie Jean’ and duck impressions quickly become part of my repertoire.
On Thursday afternoon, in a break from the norm, we make the short trek to the off-the-grid graveyard for those from Vesnova Orphanage. The graves are numbered 1 to 139. Some have names, many just numbers. These are the ‘Unknown Soldiers’ of the Orphanage, who have fought a horrific battle against congenital heart defects and physical deformities to stay alive. They’re buried with just a number painted onto their cross. Perhaps it’s Tippex that was used.
As the mist descends on the graveyard, I can see that with the Irish involvement in Vesnova, the new generation are now being remembered at least by name — and with dignity. Clouds gather and rain falls on the crosses. I wonder whether the water droplets are contaminated, then quickly feel ashamed for thinking of myself as I stand in a graveyard of 139 radiation-ravaged children.
We get back at 6pm — it’s feeding time at Unit 5. The children pick up immediately on your demeanour, so it’s time to ‘switch on’ again. And their concern for the others in the unit is remarkable. A child cries; little Maryna Tsitova instantly looks up to see what’s wrong and draws your attention to the problem. In a ward full of intellectual disabilities, the children teach you new things every day.
A COUNTRY ON THE EDGE
Post-Chernobyl, Belarus suffers not only medically but also economically and socially, a predicament not helped by its international isolation. Often described as “the last dictator in Europe”, President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for nearly 20 years. In 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named Belarus as one of six outposts of tyranny. The Government responded stating this was “quite far from reality”. These are the politics of a country already on the edge.
I AM ALWAYS FREE
It’s Saturday evening and I’m sitting with Sasha Levkin and others from the Independent Living Unit. He has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. As a child Sasha was regularly beaten at home. One day, the teenage Sasha was dropped off at Vesnova by his alcoholic mother.
When the Irish arrived, Sasha’s life changed. He learned English and became a spokesperson for all those at Vesnova. I give Sasha the ‘first listen’ to Derry singer songwriter Paul Casey’s new song, 10,000 Days, all proceeds from which will go to the children of Vesnova…
Three years ago, Casey played in front of 5,000 people at The Sports Palace in Minsk, blissfully unaware of the devastation and heartache just a two-hour drive away at Vesnova. Just four weeks ago, he was left speechless after watching an RTE documentary on YouTube showing the desolation that remains today following the 1986 disaster.
He wrote ‘10,000 Days’ in 30 minutes.
“I sat down one morning and watched the ‘Children Beyond Chernobyl’ documentary online,” he says, “and being a parent myself, it really struck a chord. It was a tough watch. Half an hour later I had the song down. I called a few people and we recorded the track the next day.”
The up-tempo anthem driven by the guitar maestro’s trademark riffs and inspirational lyrics mark the 10,000-day milestone in Belarusian – and Irish – life, with the respect, understanding and compassion it demands.
“Thanks to Paul,” Adi Roche says, “we can remember the forgotten children of Chernobyl, who 10,0000 days ago saw their world changed in the blink of an eye, leaving a legacy of medical and health problems that continue to impact hugely on future generations”.
I press play. Sasha listens intently. “In my dreams I am always free, I am everything that I want to be.” He shifts in his wheelchair; the song ends, the room falls silent. And then Sasha smiles. 10,000 days later, there is hope.
ONE WEEK LATER
On Sunday morning in the High Dependency Unit, the children’s new world – and mine – suddenly ends. I go into the Unit as normal but they know something is up. Their eyes ask every question. One of the team comes in with a shoulder bag on his back – now they know for sure. Their tears begin, my guilt sets in. So this is goodbye.
Text CHERNOBYL to 50300 to donate €2 to CCI today. 100% of your donation goes to CCI. Or log on to chernobyl-international.com/donate
10,000 Days by Paul Casey is available for download on iTunes for €0.99. All proceeds from the sale of the single go directly to CCI.