In the wake of the 33 year anniversary of the horrific Chernobyl disaster, Stylist’s Megan Murray looks into the story of some of the children who live in the nearby country of Belarus, and how their lives have changed by visiting the UK.
Chernobyl. There’s almost nowhere else on earth that brings to mind such an immediate, specific association. Paris might be known to conjure images of the burning Notre Dame and the Seine, London for the royal family and red telephone boxes, New York for yellow taxis, and Friends, and 9/11 – but none of these places are defined by a singular event.
Chernobyl, though, will forever be associated with the disaster that happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine on 26 April 1986. During a routine safety test, a reactor explosion was triggered and caused unprecedented levels of radiation contamination in the surrounding region.
Though estimates vary, the World Health Organisation believes as many as 4,000 deaths could be attributed to the explosion. It is considered by many to be the most disastrous nuclear power plant catastrophe in history.
The towns most famously hit by the radiation were Pripyat and Chornobyl, both of which are now abandoned. However, Belarus also suffered severely due to the way the winds were blowing, dragging the radiation plume northwest. The effects still ravage many towns and cities in Belarus today; the accident having not only increased cases of cancer in humans but the chemical impact on local soil, rivers, and in animals and fish, making the effects of the incident inescapable for those who live there.
Of course, the accident didn’t just take the lives of thousands of people and destroy the habitability of the land and rivers for miles around it: it also ripped away the identity of Chernobyl itself. Usually when you use Google to search something like a celebrity, place or film, the search engine brings up an information box featuring everything you need to know about it. Not so with Chernobyl. In fact, there is no immediate information on Chernobyl the place whatsoever. The default term is ‘Chernobyl disaster’ in both Google’s information box and the Wikipedia page.
As such, it is very hard for us to understand the devastation this disaster caused, not only to the countries and cities overall, but to the average family living there at the time. With this year marking the 33rd anniversary and HBO and Sky Atlantic’s gripping mini-series premiering this week, we’ve sought to find a real life perspective on the accident that changed the lives of so many.
Belinda Tooley hadn’t ever really thought about the Chernobyl disaster, until she saw a poster in her local pub, advertising how families in Nottingham could get involved with a charity that wanted to give children from Belarus the chance to escape the radiation and live in England for a month.
“Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline said that coming here for a month gives them two years of extra life. The radiation caused an increase thyroid cancer and abnormalities at birth, and being in the UK just for that short amount of time showed a drop of radiation levels in their blood and having a month of fresh air and uncontaminated food and water is so beneficial,” she says.
“They grow a lot of their own food in that area and they have beautiful vegetable gardens but everything is contaminated. It will take years and years for it to be completely gone. Particularly in the forest, the mushrooms that they pick, the fish in the rivers – everything. Even now, they say things are getting better, but if you tested it would still be radioactive right now. So the idea that we could give them a break from that for a month and it would improve their life expectancy, I knew I wanted to help.”
Although she hadn’t had an emotional connection to Belarus previously, the charity were looking for people who had kids of their own and enough space to host one or two more children, and with her daughters Jo and Sam, and her son Jack a little older and a hold on her career, she felt like the time was right to get involved.
In 2008, Belinda and her husband Steve accepted two boys, aged eight and nine, into their home for part of the summer. “The best behaved children from the local school of Kalinkavichy were picked, it was supposed to be a reward for the ones who worked hard all year. The area is pretty poor, but they wanted every child to have the chance to leave the disaster zone, so they decided not to choose them based on wealth.
“Kalinkavichy is 40 miles from where the disaster happened, and the wind was blowing that way on the day so they took a big hot splash of it. It was poor before thanks to few employment opportunities, but things became much worse after this. There’s already a bigger population of women to men there, and it’s normal to make their own vodka in the area which resulted in a lot of alcoholism, particularly with the men. But once their homes and land were infected by radiation, no one would buy them so they had to stay. It was the only investment, the only money and the only home they had,” Belinda explains.
Because of the economic state, the first children the Tooleys hosted, and those who followed in the subsequent years, came over in rags and were in desperate need of medical and dental attention.
“You’re not expected to buy things for the children, but of course you do, because they have so little. The only thing the charity asks is that you have some pyjamas and pants ready for them when they arrive, and that you make sure the clothes they come in are returned to them. Their clothes are usually very dirty and falling apart, but because they only have something like four items of clothes each, it’s a huge deal for them.
“While they’re here the charity gives them £50 or so to spend in the charity shops to get themselves lots of new things and a new school uniform. By the time they leave they have a full 30 kilos of clothes to take back home, which they’re incredibly excited about.”
But for Belinda, the physical benefits are only a small part of what helped the children working with the charity. “Some people think it’s unfair that the children come to the UK, enjoy activities and days out and then after a month they have to go back. But I disagree. You have to remember that most of them have never left their city, to see a different way of life and experience what else is out there in the world, it fills them with confidence and aspiration. It makes them dream, hope and want so much more for themselves.”
After the second year of children visiting, Belinda decided to go to Belarus and meet the families and see the area for herself. “The parents were so generous. They have nothing but they gave us everything. Each house we visited they would put on a huge spread – it would be a huge deal for them to have something like chicken, and I had a moment where one family had cooked this big chicken dinner for me and I’m vegetarian! I couldn’t say anything of course, I had to just go with it, because you can see how much it means to them. Then it would be off to the next family and I’d eat it all over again.
“They told me a lot about the society and the government, and they explained it would be normal to get married and have children at 20 for the girls. In fact, they said the government offered money to those that did, to try and get them to have more children younger and build up the population.”
One of the proudest parts of this experience Belinda explains is meeting Veronika, the sister of one of the little boys that came in the first trip. “When I met Veronika in Belarus she was too old to be picked by her school to come over. The cut off age was 13 as they thought it would be most beneficial in the beginning stages of puberty, but having passed that age she didn’t get the chance. After meeting her we really felt strongly that we should work with the charity and pay for her trip ourselves, organising it with them so that she could attend the same activities and stay with us.”
“Veronika absolutely loved it. It really inspired her and she decided she wanted to be a dentist and move away from Belarus. She worked so hard and she got a scholarship to go to Minsk university, which is the best in the country and is now a fully trained dentist. She won’t ever go back to live where she was. She came to visit us in March and paid for her plane tickets herself, booking two weeks off her training programme without pay, all because she’s on a mission to get here full time.
“It’s amazing to see how she’s putting her mind to it and how much she wants for herself.”
The Chernobyl disaster will always be a part of its history, but we can still hope that it won’t be what defines this area forever. By focusing on the real people at the heart of this tragedy, and their experiences, we can now try some 30 years later to start telling positive stories that have emerged from something terrible, and the incredible spirit of those rising from it.