HOW can you criticise Adi Roche? Last Thursday night she appeared on television in an almost unbearably poignant documentary about the hardship children face in Belarus. Her Chernobyl Children’s Project has harnessed the good will, money and energy of hundreds of equally well-meaning, generous families who host children’s holidays here. So how do you tell Roche and those families that their project is capable of harm, and that there are better ways to help those needy children? Gently, but firmly.
It’s time to state bluntly that the story of the Chernobyl Children’s Project is not a simple one of a fairy godmother saving the lives of sick children. The story of Chernobyl is considerably more complex than the one we perceive every time a plane full of pale, cancer-stricken children lands in Ireland.
Roche described as shocking the decision by the Belarusian government to prevent children travelling to Ireland, or other host countries, for an annual holiday. The ban is indeed an over-reaction, and international pressure may have it over-turned. But the Belarusians have a point.
The ban was provoked by the failure of Tanya Kazyra, 16, who was on her ninth and last visit to a family in California, to board a return flight from San Francisco on August 5. She told Associated Press: “I love my motherland and my grandmother. However, my life there is hard. And I have a family here.”
Who could blame her? Belarus is a poor country, still devastated by the aftermath of the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986. When children from there are brought to a rich western environment for a few weeks, and showered with the best of everything we have to offer – medical treatment, sympathy, nice food, new clothes and toys – well, is it any wonder they don’t want to go back? How can they face back into their old lives once they’ve seen that faraway hills are very green indeed?
The Irish government would be rightly annoyed if a well-intentioned American philanthropist took children out of Temple Street hospital to Florida or California, showed them Disneyland and showered them with treats, and then the kids refused to come home.
Giving them a holiday seems like a charitable act, but Adi Roche has to face a number of realities. The first is that, contrary to popular belief, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has conclusively proven that cancer rates and congenital abnormalities in Belarus are no higher than in other former Soviet Union states.
Whenever I share this information, people react with disbelief. The only story they know is that radiation poisoning has resulted in high rates of terrible cancers among Belarussians. But that myth was categorically debunked by the Chernobyl Forum Report issued by the WHO in 2005. The report was compiled by a team of more than 100 scientists who attempted to quantify how many people died or became ill as a result of the Chernobyl fire.
They concluded that three groups of people were affected. There were the heroic emergency workers who fought the blaze, 56 of whom died from acute radiation sickness. There were thousands of children who, due to the complete mismanagement of the crisis by the Belarusian government, were allowed to continue drinking contaminated milk from the region. Some 4,000 children contracted thyroid cancer as a result. Most of those were treated successfully, but eight did not survive.
The third group affected is the general population, which has suffered devastating long-term damage to their mental but not physical health. The legacy of Chernobyl is not one of congenital deformities and childhood leukaemias, but of a nation cursed by the label of victimhood.
Belarusian people suffer acute anxiety and any illness, miscarriage or setback is attributed to radiation instead of the general misery of life. They have been struck by what the WHO forum report called “paralysing fatalism”.
So what they need is help to get on with their lives, not encouragement to believe that which is simply not true – that radiation continues to result in excessive cancers and illness. If Roche does not acknowledge this, she is being deeply unfair on them and on us.
That said, Belarus is a poor country and many of its children are in need. But I believe Roche’s efforts are misguided. If Concern started bringing plane loads of African children here for a month every summer, people would quite rightly question the wisdom of such a strategy. Yes, those children would get a boost from good food and medical treatment. But then what? It is illogical, unsustainable and a poor use of resources to bring a child on holiday for a few weeks. It is clearly much more sensible and in the long term interests of the child to improve their quality of life at home for every week of the year.
There are other charities in Ireland who are quietly and effectively doing that. But you may not know about them because they don’t pose with deformed children in front of TV cameras – a practice which most major international charities abhor.
Tom McEneaney, the former Irish business editor of this newspaper, has been visiting Belarus for over ten years with the International Orphanage Development Project which has worked with all 60 orphanages in Belarus. The only reason I know about the project is because he’s a friend of mine. Publicity is not high on his agenda.
McEneaney observes that every time a new member of the group comes to Belarus, they are shocked to discover that the children are quite healthy. That’s because Irish people have been conditioned to expect missing limbs and terrible deformities. They are surprised to find that Belarusian children look very like ours. McEneaney praises Belarusian childcare workers who do their best with poor resources. He believes the children’s needs are, simply, “capital”. They need washing machines or cookers, proper showers and playgrounds. The IODP buys farm machinery and improves storage houses so that orphanages can grow their own food. They buy new beds and blankets locally, in order to give the economy a boost. It’s not emotive, but it’s effective and sustainable and is now extending its operations to India.
Roche could perhaps learn something from this practice. I believe she has good intentions but a bad policy. She should abandon the holiday programme and help these children only in their own country, and she should tell them the full truth about Chernobyl.