The Chernobyl disaster: 30 years on (Day 2): Irish eyes smiling down on the young survivors

Adi Roche with one of the survivors in the Vesnova orphanage. Pictures: Clare Keogh.

An institution for abandoned children was more like a ‘house of death’, says CCI chief executive Adi Roche, who has worked hard, with lots of Irish help, to make things better for the youth of Chernobyl, writes Eoin English

From a house of death to a shining beacon of hope — Vesnova Children’s Institute stands today as a monument to the work of an Irish charity and its army of volunteers.

Where once children were left to die, the facility has, thanks to Chernobyl Children International (CCI) and its countless Irish volunteers, been transformed into a flagship for the care of the most vulnerable children in Belarus.

The conditions there today stand in stark contrast to the heartbreaking scenes the first CCI volunteers encountered when they discovered Vesnova.

Chief executive Adi Roche said that, in the early days of their work in Belarus, they heard rumours and stories about an institution for abandoned children.

Close to the town of Glusk, some 200km south-east of the rapidly growing Belarussian capital, Minsk, it was effectively forgotten.

CCI volunteers inquired locally, followed dirt roads to find it, and braced for what they might find inside.

But nothing could have prepared them.

Located in a field at the end of a dead-end road on the edge of bleak, featureless collective farm, it presented a nightmare scenario to those first international visitors through its doors.

Adi Roche says: ‘We didn’t arrive as knights in shining armour, we didn’t claim to have all the answers. We did little things, by little things, we overcame every obstacle, and there were many.’ Pic: Clare Keogh
Adi Roche says: ‘We didn’t arrive as knights in shining armour, we didn’t claim to have all the answers. We did little things, by little things, we overcame every obstacle, and there were many.’ Pic: Clare Keogh

“It was a house of death,” says Ms Roche. “We were assaulted by the sense of death and decay. We couldn’t tell boys from girls.

“It was viewed as a holding place where the children were kept until they went an adult institution, or to the graveyard.”

The first images from inside Vesnova shocked the world, and revealed the scale of the humanitarian disaster post Chernobyl.

Ordinary Belarussians were already struggling with grinding poverty. When the reactor exploded a few hundred kilometres south in northern Ukraine, the radioactive fallout and the subsequent mass exodus of people fleeing the contamination put an enormous strain on Belarus’s already creaking, and in some places non-existent health system.

Vesnova became a dumping ground for children with severe physical disabilities and deformities, some attributed to radioactive fall-out, for those with severe mental disabilities, and for those tragic cases with a combination of both.

Families who just couldn’t cope felt their best chance was to place the children in institutions.

Inside Vesnova, most children were left to fend for themselves, many spending up to 18 hours a day in cots or beds. Many were left lying for hours in their own waste.

Untrained and demoralised staff didn’t care. Nobody cared. They were all trying to cope too.

Almost all the children displayed the classic symptoms of a chronic lack of stimulation — constant rocking back and forth. Younger children who were not yet toilet-trained were left in groups to sit for hours on potties — their waste swilling about the feet on the floor.

Because they were in a squatting position for hours on end, some of the younger girls suffered prolapsed uteruses.

The first volunteers still remember the stench. And the burials.

Last month, Ms Roche brought a civic delegation from Cork, led by Lord Mayor Cllr Chris O’Leary, to visit Vesnova. He was accompanied by city council chief executive Ann Doherty and the Irish ambassador to Lithuania and Belarus, David Noonan.

Standing in the hall just inside Vesnova’s front door, Ms Roche recalls the dark, difficult early days there.

“None of us ever wanted to make decisions about life and death — saying this child can live but that child will have to die,” she says.

“Nobody should ever have to make those kinds of decisions — they’re not choices actually.

“But there were times when our medics had to make those kinds of decisions, because we could only work on those that there was still hope for, because some were too far gone, others had just given up.

“And little by little, in a tandem approach, we saved as many as we could and tried to build the place we have today.”

Ms Roche praises the countless Irish volunteer builders, painters, electricians, and tilers, as well as those who just wanted to help, who responded to their appeals for help. She touches the wall of a corridor which leads to the institution’s 10 units. “I love touching these walls and admiring those ceilings, and lights and windows, things that would never do anything for me at home,” she says.

“But all of this work — the tiles we are standing on were put down by a husband and wife tiling couple from Ireland — everything here was done by the Irish.

“We did it below the radar, we didn’t make any great announcements. We’d come with maybe 30 or 40 volunteers, we’d set up a kitchen, the food would be brought over by truck, and bit by bit, the builders and the medical teams worked side-by-side, saving the children, and on the other hand, giving them basic dignity, a toilet, showers, classrooms, a sensory room. Everything these children so deserved.”

Although Vesnova is state-run, CCI’s influence is everywhere. Of the facility’s 200 staff, 22, including five medical nurses, are directly employed by CCI.

Some of the older residents make beautiful handcrafted wooden furniture — including ingenious foldable stools and tables. Pic: Clare Keogh
Some of the older residents make beautiful handcrafted wooden furniture — including ingenious foldable stools and tables. Pic: Clare Keogh

Today, the facility is home to 173 children, aged from 4 to 18. Those who can smile do. They crave physical contact and reach out for hugs.

Some cling on so tight, it’s hard to put them back down.

Ms Roche knows them all by name. And they her. “They are our sons and daughters,” she says.

“It is a hard place to work in. You are in the middle of nowhere. When the volunteers come here, they are here 24 hours a day. There is nothing luxurious about the conditions.”

On the first night, the civic delegation eat pasta cooked in a large pot on a table in the volunteer nurses’ room — the same room where the volunteers sleep.

Their suitcases are stacked on the beds. A small fridge near the sink is stocked with breads, meats, cheeses, yoghurts, and juice — things that can be transformed easily and without fuss into a quick meal.

Atop the fridge are a few home comforts — teabags, some soft drinks, snacks, a little bit of chocolate. Everybody mucks in. There are no airs and graces.

“Volunteers give up their time, they raise their own money for their air fares, and they do it several times over the year,” says Ms Roche.

Pic: Clare Keogh
Pic: Clare Keogh

CCI organises such placements for one week in every month. “Our volunteers will say that being here can be very lonely. There is no TV and when you finish at 8pm, you have long dark nights to think of what you went through during the day.

“Especially when you lose a child, every time we come out we wonder will there be another vacant bed to be filled by another child.”

The next morning, the delegation tours the units where children are grouped according to their age or medical need.

It’s breakfast time in the high-dependency unit, redeveloped with the help of volunteers from Limerick.

Mr O’Leary, Ms Doherty, and Mr Noonan help feed the children — some get bottles with high-nutrition feed, some get porridge.

“When we first arrived,” says Ms Roche, “the kids were fed lying down. Some had lost the ability to swallow and lots died from asphyxiation.” Most are now fed in custom-made wheelchairs built in, or donated from Ireland.

The delegation also helps with the bathing, done once a week as there just aren’t enough staff members to do it more regularly.

Marsha, who has cerebral palsy and micro encephalitis, or small-brain syndrome, is 8. Nicknamed Thumbelina by some, or Polly Pocket by others, she knows what’s going on, and has a twinkle in her eyes.

“Each child has potential and each child surprises us all the time,” says Ms Roche.

Victor, 16, who has a severe spinal deformity and his brother, Vasa, 15, who also has scoliosis, lie on their sides in separate beds, their breathing laboured. They are both non-verbal. We learn that their mother died the week before. Two volunteers move Vasa from his bed to lie next to his brother.

“We let them lie with each other for a time every day in the hope their genetic bond will help,” says Ms Roche.

Upstairs in another unit we meet blonde-haired Vika, 22. She was kept in a shed and fed alongside dogs for the first 10 years of her life. When she was brought to Vesnova, she walked on all fours. Vika still displays lots of animal behaviour, but thanks to intensive rehabilitation over the years, those displays are becoming increasingly rare.

Vadim, 16, who has severe autism, is also showing signs of progress. He makes eye contact from time to time.

Conditions in Vesnova are still basic, but the children now have dignity and expert medical care. Strait jackets are no longer used to restrain them.

The signs of Irish generosity are everywhere — the children wear clothes from Dunnes Stores, county GAA jerseys from their host families, and play with toys, games, and teddy bears you’d find on the shelves of any Irish toy shop.

“We love these children, they are so special,” says Ms Roche. “When we came here first, I remember the director saying why would we want to put in physio programmes or a sensory room.

“And we said it’s to help the children develop to their maximum potential. We made decisions that it was by example we led.

“We didn’t arrive as knights in shining armour, we didn’t claim to have all the answers.

“We did little things, by little things, we overcame every obstacle, and there were many.”

One of CCI’s main breakthroughs in recent years was pioneering programmes designed to end the culture of institutionalisation and to provide for the older children, who, once they turn 18, face transfer to adult asylums, where conditions are described as prison-like.

We leave the main building to meet two young men whose stories, more so than any of the others, have had the biggest impact on Ms Roche.

One of the children in Vesnova orphanage, which has improved immeasurably from its days as a ‘house of death’, when CCI first came to Chernobyl. Pic: Clare Keogh
One of the children in Vesnova orphanage, which has improved immeasurably from its days as a ‘house of death’, when CCI first came to Chernobyl. Pic: Clare Keogh

Tears flow as Sasha, 24, who arrived in Vesnova aged 14, and his close friend, also Sasha, 24, tell how their lives have been transformed.

Speaking in English, Sasha recalls as his 18th birthday approached, it dawned on him that they could be transferred to an adult asylum.

“I don’t know what we are going to do,” he says.

“I sit with Sasha and we think together, what will happen to us if we go to this institution? We get nothing.”

Casting his eyes towards Ms Roche, he says: “I write to my Irish mammy to ask about help. We don’t want to go, we want to stay here forever.

“Then mammy said to me: ‘Sasha, we’ll help you, we’ll build you a house’.”

In 2009, CCI pioneered the historic Independent Living Programme, which had been unheard of in Belarus.

Irish builders developed six new homes on the Vesnova campus for young men like the two Sashas, and followed it in 2011 with another unit for 12 of the older girls. Carers stay with them.

“We’re very, very happy to live here,” Sasha says.

But four years ago, their homes burned down after a lighting strike during a ferocious storm. Sasha said they were worried for their future again. Ms Roche said the news couldn’t have come at a worse time, as donations to CCI had plummeted due to the recession.

“But mammy and Fergal [a carpenter from Cork] came again and they solved everything. They built another house and now we live here and we love it,” says Sasha.

Nearby, CCI has refurbished and equipped a former outhouse into a life skills training workshop.

Inside, some of the older residents make beautiful handcrafted wooden furniture — including ingenious foldable stools and tables which wouldn’t be out of place on sale in Ikea.

CCI employs a teacher to oversee the work, in the hope that the skills the residents learn will equip them in the long term to avail of employment opportunities in their local communities.

There are hundreds of such orphanages and institutions in the Chernobyl regions where thousands of children live lonely forgotten lives.

Ms Roche says she has had to learn to focus on what can be achieved and on who can be helped, as opposed to who can’t. “Otherwise, it’s just overwhelming,” she says.

As well as transforming Vesnova, CCI is also working with the Belarussian authorities on the maintenance and refurbishment of other centres, including the Soltanovka Adult Mental Asylum, the Kharkiv Centre of Cardiac Surgery, as well as building community daycare centres across Belarus, to bring their model of care and self-help into the impoverished rural communities.

Each centre provides support and services to as many as 67,000 people per centre.

“We just live in the now, and every moment we spend with the children is precious,” says Ms Roche.

“It’s breath by breath, heart by heart, and that’s what keeps us going.”

Some of the older residents make beautiful handcrafted wooden furniture — including ingenious foldable stools and tables. Pic: Clare Keogh
Some of the older residents make beautiful handcrafted wooden furniture — including ingenious foldable stools and tables. Pic: Clare Keogh

Moments before we leave the orphanage, its director, Viacheslav Klimovich, arrives, and almost by accident, bumps in to the delegation.

There are smiles and handshakes. Ms Roche engages full diplomatic mode and thanks him for his co-operation over the years.

He in turn thanks CCI and the Irish volunteers for their efforts over the years.

But it’s an awkward meeting.

Despite the immense progress over the years, it is a symbol of challenges from elements of official Belarus still facing the CCI.

As we leave, Ms Roche says: “The buildings are the easiest things to change — the culture is hardest thing to change.”

Pictures: Clare Keogh

READ MORE - The Chernobyl disaster: 30 years on (Day 1)

READ MORE - The Chernobyl disaster: 30 years on (Day 3)

CASE STUDY: "IF WE WERE IN THAT SITUATION, WE’D WANT HELP"

Volunteers are the lifeblood of Chernobyl Children International, Eoin English met them at the Vesnova Orphanage in Belarus

THEY give up their holidays and raise their own air fares to spend a week in Vesnova orphanage helping some of the most vulnerable children in the world.

They are the volunteer lifeblood of the Chernobyl Children International charity (CCI), at the very heart of its work.

Trina Gilchriest, from Dublin, was among several volunteers in Vesnova when the Irish delegation visited in February.

TrinaGilchriestfrom Dublin at Vesnova Orphanage, Chernobyl. Pic: Clare Keogh
Trina Gilchriest from Dublin at Vesnova Orphanage, Chernobyl. Pic: Clare Keogh

She was inspired to help after seeing a documentary on RTÉ about the effects the nuclear disaster had on the children.

She emailed CCI’s head office offering whatever help she could, and soon found herself taking a lead role in fundraising and organising CCI’s rest and recuperation holidays in Ireland for Belarusian children.

Within a few years, she visited Belarus and saw for herself how Irish fundraising and volunteering had helped.

“We had been down around Gomel and that region. We were down in Zhytkavichy area, very sad stories there as well,” she says.

“There’s an awful lot of alcoholism and kids being neglected. Then, there are kids with absolutely loving parents who just can’t manage on what they have.

“So, they are very sad stories. We had gone from that very sad situation and then gone on to see a ‘Home of Hope’ that had been sponsored by the Clonmel outreach group.

“To walk in there and see the kids, they’re so settled, they’re so happy, smiling, laughing, really settled.

“When you think of our kids here in Ireland — they take things for granted now.

“Whereas over here, if you give them a little tube of bubbles, it’s the best thing in the world.

“It’s fantastic to see the appreciation that they have for things and the excitement they got out of them.

“You see the little faces and you say, ‘there has to be something that we can do’.

“I don’t think I’ll ever lose that link with the project. I can’t imagine leaving it all behind now.

“It could very easily be us. It could be us at any point. You then say: ‘Oh God, if we were in that situation ourselves, wouldn’t we want somebody to help us?’

“Wouldn’t we want someone to reach out and say” ‘Look, we can do whatever we can do.’ ”

She was in Vesnova with her sister, Síne, a radiographer in Dublin’s Mater Hospital, on her fourth visit to the orphanage.

SíneGilchriestfrom Dublin is a volunteer at Vesnova Orphanage,Chernobyl..Pic: Clare Keogh
Síne Gilchriest from Dublin is a volunteer at Vesnova Orphanage, Chernobyl.. Pic: Clare Keogh

Susan Farrell, a yoga teacher and reflexologist, from Swords was on her second stint in the orphanage, while Deirdre Doyle, a massage therapist and reflexologist also from Swords, was experienceing her first visit to Vesnova.

Susan Farrell from Dublin, a volunteer at Vesnova Orphanage. Pic: Clare Keogh
Susan Farrell from Dublin, a volunteer at Vesnova Orphanage. Pic: Clare Keogh

She spent some time delivering reflexology and massage to 17-year-old Vlad, who has cerebral palsy, in the orphanage’s sensory room.

Deirdre Doyle from Dublin, a volunteer at Vesnova Orphanage. Pic: Clare Keogh
Deirdre Doyle from Dublin, a volunteer at Vesnova Orphanage. Pic: Clare Keogh

Sharon Lynch, a mother of three from Canovee in Co Cork, was on her 16th visit to Vesnova since 2007.

Another member of a CCI outreach group, she took up the first offer to visit to see for herself the work on the ground, and to report back to volunteers in Ireland.

“I enjoyed it and felt I got a lot out of it,” she says.

It was on that first visit that she met Nastya, who was just seven. She has cerebral palsy.

“I felt I had to bring her back for rest and recuperation. We brought her to Ireland the following year, and she’s been coming twice a year since, at Easter and Christmas. She’s part of our family now,” she says.

Sharon Lynch helps wash a child at Vesnova Orphanage, Chernobyl. Pic: Clare Keogh
Sharon Lynch helps wash a child at Vesnova Orphanage, Chernobyl. Pic: Clare Keogh

Her children, Dean, 17, Elliot, 14, and Graham, nine, treat her as their sister.

“She’s my Belarusian daughter now. My youngest was only a baby when she first came, so he knows her all her life as his sister,” says Sharon.

Although the nuclear accident happened 30 years ago, Sharon says the children’s needs are ongoing.

“When they turn 18, they are sent from Vesnova to an adult mental asylum, and we have no access there, and they don’t leave there,” she says.

And as Nastya nears 18, her future becomes more uncertain. Efforts are starting now to keep her in Vesnova into her early 20s.

CCI is also exploring the possibility of placing her in one of their foster care or independent living programmes.

“We just need people to keep supporting us. We just have to keep it up,” Sharon says.

READ MORE - The Chernobyl disaster: 30 years on (Day 1)

READ MORE - The Chernobyl disaster: 30 years on (Day 3)

VISIT’S POLITICAL DIMENSION IN FOCUS

- Eoin English

Pic: Clare Keogh
Pic: Clare Keogh

There was a strong diplomatic and political element to Adi Roche’s historic civic delegation visit to Belarus in February, ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The presence of the Lord Mayor of Cork and the Irish Ambassador to Lithuania and Belarus at two key meetings with mayors of strategic towns should help reduce the bureaucracy as the Chernobyl Children International (CCI) charity embarks on a series of ambitious projects and seeks to expand the reach of its various community outreach programmes.

Ms Roche and the delegates first met the mayor of Glusk, Vladimir Tsasrikov, just a short drive from the Vesnova orphanage.

Mr Tsasrikov thanked CCI and the Irish volunteers for coming with open hearts to help the vulnerable children of his region. He said he looked forward to continuing the cooperation and deepening the links as the charity continues its work.

Later in the week, the delegation met with the mayor of Gomel, Piotr Kirichenko, the second city of Belarus.

The meeting was attended by his senior officials from key departments, including social protection and education, and economic development and international relations.

Gomel was established in the 12th century, was occupied by the Nazis for two years during the Second World War, and was effectively destroyed by 1945, its population collapsing from 150,000 to just 15,000 by the time its citizens were liberated by the Soviet army.

It was rebuilt after the war and economic recovery came slowly.

But the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident had a huge impact on the city.

“It was a catastrophe,” Mr Kirichenko says.

Tens of thousands of people fled from northern Ukraine, close to the nuclear plant, over the border to Belarus, with most converging on Gomel, the nearest large city.

Geography, rather than its ability to respond, made it the epicentre for the state’s attempted medical response to the accident.

The pressures on the system had a far-reaching impact on the city and wider region — pressures which are still being felt today.

Mr Kirichenko said the accident “stopped development” not just in the city, but in the wider Gomel region, roughly the same size as Munster.

Pic: Clare Keogh
Pic: Clare Keogh

“It took us a number of years before we could get on our feet again and start development again. Our population in the last decade has recovered. Today it stands at about 530,000,” he says.

Given its second-city status, Mr Kirichenko points to its similarities with Cork.

Both have major film and dance festivals and he invites an Irish dance troop to visit, before reaching out the hand of friendship and suggesting a twinning link.

He points to the wall of his office which displays crests from Gomel’s sister towns and cities — 24 in total from across the Ukraine, France, Scotland, Bulgaria, and Azerbaijan.

Mr O’Leary pledges to examine the potential for a memorandum of understanding — the first step in the process.

“I would like to see us forge stronger cultural ties, to build on CCI’s work over the years,” he says.

“The relationship is already there through thousands of Irish families who have hosted Belarusian children over the years for recuperation visits.

“That’s the open door — we can build from there. And A formal memorandum would cement those links.”

The ambassador, David Noonan, says the strength of that person-to-person relationship can only help build strong formal relationships at city level.

Ms Roche then uses the opportunity to impress upon the mayor the need for his administration’s continuing support for CCI’s work in the region.

“Tragedy brought us together, but the love of your children and country all sustain us,” she says.

“We have over the years brought 25,000 Belarussian children to Ireland.

“They are the best ambassadors for your country, and they have warmed the hearts of our nation.”

She asks for his support as the charity embarks on plans to built a palliative care unit in Gomel — modelled on a similar unit it has developed in Minsk.

“We would like to replicate it in Gomel. We can provide the funding, equipment and medical support — but we can’t do it without your administration’s support.” He agrees to help in whatever way he can, before handshakes and officials photographs. Only time will tell if he meant it.

READ MORE - The Chernobyl disaster: 30 years on (Day 1)

READ MORE - The Chernobyl disaster: 30 years on (Day 3)

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