Belarus: The angel of Chernobyl

This Christmas, a group of pale, sickly children will arrive in Britain for the Christmas of their lives. They are victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. And for them, Santa Claus is a nice man from Haslemere who took early retirement and found himself a cause. Words by Darius Sanai. Photographs by Jeremy Nicholl
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Victor Mizzi is leaning on the railing of the Kharkhov to Kaliningrad express, muttering conspiratorially. "We need to get more children over, we have to make it more efficient," he says to his companion Mike Hewlitt. Mr Hewlitt tries to cheer him up. "We're doing pretty well in the towns," he says. The train is full of Russian families, wrapped in blankets, munching bread and sipping orange juice. The two men in their suits and ties look bizzarely out of place, as if they had just been teleported from the 08.05 from Petersfield to Waterloo.

"Yes, yes," says Mr Mizzi, "but there are so many we're not getting to. We should be doing better." He sounds like a management consultant plotting for his Christmas bonus. But Victor Mizzi has long forsaken the world of flow charts and profit streamlining. He is the founder of Chernobyl Children Life Line, a charity he runs from his 15th-century mansion in Haslemere, Surrey. Mizzi took early retirement 15 years ago at the age of 48 and settled down to what should have been a comfortable three or four decades. Instead he works 16-hour days, six days a week, for his charity and spends nine gruelling weeks every year touring one of the most remote and deprived parts of the former Soviet Union, sleeping in hotels with no heating or running water, exacerbating his back and stomach problems.

So far Mizzi's charity, which he coordinates singlehandedly, has brought almost 10,000 Belarussian children, suffering from the after-effects of the explosion at Chernobyl, to visit Britain to recuperate and get medical treatment. The numbers are increasing every year. He has been given the highest accolade in Belarus, the Order of Francisk Scarina, by the country's president, Alexander Lukashenko, and when customs officers in the arrivals hall at Minsk airport started questioning me, the mention of Mr Mizzi's name produced this response: "With Victor Mizzi? Ah, sorry sir, please, welcome to our country!"

Born in Malta, Mizzi came to Britain as a teenager and worked his way up through the ranks of what was then BOAC, the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation, before setting up his own tour business, sending British holidaymakers back to his native Malta. "I had made a comfortable sum when I sold my business," he says. "I didn't really know what I would do next." Neighbours noticed the retired Mizzi's good heart when he started taking in stray animals - cats, dogs, even a sheep, grazing in the field behind his back garden. Married, with three children of his own, one would imagine he had his hands full. Then, seven years after retiring, he read an account in his local newspaper about the problems two Belarussian children were having finding a family to stay with in Britain while they recuperated from treatment for their cancer caused by radiation. He took in one of the children, and, suddenly, he had found a cause. Immediately afterwards he set up his charity to help more children like them.

Mizzi remains unsentimental when he talks about it. "All of us have skills in life and we have a duty to use them. Mine are business skills, and I can use them to very good effect running an organisation like this and helping people." Like any other charity, his Life Line is reliant on donations, but his main role is as a facilitator, not a fundraiser. Children travel to Britain free on Belavia, the Belarussian national airline, and when here they are taken in and paid for by volunteer families around the country. It is a brilliant idea, but Mizzi seems reluctant to sit back and take credit for it. Instead, he just wants to find more and more children to bring over for their two-month breaks - those in the remotest areas, those whose parents haven't heard about his charity, those in orphanages and hospitals. When I met him in Britain, two months before we were due to travel to Belarus, he was working 16-hour days out of his wood-panelled living room, obsessively planning ways to expand his charity's reach a thousand miles away on the steppes. "More children" is his mantra.

It is a drizzly Saturday morning in Gomel, the grimy second city of Belarus, and Victor and Mike are sitting in a hall in a medical clinic where 150 Belarussians, parents and their children, are gathered to meet the visiting Englishmen.

Two or three images stand out. A distinguished man of around 40 stands up to speak. Wearing a suit with a waistcoat, his deep blue eyes, powerful speech and fulsome black moustache make him look like a hero from a Turgenev novel. He is clutching the hand of a boy who looks younger than his 12 years, for like many Belarussian children his growth has been stunted. "Mr Victor Mizzi," the father says, pronouncing the "Mister" deliberately, in English, "Mr Mizzi, thank you. My son is so much transformed since he came back." Mizzi, sitting at a table, head down, smiles shyly. The man and his wife and son are smiling but on the verge of tears. The son has cancer and his visit to Britain had helped bring it into remission.

A slight, brown-haired teenager, weak with leukaemia, who travelled to Britain with Victor's charity last year, stands and reads him a poem, her voice close to breaking. The hall is silent as she speaks. She hands a flower to Victor Mizzi after she finishes. Many of the smaller children are clutching flowers to hand to Mr Mizzi. "I had the best month of my life in Plymouth," volunteers Ivan, a skinny 12-year-old, from the middle of the crowd.

Valentina Pokhomova, Mr Mizzi's organiser in the city is sitting in her office with her twin daughters, Olga and Alyssia. "Parents say that their children grow by a couple of centimetres in the month they are there. I think they would happily die themselves so their children could be happy visiting Britain."

When Nuclear Reactor Number Four in Chernobyl exploded on 26 April 1986, it was Ukraine, then a province of the Soviet Union, which had to deal with the initial clean-up. But a south-east wind was blowing that day, and most of the radioactive smoke and fallout travelled north-westwards and fell over the border in Belarus, coating Gomel and the surrounding region in contamination, much of which was invisible. Ever since, the people of Belarus have suffered.

Around 10 per cent of the children in the Gomel area have leukaemia, lymphoma, brain tumours or thyroid cancer; most of the others suffer from various effects of radiation, from brittle and slow-growing bones to gum disease and weakened immune systems. Many, in outlying villages, who have lived their whole lives on contaminated food and water, have yet to be diagnosed. One doctor in Gomel told me, "This is the biggest experiment in history into the effects of radiation on human beings. Nobody knows the extent of what might happen, because nobody has ever seen anything like this before."

It was snowing outside when we visited Hospital Number Three in Gomel. In the main children's ward, there was an autumn party, the 65 children, some able to sit in chairs, others connected to drips and lying on trolleys, donning home-made cut-out hats portraying different fruits and vegetables. They sang "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" in Russian, and then a plump girl called Nina stood up, with difficulty, to read a poem. Nina was thin before she entered hospital; the chemotherapy for her leukaemia had made her gain weight. Many of the other children had no hair, or lacked the strength to stand.

Everyone applauded when Nina finished and sat down, and suddenly Victor sped across the room like a shot to a trolley where three skinny little boys were sitting. "Lev, I was looking for you," he said, as a delighted-looking mop-top flung his arms around him from his trolley. "Lev stayed with a family in Hampshire last year," Victor said, before the brief flash of emotion was over and he turned to the doctors and nurses with his standard question: "Now, how many of these children haven't travelled with us yet? And who should come?"

Afterwards Dr Anatoly Kuznetsov, the consultant paediatrician, took Mr Mizzi's arm and, with an interpreter pacing alongside them, they chatted. "We have been able to redecorate this whole corridor," says the doctor. "Thank you, Victor, for organising it." As usual, Mizzi bats away the compliment. One of his charity's sidelines is arranging for British volunteers to provide wallpaper, furniture, toys, and elbow grease to redecorate some of the more run-down facilities in Belarus. The rest of the hospital is damp, dark and threadbare.

Over tea in his office, Dr Kuznetsov expands on the difficulties facing paediatricians like himself. "There are an awful lot of children's health problems in Belarus which we think are associated with Chernobyl," he says, "but it's impossible to prove that they are." There has been a sharp rise in admissions for cancer over the past few years - exact figures aren't available - and, in the most contaminated areas, the number of babies born deformed is increasing all the time. "All pregnant women have to be examined at least twice for deformities in the foetus, and we do recommend abortions if these occur," he says. Another doctor in Gomel, a woman, told me she wasn't going to have babies as long as she stayed there. The birth rate in Belarus has fallen so much that the population is now shrinking.

Sitting in his little study with a view of the ubiquitous forest, Dr Kuznetsov becomes emphatic when asked whether the children's brief visits to Britain have had any beneficial effects. "The change of diet, air and the whole situation is good for them, and the positive feelings, the psychological effect of witnessing life in another, healthy society, are also invaluable," he says. "These children have been eating contaminated food all their lives and their immune systems are very rundown. They look completely different when they come back from England. Recently people have been selling food here from land which is seriously contaminated, and that has a very bad effect on many parts of the children's health. Almost all the food here contains radioactive caesium and strontium."

When doctors at the hospital tried recently, with a Geiger counter, to measure the radiation levels in the growth zones of the bones of children who were nominally healthy, the readings "went off the dial".

The saddest place on Mizzi's tour was next to the hospital, at the Number Three Orphanage. In a country where families are as close as in Belarus, the orphanage seemed a strange, unnatural place. We were greeted at the gate by a grinning blond boy of 12 (again, he looks two or three years younger) who ran up to Mizzi and hugged him, refusing to let go of his jacket, before eventually being persuaded to make do with an arm and bombarding the rest of us with questions in a near-perfect saarf London drawl. "Wotchoo do, then? Are you English or Russian? Can I come to England again? You gotta come and see my room!"

Sergei, Victor explained in between being shot by the little boy's cap gun, came to stay with a family in Banstead, Surrey last year. He became orphaned after watching his stepfather shoot his mother dead then kill himself. Stunningly intelligent (he learnt English in two months, and on a similar charity visit to Italy picked up Italian), he seemed remarkably unaffected in the few minutes he was talking to us. But he too has immune system problems because of the radiation.

Mizzi and Hewlitt were at the clean, basic orphanage to meet six children coming to stay with British families in December. A few dozen of the children at the orphanage, such as Sergei, have visited Britain through Mizzi's scheme. The six due to come before Christmas this year were sitting dutifully in the principal's office, five boys and a girl, all tiny 10-year-olds. They were wearing their best clothes. One boy had on a baggy, pinstripe three-piece suit several sizes too large that made him look like a character out of Bugsy Malone, another was wearing a shoulder-padded blazer, his blond hair slicked back like an apprentice Moscow mafioso, his eyes nervously scanning the two besuited Englishmen. He seemed to be wondering if he could pass whatever test they planned to allow him to visit this mythical land of games and shops and castles and ice-creams his friends had all talked about.

But Mizzi and Hewlitt didn't have a test for the children. They just wanted to meet them, to ask them if they were allergic to anything or liked pets, to try to match them as best they could with the host families. Mike Hewlitt took mugshots of each one to pass on to the Lancashire villagers who will be hosting them over Christmas.

Outside the principal's office as we left was a tiny girl, smaller than all the others, a little doll, her auburn hair tucked back into a massive white ribbon bigger than her head. She was holding a half-dismembered Barbie and looked at us with a curious, disarming mix of hope and resignation as we walked away down the corridor. "She wants to come to Britain," sighed the principal, nodding his head as if to say, how can anyone have the heart to do this job?

The last vision we had of the orphanage was Sergei, waving us goodbye, his words ("Can I come back again soon Victor? Please?") ringing in our ears. Mizzi had explained to him, patiently, that his charity was only bringing those who hadn't travelled before, but that if he wrote to the family who had hosted him, maybe they would invite him back and pay for the air fare themselves.

"I've got to keep everything at arm's length and not weaken," said Victor, looking blankly at the trees by the side of the road as we drove off. "I do my weakening privately. Because if I let it get to me it would really get to me. I've had children die on me while in the UK and had to ring the parents in Belarus and arrange for the funeral myself because they couldn't afford it." For just half a second, he looks like he might break down, then he is back to his composed self. It turns out that Victor Mizzi isn't some calculating businessman on a private mission inspired by unknown internal forces. His tough, efficient facade is precisely that; his business a way of repressing the emotions he feels and the guilt we all feel somewhere inside about living such easy lives while others suffer.

The countryside around the road leading from Gomel to the "deadzone", the abandoned wilderness around the Chernobyl plant which is closed to the populace, looks like it has changed little from the time of the Tsars. Little wooden dachas with decorated shutters peek out of clearings in the thick silver birch forest; little streams rush by the road and vanish into endless yellow-brown marshes. An ancient woman with a raisin face carries a stack of kindling half as tall as herself on her head as she splashes through the slush puddles at the roadside.

The high school at Khoinike has half the number of pupils it did ten years ago. Khoinike is the town nearest to the deadzone. The border is arbitrary, and most of the fields around Khoinike, just 40 miles from Chernobyl, are dangerously irradiated, though they still grow crops here.

In the high school, the English lesson is stopped so Victor can drop in and speak to the children. Everybody knows who he is. He recognises some of them, greeting the shy, blushing and smiling little faces by name - on their arrival at Heathrow, Victor personally meets all of the 2,500 children who come to Britain each year on his scheme. He asks the teacher, and then the children themselves, how many of them have not yet visited Britain. A forest of eager hands goes up, and Victor jots down names. "Those who have never been before and have the worst circumstances have priority," he says, partly to himself. Somehow, the children here, however keen, don't seem desperate or grabbing. "The Belarussian people have an amazing amount of pride," says Victor. Mike Hewlitt says they "could teach children in Britain a thing or two about how to behave". The teacher says that some of the older children feel left out. "They're not jealous, exactly," she says, "they are just wondering whether they will have a chance to go, too." Victor tells her the choice is not his but that of the host parents in Britain, who often prefer the idea of 10-year-olds, who can be entertained with Nintendo and McDonald's, to 15-year-olds, who want to go to pubs and discos.

The children, Mizzi says, "are models of perfect behaviour" when they come to Britain. Of those who have visited this country so far this year, not one has been the cause of a complaint by a host family. Hewlitt, who coordinates host families in the Manchester area ("I come from Manchester United!" he tells the kids he meets, and receives instant recognition), says hosting the children has brought the people of his reserved, introspective village out of themselves. "It's done us as much good as them."

Organising anything in the former Soviet Union as Victor Mizzi does is a nightmare; setting up an efficient, multi-linked charity spread across the poorest areas and actually making it make a difference would challenge the MD of a multinational corporation. Through his unlikely blend of bludgeoning, sweet-talking, cajoling, pondering and sheer brutal efficiency, and driven on by some undefined sadness, he somehow manages it.

I wondered, before joining Victor and Mike on their reconnoitre, if there was any danger of the children seeing life in Britain, being spoiled by their host families, and coming back disconsolate, angry at their life back home in one of Europe's poorest countries. The average wage in Gomel is around pounds 15 a month, and even hospital doctors earn no more than pounds 20. But there seemed to be no evidence of that at all, just a lot of children thrilled to have been given the chance to see life in the land of the Spice Girls and Arsenal, and a lot of parents glowing with happiness that their children had seen a glimpse of what life could be like. "Saying it might ruin them if they go and then come back," a Gomel doctor told me, "is like telling factory workers in Britain they shouldn't go on holidays in the Mediterranean because it might ruin them."

On the 20th of this month, amid the Ray-Banned and ski-anoraked holiday crowds at Heathrow, a small group of children will walk, blinking and excited, through the green channel and into the arrivals hall at Terminal Two. The orphans from Gomel, and the schoolkids from Khoinike, will have the Christmas of their lives and when they go home a few weeks later their teachers and parents and doctors will comment on how much healthier they look, and happier, and how much they have grown. For that, they will thank the reluctant angel of Chernobyl.

Chernobyl Children Life Line, Courts, 61 Petworth Road, Haslemere, Surrey GU27 3AX (01428 642523)