the friend online
26 January 2007

International Edition: Children of Chernobyl

Peter Gill spoke at Nottingham Meeting’s Friendship Lunch recently about his visit to Belarus. Roger Sanderson reports on his talk.

Does anyone fancy a fortnight in a danger zone breakfasting on cold spaghetti and jelly followed at lunchtime by cabbage soup and radioactive mushrooms? Peter Gill stumbled upon this form of enjoyment as a result of looking for a volunteering holiday. With the support of his local Meeting he became an enthusiastic participant in one of the schemes run in Belarus by the Chernobyl Children's Project (UK).

It is important to be reminded sometimes of long-lasting effects of yesterday's tragedies. On 26 April, 1986 the explosion at a certain nuclear generating plant of which we have all heard caused a fire which raged for 10 days and expelled 190 tons of toxic material into the atmosphere. A hundred times more radiation was released than by the atom bombs used on Japan. Although the plant is situated in north Ukraine 70% of it fell in the neighbouring state of Belarus.

In the short term over 400,000 people were evacuated and 2,000 towns and villages bulldozed, with others becoming ghost towns. In the longer term costs in terms of health, the economy, the environment and social life have also become manifest. The incidence of thyroid cancer in children is 30 times higher than before the accident. Five years after it there were three times the normal rate of deformities in newborn children not to mention an increase in miscarriages, still births and premature births while twenty years later genetic mutations have started to be passed on to the next generation. Heart disease quadrupled, giving rise to the term 'Chernobyl heart' and there is a new disabling mental condition, 'radiophobia'.

The air outside the total exclusion zone is officially safe but ploughing, summer forest fires and wind erosion still spread moderate contamination. Cattle and goats accumulate radioactivity in meat and milk. Water supplies are affected. Plutonium is concentrated in the sediment of rivers and lakes but people still eat fish caught in them. These health hazards are compounded by secondary effects of the disaster: poverty, poor diet, change in lifestyles and a pervasive fear. This one time prosperous 'breadbasket' of the Soviet Union has seen its economy plummet. Ordinary people take a fatalistic view of all this; they just carry on as best they can because they have no option. This involves eating whatever food they can find and afford, hence Peter's unusual diet while he was there.

Peter's observations suggest an element of denial; the reality is too difficult and painful to be fully acknowledged. The authorities restrict the movements of disabled children in particular, preventing them from leaving the country for the recuperative holidays offered by CCP. As the rest of the world has given scant help perhaps a proud independence has also taken over. These are a tough people. Despite obstacles, however, it has eventually become possible to arrange holidays in less contaminated parts of their own country. So now for the brighter side of the story.

The countryside is spectacular; vast birch groves, extensive grassland, marshes and lakes, dotted with primitive wooden houses. Accommodation for the participants was comfortable, in a sanatorium cum 'centre parks' type establishment. The disabled young people themselves were full of joy at getting a holiday. They were not used to being out of doors and local people were clearly not used to seeing them. But the incredulous stares gave way to old-fashioned chivalrous helpfulness. During the days there were outings of various kinds followed each evening by entertainments, some provided by the locals. The more confident of the young people became quite boisterous. Some firm friendships were made between helpers and helped. Peter has pledged to do the same again next year.

The Chernobyl Children's Project (UK) was founded in Manchester in 1995 and currently has 30 local groups. More information about it, including a statement of aims, can be obtained from Kinder House, Fitzalan Street, Glossop, Derbys. SK13 7DL, Tel.: 01457 862112 / 863534, email:


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International Edition: Children of Chernobyl

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Michael Bartlet, BYM parliamentary liaison secretary
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