Monday 19 August 2019

Big-hearted Irish families won't let Chernobyl children be forgotten

Adi Roche, founder of the Chernobyl Children International charity, which responds to the unmet needs of children affected by the devastating disaster 30 years ago, with Igor Shadkov (16) at Dublin Airport this week Picture: Frank McGrath
Adi Roche, founder of the Chernobyl Children International charity, which responds to the unmet needs of children affected by the devastating disaster 30 years ago, with Igor Shadkov (16) at Dublin Airport this week Picture: Frank McGrath

Liz O'Donnell

A recent tragic court case has focused deserved public attention and empathy for the responsibilities borne by carers of children and people with disabilities. The evidence in the case outlining the round-the-clock intensive care of a profoundly disabled child was a revelation to many. That carers are deprived of adequate support and must become lifelong advocates for their children represents a major wake-up call for our own Government for priority action.

While Ireland can be criticised as a first-world country for the inadequacy of such supports, our democratic institutions and courts provide a forum where these rights-based issues can be raised, articulated and vindicated. By contrast, in some countries around the world, the plight of people with disabilities is one of abandonment to degraded institutions with scant or no recognition of the rights of the disabled person.

I am reminded of this by the ongoing work of Adi Roche and the Chernobyl Children International (CCI) charity which, along with thousands of Irish volunteers, has been responding to the unmet needs of children affected by the devastating health and environmental impact of the Chernobyl nuclear accident 30 years ago this year. Since that time in 1986, the charity has moved from immediate humanitarian and medical assistance to a deep and sustained engagement with families and communities in Belarus and Ukraine.

In the immediate aftermath of the meltdown at Chernobyl reactor four, the priority was the evacuation of the population and the clean-up of the site. The latter included the hasty erection of a temporary protective shelter covering the site. This 'sarcophagus' was to last for 30 years. Those years have passed and at the end of November this year, a "new safe confinement sarcophagus" was put in place. Some 20,000 cubic metres of concrete foundation has been used in the new structure, which is claimed to be the biggest movable object ever made.

The project, costing €1.7bn, was funded by many countries, including Ireland, and was overseen by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's nuclear safety department. The object of this massive shelter is to safely entomb over 250 tonnes of toxic nuclear fuel and dust for at least the next 100 years. Only 3pc of the reactor's lethal material was expelled in the initial meltdown, leaving 97pc still within the unstable sarcophagus. Hence the need for the new shelter and the safe disposal of the radioactive material inside, which is phase two of the project.

The accident that occurred on April 26, 1986, still rates as the world's worst nuclear disaster. There have been others, most recently in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, when an earthquake and tsunami destabilised the nuclear facilities there. But 30 years ago, because of the secrecy of the former Soviet system, there were delays and cover-ups about the extent of the disaster and the dangers posed by released radiation into the environment. Belarus, because of wind direction that day, was worst affected, even though Chernobyl itself is in Ukraine. Thousands of people have died from radiation-linked disease in the three decades since. High levels of radiation remain in the affected areas and will for at least another 1,000 years. Ireland was one of the first responders to the disaster, as one of the first countries to sign up for the UN Shelter Fund.

Tragically, radiation contamination in food, water and land has had appalling implications for human health. The evidence is that exposure to radiation in Belarus and Ukraine has caused genetic mutations, with very high numbers of children born with terrible disabilities. There is also a genetic heart condition caused by exposure to radiation called 'Chernobyl heart'. Thousands of babies are born in Ukraine and Belarus with this condition and for a long time were deemed inoperable and left to die.

Chernobyl Children International organises and pays for cardiac missions four or five times per year to operate on such children and also organises training and upskilling of local surgeons to do these operations. Some 3,500 lifesaving operations have been carried out in the last 12 years, paid for by Irish donors. The first ever baby hospice in Belarus was provided by CCI.

The charity also runs community programmes of assistance and support in Belarus for people with disabilities and has a state-of-the-art centre of excellence in Vesnova for profoundly disabled children up to the age of 18. Unfortunately, there is a culture of abandonment and institutional care for children with or without disabilities.

Even mildly handicapped children and youngsters can end up confined in mental asylums. CCI has pioneered and worked with the government in the region to establish an independent living programme for young adults which allows them to avoid adult asylums.

Adi Roche and her team aim by example to inculcate a different culture of deinstitutionalisation by providing 'homes of hope' for groups of abandoned children. Houses are purchased, renovated and equipped to accommodate groups of children of up to 10 or 12 cared for by foster parents, which enables children to go to school and have normal lives. These are funded by generous donors and volunteers here in Ireland.

Irish families have provided rest and recuperation to thousands of children from the affected regions over the years and this week, 39 children arrived for their annual Christmas holidays. Many others come during the summer to visit their host Irish families.

At a time of much need here in Ireland, and with competing demands for the generosity of Irish people, it is extraordinary that due to the voluntary commitment of people like Adi Roche and her volunteers, children impacted by a nuclear accident 30 years ago in a faraway place are not forgotten.

The legacy of Chernobyl is still very much with us, in the form of radiation-linked ill-health in the affected regions and also by the risk of a further explosion at the site if it is not made safe. This year, to mark the 30th anniversary of the accident, Adi Roche was invited to address the UN General Assembly and suggested that April 26 be designated as 'Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day'. On December 9, the UN formally accepted the proposal.

This move is the culmination of three decades of advocacy by Adi Roche and the selfless work of many Irish volunteers who have delivered more than €100m of aid to the impoverished communities across the Chernobyl regions.

Irish Independent

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