ROBERT Gabriel remembers the hazy images of the Chernobyl disaster that were broadcast around a shocked world in April of 1986.
“I remember bits and pieces on the TV,” says the Bandon native. “It was terrible, really. But, like many tragedies in the world, it just disappeared. It was a long way away and it didn’t really affect us.” Robert had no idea that the disaster would have a profound effect on his life.
On the night of April 26, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Pripyat, in Ukraine, released one hundred times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nearby regions, such as Belarus and Russia, were also contaminated by the fallout.
The results were devastating. Instances of thyroid cancer in Belarus, among adults aged 19 to 34, had increased from less than one per 100,000 people, in 1986, to eleven per 100,000 by 2002. There was a 250% increase in congenital birth deformities. Newborns were covered in tumours. Some were born with shortened limbs or extra digits, while others were born without them.
In 1991, touched by a cry for help from doctors in Belarus, Adi Roche formed the Chernobyl Children’s Project, today known as Chernobyl Children International.
“We got involved back in 1995,” says Robert. “We were part of a group in Bandon that was bringing children over from Belarus for rest-and-recuperation holidays. We had ten children over the first time, and we were privileged to host two of them in our own home.”
Robert and his wife, Helen, became more involved in the fundraising. At the media launch for a new ambulance, they got talking to Adi about a toddler in Belarus.
“Adi was a bit worked-up,” says Robert. “She showed us a photo of the girl and told us she was about to be committed to an adult asylum, because of her physical difficulties. I think, when we saw the photograph, we bonded there and then.
“Adi explained that she was going to have to get her out of Belarus and bring her to Ireland, because the conditions in the asylum were horrendous.
“That was October ’95 and we said we’d look after her. Anna came over in January the following year. She was three-and-a-half, and, thankfully, she’s with us ever since.”
Anna now speaks with a remarkably strong Cork accent; she had speech therapy when she first arrived in Ireland, due to significant hearing loss from birth.
That is just one of many hurdles she has had in her 24 years. She talks frankly about her physical difficulties, but prefers to focus on her abilities.
Apart from the hearing loss, which was resolved by “a bone-conductor hearing aid”, Anna has only one kidney, which she says is “100% percent working fine”. She has six fingers on each hand, but that, she says, “was never a problem”, because it makes her “a bit of a wizard at typing”.
She cheerfully admits that “the legs” have been “the most challenging” of all her health issues. She has used artificial ones since the age of 13.
“When I was born, my feet were attached to my knees, so I basically have nothing from the knee down,” she says. “I have these prosthetic legs that are a bit like pants, I suppose, and I stand on them with my own feet and they give me extra height. I’m about three feet normally, but I’m five-one with the legs on, so it gives me that bit of height.”
As you might expect, Anna is well-known around Bandon. “It was never a secret that I was adopted or that I was from Chernobyl,” she says. “It was big news 20 years ago, so there was no way of keeping it a secret, really.
“My parents always tried to treat me as normally as possible, and my childhood was normal, but there were a few exceptional times, where I was in the papers or on The Late Late, or that, so there was no hiding my background.” Anna will be appearing on The Late Late, again tonight.
Although Robert’s tone often suggests otherwise, the process of adoption from Belarus was far from easy.
Belarus had no adoption board, so negotiations for Anna had to be conducted at government level. The talks were long and arduous, and involved many trips back and forth to Minsk. But because of her medical visa, and ongoing treatment, Anna was able to stay in Ireland.
In 1998, the family had to return to Belarus to attend a formal court hearing over custody, and, in the end, she was adopted.
She has yet to return and has no plans to do so. Her job at the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, and a course in accountancy at the Cork Institute of Technology, have her “kept busy”. But she is sure that, some day, she will return.
“I’m happy to be here, around all my family and friends,” she says. “I do want to go back someday and see everything with my own eyes. But it will probably be hard, so I’ll have to be mentally ready. It might be five years, it might be ten years, but I will go back.”
Alexi Barrett was just a babe-in-arms when he arrived in Ireland, on the same flight as Anna. He, too, has not returned to Belarus, since his adoption was formalised; a process made more difficult by an unexpected complication.
“When we were there, we went to visit the institute that Alexi was in before coming to Ireland,” says his mother, Helen.
“While we were there, there was a phone call. The woman put the phone down and told us it was Alexi’s mother. I nearly collapsed there and then. We had just thought that Alexi had been abandoned,” says Helen. “What we didn’t know was that when Alexi’s mother was due to give birth, she went for a scan and they detected the medical issues that were there. It was obviously too late to have an abortion, so she had the baby, but she wasn’t allowed to keep him. Her baby was taken from her.”
It transpired that Alexi’s mother had thought her son was dead. Remarkably, Helen’s sister, Adi Roche, took out an advertisement in a local paper showing a picture of Alexi and advising his parents (whoever they might have been) that Alexi was going to Ireland for life-saving surgery. The picture was spotted by Alexi’s natural parents, who then contacted the institute for news of their son. Over time, Alexi’s parents were convinced of the benefits of his staying in Ireland, but, crucially, no papers had been signed.
“They could have changed their minds at any time,” says Helen. “I didn’t understand any of the court hearing. I do remember being there and it was all a bit of blur, but we got the green light.”
Alexi, who is now 21, is reluctant to talk about his connections to Belarus. Focussing on his studies at Maynooth is his current priority.
For her part, Anna is keen to stress that both she and Alexi are among the lucky ones.
“I owe so much to Adi and my parents,” says Anna. “They did an amazing thing for us. But there are still people who are affected by this, even now, 30 years on. A lot of people my age don’t know what Chernobyl is and it’s important that people know about it.”