Chernobyl’s Children Call Out for Help

Fifteen years ago, on April 26, 1986, a place we had never

heard of instantly became a global point of reference: Chernobyl. In the months

after the world’s worst nuclear accident, news accounts sketched out not only

what had happened, but what would happen, how generations not yet born would

suffer the consequences of this disaster. At the time, talk of the future

seemed almost beside the point. Most of us were too frightened by the pictures

of the mortally wounded reactor to consider how its invisible poisons had

sentenced the unconceived to death.

The media and the world’s

health agencies tallied up the ghastly human cost of the accident and moved on.

We have since heard vaguely about uninhabitable villages in the Ukraine and

Belarus, of a 21st-century no-man’s land in the outer reaches of Eastern

Europe. For most of us, though, Chernobyl is history; its victims have been

mourned and buried, its survivors have gotten on with their lives as best they

can.

Chernobyl, however,

cannot be spoken of in the past tense. There is no final body count, no final

cost. Graves have yet to be dug for victims yet to be born.

The children of Chernobyl, whose destinies were foretold to

us 15 years ago, are being born today in Russia, the Ukraine and especially in

Belarus, where more than 70 percent of the radiation fell. Young adults who

were children themselves 15 years ago are having families of their own now, and

it is just as the medical experts predicted: infants with appalling tumors and

genetic disorders born to parents with no means to pay for proper treatment-or

a decent burial. The passage of time means nothing to these children, doomed at

conception, radioactive at birth, reared not in homes but in primitive

hospitals. For them, Chernobyl happened not 15 years ago, but yesterday. For

their unborn brothers and sisters and cousins, Chernobyl will happen tomorrow,

next month, next year. One in four infants born in Belarus will contract

thyroid cancer (the normal rate is one in a million); nearly half are born with

neuropsychotic disorders related to radioactivity.

On April 27, the children

of Chernobyl will be introduced to a general public unaware of their existence.

At the invitation of United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan, the Chernobyl

Children’s Project-an Irish-based humanitarian organization-will fill the U.N.

Visitors Lobby with a photo and art exhibit chronicling the lives and suffering

of Chernobyl’s children. The exhibit, called Blackwind, Whiteland: Living With Chernobyl , runs through May 27

and is funded in part through the Irish government, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern

and Minister of State Liz O’Donnell. The Irish have adopted the suffering

children of Chernobyl just as they adopted the starving children of Somalia a

decade ago. Through the Chernobyl Children’s Project, more than 8,000 children

have been brought to Ireland for rest and recuperation. Others have been

brought to Irish hospitals, no questions asked, for life-saving or

life-extending treatment; still others have been adopted by Irish families.

Twice a year, a convoy of trucks and ambulances loaded with supplies and

medicine leaves Ireland by boat for England and then to Europe for the overland

journey to the contaminated areas of Belarus.

At the center of this

Nobel-worthy enterprise is an energetic

Irishwoman named Adi Roche, founder

of the Chernobyl Children’s Project. She has been to Chernobyl and its adjacent

wastelands 30 times, and has witnessed the most heartrending, and most

appalling, scenes. “It is always a child who gets to you,” she said in an

interview just before the U.N. opening. She tells a story of a baby boy born in

Belarus a couple of years ago with a life-threatening tumor the size of an

orange where his left eye ought to have been. He was considered a hopeless

case, but C.C.P. brought him to Ireland, where doctors performed a miracle.

They removed the tumor, and while the little boy is scarred, he is alive. With

the heart-breaking approval of the boy’s birth parents, who still live in

Belarus, Ms. Roche’s sister adopted him, and he now lives in Ireland. Try

keeping your eyes dry when Adi Roche tells the story of her adopted nephew.

Though Ms. Roche once ran

for the presidency of Ireland, she is not a politician, and the exhibit she

helped organize is avowedly nonpolitical. “We want to raise awareness, and yes,

we want to raise money in America,” she said. “I’m a great admirer of the

Marshall Plan, and I think that kind of effort is what’s required to deal with

this calamity.”

Not all of Ms. Roche’s

stories have inspiring endings. Recently, C.C.P. built a hospice in Belarus

that can accommodate up to 50 terminally ill children.

It is, sadly, filled to

capacity.

The Chernobyl Children’s

Project can be reached at http://www.chernobyl-ireland.com.