From Belfast to Belarus

I wrote this in September 2003, not long after I got back from Belarus.  I have posted it in a few places over the years but thought it should have a home here.  I’ve never edited it, never re-checked the scientific stuff and never really read it again fully.  I don’t really need to if I’m honest…  Before you start there are two simple things you can do, educate yourself and donate a few pounds to Chernobyl Children International here.  Or, if the Nuns from Novinki make it back to the Christmas Market at City Hall in Belfast you can buy a beautiful matryoshka doll, just buy one for me too…

This can be a tough read if you are of a sensitive disposition but I hope it shows that in a place where there is horror there can be hope, humanity, and a real heart.

Even if that heart needs fixing.

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So, the story goes something like this, you have just delivered over one thousand two hundred people, now dancing, to a venue as part of the Raise And Give mystery tour.

You’re tired, you’ve been working on this for weeks, so far it’s been a fourteen hour day, the management of an otherwise closed venue, of a Tuesday night, has opened the VIP bar to all sabbaticals and R.A.G crew members, numbering around sixty, easily identifiable in brightly coloured tee shirts. You get talking, someone mentions the word ‘convoy’, and the room quietens down. Someone should go from the Union, its only right that the North of Ireland is represented, after all, we raised a fair bit of cash, someone should go. I spend some time thinking over it with a very respectable pint of Guinness. Think I ought to offer my services. The next three weeks are a whirlwind of activity.

‘Convoy’ is the joint project of the Union of Students In Ireland 10K Walk and the Children of Chernobyl project in Ireland. It’s a long story, I won’t bother you with all of it, but it began three years ago with a sponsored 10K walk. So far the event has raised in excess of three-quarters of a million Euros, becoming the biggest annual student-led event in Ireland. We buy medical aid; foods supplies, specialist equipment, and ambulances, then drive the whole lot out to Belarus and deliver everything to abandoned babies homes, orphanages and hospitals.

If you haven’t heard of Chernobyl in a while, believe me, it hasn’t gone away.

On April 26, 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine had its safety systems shut down in order that they could ‘see’ how far they could push the reactor, a safety experiment is what they called it. Reactor number four went into meltdown. On the day of the accident, very few died, however, the after effects are still very evident and it’s getting steadily worse. Seventeen years later and the United Nations estimates that over 8,000 people have died from radiation-related diseases, 2,000+ have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and somewhere between eight and ten thousand are likely to be affected this decade. Tens of thousands are still living in highly contaminated areas, areas that will never in our lifetime be free from radiation.

Radioactive materials have a half-life of 40,000 years, over fifty percent of the material from Chernobyl was dumped on Belarus. To give you an idea, the explosion at reactor number four released more radiation than both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined. The people who were six and seven at the time of the accident and exposed to chronic levels of radioactive fallout are now having their own families.

When someone suggests that you can take part in a humanitarian aid convoy you take the opportunity. Most people had agreed much earlier than I did, but this being the Students Union things were kind of left to the last minute. I make all the final arrangements with USI, and then approach my doctor on the Friday. I need Hepatitis A & B, Polio, and typhoid shots, plus a few boosters for various other communicable diseases, he asks when I’m leaving, I tell him Monday week and that I will be out of the country the following week at a conference and need the shots today.  He’s not happy but I get the shots regardless.

From Belfast on April fifth, we head for Dublin to pack the ambulances, go for some pre-trauma psychology work and head for a pint with my fellow travelers. We talk. The next day we head for Cork, or at least we think we do, until the battery dies on one of the ambulances, plans are redrawn, we will pick up with the rest of convoy at the port of Rosslare. Sadly the weather is against us already and the sailing is canceled, it’s a pint then off to bed to rise at five for the early sailing to Pembroke, Wales. There are thirty vehicles in total. Eight articulated lorries and twenty-two ambulances.

It’s a fairly awesome sight.

A long drive through to Dover, you may have seen us, we were fairly hard to miss. We again miss our ferry but manage to catch the last Euro Tunnel express train to Calais and stop there for the night. Our first European truck stop, the first of many. Our journey continues across France, Belgium, and Holland. It’s amazing how comfortable the worst hellholes of truck stops become after twelve hours in a transit van. By the Tenth of April, we reach Berlin. I have been receiving weather reports from home, they say its about minus ten. We go shopping. We go for a German beer. There is a huge effort to get 60+ relative strangers to bond; the theory is that come our arrival in Belarus you will undoubtedly need a friend or two. On the 11th and 12th we drive through Germany and into Poland.

Warsaw.

Your mission if you choose to accept it, is to drive a thirty-vehicle convoy non-stop through Poland’s Capital City. Trick is you don’t stop for anything but the tram, as its’ the only thing won’t stop for you, and you don’t break the convoy at all costs, you get lost and they reckon they would probably never find you again.  On the thirteenth we head for the Polish/Belarussian Border, it takes eight hours to clear customs. Last chance to shower for a while too. We are advised not to shower in Belarus, as the sanitation is almost nonexistent, baby wipes, it seems, become your new best friend.

Children Of Chernobyl. April 14th.

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Belarus has its official customs posts at its borders, then it is divided up into six sections with each one having its own regional customs and laws. We spend the morning at customs, again. At Baranovichi the convoy splits into five parts so we can cover as many areas as possible. The smaller crews are good to be part of, it becomes a family circle. Our convoy stays at Baranovichi, as the others drive off I play the theme tune from the ‘Great Escape’ over the CB, we will meet up with the others at the handover of ambulances on Saturday. We begin delivering aid, we have two trucks to offload over the duration of the week and as many miles to do as the length of Europe.

With customs cleared we head for Gorodishche Childrens’ home, our first stop. The children go crazy as we arrive, the trees lining the driveway are covered with green and white sheets to mark our arrival. The institute itself leaves a lot to be desired. An old gray, dark building, the kids packed into small and damp rooms. It is here I find the first child to be placed on the ‘my take home list’, it is so hard to let go. The new building is standing empty, they can’t get the local authorities to supply electricity, we send in the TV Crew, embarrassment has a way of moving things on we are told. We deliver medical equipment, supplies, a special bath and we hand over a tractor.

A funny moment, through our interpreter we are told that:

“the tractor is wonderful, but really, six horses would be much more useful…”

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Radiation, the normal figure, the ‘healthy’ figure on the reader is around five or six, Gorodishche is in a low level area, we hit a ‘hot spot’, the reader jumps to the low sixties. Makes you think. Three hours away is our next destination and home for two days, Radoshkovichi, a sanatorium where children are sent for rest and recuperation. A run down but somehow beautiful place with many happy children. Charities from all over Europe have helped make it a better place. For the next couple of days we are treated to sights you didn’t think would exist on this earth. Absolute squalor in some places.

Villages, where evacuees from the immediate Chernobyl district are placed, are everywhere; they are filthy, run down, and overcrowded. Three of us met a Liquidator, one of the thousands of Russians forced to ‘clean up’ after the accident. His wife has left the family home, being totally unable to cope with the pressure of a husband riddled with four different cancers and a daughter with severe Leukaemia. Living in a tiny flat together they attempt to struggle on. You do what you can, you help organise local treatment but you still have to leave.

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Three days into this side of the trip and I am humbled beyond belief. The simplest things are almost overwhelming; a toy handed to a child is like giving life. Staying in a block in Radoshkovichi gives us some respite from the sights of the day and an opportunity to talk it out. At this point it’s getting difficult. We deliver aid to Moledechno, Volozhi, Radoshkovichi, Minsk, Novinki, and Pukhovichi, Babies homes and orphanages, sometimes five or six a day. Working from 7.30am to 9 or 10 at night and on occasion later. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are cooked off the back of our vehicle and you stop for the night around the time your body decides it’s had enough for one day.

Vesnova.

This home was found by accident two years ago; in the southern Belarusian Gomel region it’s one of many which are hidden from public view. When they found Vesnova they found a young boy whose hands and feet were covered with sores and blisters, a nurse on that trip lifted the boy and left with him. He was in a Hospital in Cork by that night, had he not been he would have lost his hands and feet. On our arrival we are told that a building crew from Ireland has been here for two weeks renovating one of the blocks, the roof had caved in and killed seven children. They would return in August to finish. The boy was still there, with clear skin. Vesnova would be automatically shut down and bulldozed if it were in the UK or in Ireland; the conditions were horrific, the smell was much worse. I feel helpless in a place that has rats running around the gym. We are offered beds for the night, but decide to sleep in the ambulances. In the morning we go back indoors to be ‘taken’, guided, around various wards. Something strikes us, why in an institution with reputedly over two hundred children is it so quiet, you begin to wonder where they are. A few of us quietly leave the official ‘tour’ and begin to look around ourselves.

We find locked doors, with children clearly behind them.

We demand that all doors are opened and realise that the conditions are worse than they looked at first. A nineteen-year-old girl, wheel chair bound, her only wish? Books. A twenty four year old man who had been in the same bed for most of his life, children who were bed bound and whose hands and nails were bloody, where they were clawing at walls, the screaming and sobbing is overwhelming. Total helplessness, but a promise to return and do more. We depart Vesnova with heavy hearts.

On most departures the CB would remain quiet until someone made a joke, normally harsh, unrepeatable, to break the silence and lift the spirits. It would normally take all of five minutes before someone spoke. On leaving Vesnova it took over an hour and a half.

We head on to Kalinkavichi, three hours away, our last drop. A day center where people are offered help to keep their children, given support and offered educational classes. Food, clothes and medical supplies are dropped. We meet with the directors and I am inspired by what they do.

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They offer hope.

Later that evening we head to the purple zone, an evacuated area where we are given only one hour to tour. Anything after that and we are no longer the Governments responsibility. Whole villages are buried in the earth; under the belief that it will eradicate the radiation. Telegraph poles are the only thing left standing, wires cut the sight disturbs me more than I can truly understand.

In the middle of what used to be the town center is a WW2 memorial. In a dead town. We spend the night in Kalinkavichi, a quiet night, the following day we are due to do the official hand over of our ambulances to the institutions, the final act of a mercy trip. We talk about the week, the ups and downs, the children we are coming back for, the smells, but mostly the feelings, loss, despair, fear, hopelessness, helplessness. You know that there is work being done, you can see it and you are a part of it.

You just wish it could be done much quicker.

On Saturday we head for the Novinki compound, another Institution, to visit and clean out the ambulances we’ve been living in for two and a bit weeks; we meet up with the rest of the convoy and do the handover. Utter chaos, it’s the first time in the week when you get a chance to relax a bit, meet friends and talk about what you saw. We all make promises to meet again when we get home, resolve to return, to raise more money and do more. You see exactly what happens to the money, the aid, you also see the unrecorded stuff, the things smuggled through customs for ‘personal use’.

The boxes slipped out of the trucks under the not so watchful eyes of local customs and whisked off in a car to where it is urgently needed. You see people who genuinely care and devote so much of their time to the needs of the people and children of Belarus. You see a government in total denial of its situation, hiding its problems, yet it doesn’t deter you from the value of what you do.

You do it for the children.

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Like the first message received by charities all over the world from Belarus, ‘SOS’ ‘For gods sake help get the children out’, you do it for the children.

Our ambulance is handed over to the director of Radiskovichi, where on our last night the children put on a show for us of Belarussian folk songs and drama. We were all brought onto the stage and presented with Russian Urns and local welcome cloths. A wonderful and lasting memory.

I can’t begin to explain what Belarus was really like, I have been asked so many times by so many people, I simply can’t answer, I talk at them, but I can’t answer. It is the most amazing and yet horrific experience of your life, the most difficult yet the most rewarding job you’ve ever done. The big question I get is ‘why did you do it?’ I’m not going to share that with you, I have my reasons, but I asked myself the same question many times as we drove three thousand miles Russia-bound.

You do it for the Children.

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