CHILDREN ROCKING BACK and forth for hours on end, hitting their heads against walls, grinding their teeth, scraping their faces and putting their hands down their throats.
Some of the children’s teeth were in very bad condition and they were offered very little love, affection – or indeed care – by many of the nurses minding them.
This is what I witnessed when I volunteered at Vesnova Children’s Mental Asylum in Belarus last month.
I was expecting children with physical and learning disabilities. I was expecting to see the physical effects that the Chernobyl disaster has caused.
I wasn’t expecting to see children treated as if they weren’t human or didn’t count.
I wasn’t expecting to hear about the adult institutions where people are beaten and abused.
(Child in Vesnova asylum with nurse at the side, Brendan Galvin)
The Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986 when an explosion and fire at a nuclear plant released large amounts of radioactive particles.
A new UN Report now states that Chernobyl released over 400 times (and not 100 times as originally quoted) the amount of radiation that was released in the Hiroshima bombing.
Children born in Belarus since 1986 are affected by a 200 per cent increase in birth defects and a 250 per cent increase in congenital birth deformities.
Walking around the asylum, it was pointed out to me that the trees have also been contaminated. What I thought were nests, were actually radioactive growths.
Founder of the Chernobyl children international charity, Adi Roche said,
Radiation knows no territorial boundaries, it doesn’t apply for an entry or an exit visa, it travels wherever the winds take it. At 1.23 am on 26 April 1986 a silent war was declared against the innocent peoples of Belarus, Western Russia and Northern Ukraine. A war in which they could not see the enemy, a war in which they could send no standing army, a war in which there was no weapon, no antidote, no safe haven, no emergency exit. Why? Because the enemy was invisible, the enemy was radiation.
Reality of life
There were about 160 children aged between four and 20 years old at the orphanage that I was in.
The children have beds, they are fed and are changed but that’s where their care ends.
I saw a child being fed a full bowl of what I can only describe as slop in 46 seconds.
It took myself and those who travelled with me at least 10 minutes to feed a child. In one case, I saw the child lie down and the food was literally poured into his mouth.
That was the case for the children who couldn’t feed themselves due to physical disability.
The children who could were brought into a large cafeteria – where the sight of them gulping down food as quickly as they could was actually horrifying.
Adi Roche was with us on the trip and she lined up our group so we could witness the speed at which these children ate.
It was clear by looking at them that food wasn’t something they enjoyed, it was just another part of their day were they had to fight to survive.
At one stage, I saw an older girl move towards an extra piece of fish that was on a plate a few tables away. She got up from her seat and made a run for it with a spoon in her hand. A nurse ran after her and the girl began shaking badly, she dropped the plate in the panic and the food fell to the floor.
She then got on her hands and knees and began eating from the ground.
The orphanage itself is in good condition and is kept extremely clean. There’s even a sensory room where lighting and music and exercise toys can be used to relax the children.
This was one of the most rewarding parts of the trip; I would walk into a unit (there were eight units in the asylum) and pick a child, feeling awful that I couldn’t attend to every one and I’d bring that child into the sensory room and spend as long as I could giving them my full attention.
One little boy, Zgorik, who spent his days with his fingers in his ears and rocking his body at speed relaxed so much he started singing.
To see a child enjoy himself like this, even for just a few minutes, means so much when you consider that he never gets hugged or held or any affection until the next group of volunteers come in.
The resources have improved hugely. Chernobyl Children International, founded by Adi Roche, has transformed what was a dark, dirty and damp building – where children were dying – into a clean, colourful orphanage.
The children have beds made by Irish carpenters; wheelchairs have been provided so that the children who have no movement can sit up; there’s the sensory room, and even a hall with a stage for the children to practise plays and perform.
The real issue seems to be the attitude towards these children.
It seems that the sensory room sits empty until the next group of volunteers come and use them.
Belarusian State TV interviewed me about why I was volunteering when I was out there. One of the questions was,
Why did you leave your beautiful life and clothes to come out here and be with these children, you know they’re not well?
That really sums it up. The attitude seems to ‘be don’t look at these children with all their problems when we have perfectly beautiful children just over here’.
I witnessed most of the nurses do their job and nothing more.
No compassion was shown for the children.
(Photo: Vesnova asylum, Brendan Galvin)
When we went to visit homes around the area, it became clear that poverty is a huge problem. So the view that many have towards the living conditions in the orphanage is “Why do they get to live in such good conditions when we must suffer?”
The asylum isn’t seen so much as a place to care for people, it’s considered by many as more of a holding place.
(Vesnova asylum, Brendan Galvin)
When these children turn 18 they will be forced into the adult asylums. These asylums also keep convicts and there is widespread abuse within them. We were told horrific stories of people with difficulties being tied to radiators, of abuse and rape within the asylums, and of beatings.
Three children who were in the Children’s Mental Asylum the week I was there were being sent to an adult asylum the following week.
Chernobyl Children International have built homes so that the teenagers who can live independently can escape the adult institutions.
The Independent Living Project has really given hope for a future.
However in June 2013, the boys unit was burned down by a freak bolt of lightening. Thankfully everybody escaped unharmed and CCI is currently rebuilding a new unit.
We visited both the girls and boys units on my trip. The girls house was full of fun. They wanted to play the music we had brought them and dance with us and enjoy themselves.
Adi explained that some of the girls had been abused and how one girl in particular was going through the menopause as her womb had been removed after a forced abortion after she was raped.
She was only in her twenties.
This girl hugged me when I walked into the house and I think she hugged me every time I saw her for the rest of my trip. She was around the same age as me, we both lived in Europe but our lives couldn’t have been any more different.
We also visited the boys home. The men ranged in age from 18 to 33.
This was a quieter visit. While the girls had excitedly opened the gift bags we had brought them full of make-up and jewellery and perfume, the boys were more reserved.
They showed us their rooms where they kept their belongings very neatly.
A few items: a comb, a watch and deodorant placed carefully on a windowsill. A framed photo of themselves with a volunteer from the past.
All so neat, the comparison with teenage boys’ bedrooms in Ireland struck me.
The men all lined up before we left and we hugged on our way out the door. Once I got back on the bus I thought to myself how reserved they had been but when I turned back around to the house, there was somebody at every window waving us goodbye.
It was like they couldn’t keep up the cool act anymore and it was very sweet.
Homes of Hope
We also got the chance to visit a “Home of Hope”. This is where children escape institutional care and are put in a foster home.
The children in the family we visited obviously adored their foster mother and were happily playing music.
One of the little girls had been sexually abused by their father and passed around their village until the age of four. She’s been fostered with her little brother.
The children were very excited by the toys we had brought them and one of the little boys was in awe of the touch screen on my phone. He became quite the pro at taking selfies:
I left thinking that what I had witnessed was a drop in the ocean. There are 300 orphanages in Belarus and this is the best one.
I thought about the mundane lives of these children and how the only bit of hope they have is the groups of volunteers that travel over, and the lucky ones who get to come to Ireland during the summer or over Christmas.
I thought about what I had witnessed and the hopelessness of the whole situation but then I stopped myself. I now think about what faced Adi Roche when she first went into Vesnova and witnessed the children in straitjackets with shaved heads, dying at an alarming rate.
The death count was so high that we had to stop counting or we would have lost the will to go on.
I now think about the huge difference that Irish people have made to these children’s lives.
Every volunteer who takes time out and raises money for the charity, every Irish family that brings over a child, every builder who goes over to work tirelessly to improve their living conditions. Everybody who donates and works on behave of these children.
I first thought that, regardless of the awful physical and mental challenges these children face, the saddest thing was that they didn’t have anyone who loved them.
I now think the saddest thing is that those of us who love them are over 2,000 kilometres away.
The Chernobyl disaster happened before I was born. I vaguely knew about it from what I had learned in school growing up but it’s taken a trip there to make me understand the true implications of the disaster and the destruction it has left behind.
Adi Roche said:
Over the years, as other disasters vie for the world’s attention, Chernobyl has been relegated to the realm of history. But the impact of Chernobyl is still very real and very present to the children who must live in an environment poisoned with radioactivity.
(Photo of the group I volunteered with along with Adi Roche and some of the older boys at Vesnova)