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
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
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
The Chernobyl Children’s
Project can be reached at www.chernobyl-ireland.com.