In the shadow of Chernobyl

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Chernobyl. The name has passed into history. It has become synonymous with nuclear catastrophe. As a nervous world watches and worries about events unfolding at the tsumami-hit Fukushima nuclear power plant, the question asked of experts time and again is ... could this be another Chernobyl?

While the situation at the fifth and sixth reactors at Fukushima has been stabilised, others remain volatile – with radiation levels within a 30km (19 mile) evacuation zone reading 1,000 times above normal, although far from the meltdown created by the explosion of the fourth reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine on April 26, 1986.

But just how much worse can this get before it gets better?

At least 4,000 people died as a result of the Chernobyl explosion and subsequent fire emitting huge amounts of radioactive substances – contaminants covered much of Europe. The World Health Organisation reckons the health of tens of thousands of people was damaged.

That legacy endures. Later this summer, some 60 youngsters from the hinterlands of Belarus will visit the Fylde Coast, as others from the area have since the mid-1990s, to enjoy a month-long recuperative break, in the homes of local host families.

Benefits derived from a month at the British seaside, from access to healthy food, vitamins, and ongoing support to sustain them, cannot be overstated. Pictures tell the story of children whose health and welfare has been blighted by the very air they breathe, the food they eat.

For the Lancashire woman who set up a support group to help them, the commitment to the children of Chernobyl is as strong today as ever. Back in October 1994, Olwyn Keogh MBE, founder and director of the Friends of Chernobyl’s Children charity, responded to a local radio appeal to host a child from Belarus.

Struck by the chaotic organisation of the visit, she formed the registered charity. The following year, 50 children followed in that first child’s footsteps. This year 600 will visit the UK, to be hosted by 31 FOCC groups.

Two groups are based on the Fylde coast. Both raise funds for the charity to bring children, at risk, from Belarus. The charity targets children from disadvantaged backgrounds, aged from six to 12 ,although assistance extends beyond those years, as some host families support visits privately, and even travel to Belarus to help directly.

One branch, which covers Kirkham and Wesham, is run by Anne Rowan, who got involved while running a church youth group back in 1995. “I saw it as something they could get involved in,” Anne adds. She’s since visited the area five times.

“You go out, and within a day or so, you get a headache. There’s a real physical impact there.”

Anne has regularly hosted one child, Viktor, now 21. “He started coming to us at six. He comes over when he can, but is working now.”

The local group offers a varied programme of fun activities as well as recuperative care. “We’ve got around 20 children coming in June, part of a bigger group coming to the Fylde. They are first timers, seven years old, and by the time they go home they will be fitter, stronger, and loaded with clothes, vitamins and other things to help back home.

“They really want to come here. It’s like winning the lottery. It’s a culture shock, a lot don’t even have running water or electricity at home, but their gratitude overwhelms any anxiety they feel. Plus they have fun, they get to the Pleasure Beach, to Camelot, take part in crafts groups, and have a culture day.

“It makes a big difference to the children, and often makes all the difference to families.”

A rise in red tape, linked to immigration issues, has made it harder to bring groups over, and yet another allegedly sweeping election victory for Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko may present further obstacles, as he’s been at loggerheads with the western charity’s intentions.

Olwyn concludes: “The children born since 1986 have not breathed clean air nor eaten clean food until they come here. It is a health and a human rights issue. We now go to outlying villages, places no-one should live.

“I went four times last year, and in summer a green haze hangs over the land and within hours you feel sick, have a headache and know things are still terribly wrong. It will be another 24,000 years before the land is safe and children no longer suffer. We have to pray that doesn’t happen to Japan. But Japan is far better equipped to cope.”

n For more information visit http://focc.org.uk or e-mail olwyn.keogh@btinternet.com.