Breathing space for the children of Chernobyl

Derbyshire's fresh air and football are giving health and new hope to children from Belarus, write Linda Walker and Malcolm Pithers
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The Independent Online
Thirteen-year-old Tamara Subutko was considering what she would like to take home from English schools to improve her own, pitifully equipped one in the Chernobyl-affected region of Belarus.

"Chalk," she said. "And paper." She smiled at the thought.

For the children of St Mary's School, Glossop, and of Uvarovichi School, Gomel, this was a moment which had been awaited with great anticipation. The Derbyshire children had baked, hopped and swum to raise pounds 1,000. For the children from Belarus this was their first, and probably only, chance to escape from their polluted homeland for a recuperative holiday. Doctors believe that just four weeks of fresh air and clean food can boost their immune systems and give them a better chance of resisting serious disease.

The 38 Chernobyl children who have just arrived in this country are weary yet wonderfully inquisitive, and are amazed at many of the simple things most schoolchildren here take for granted.

These children have practically never had any toys to play with since they were born. Nor have they had the benefit of computers, plentiful fresh fruit or well-stocked shops. In Belarus, they are among 600 pupils who study in a dilapidated building lacking basic necessities. Their sports equipment is one thick rope and a football.

Here, they will spend a month living with families, mixing with local people, attending schools and trying to live as normal a life as possible.

The children are here under the auspices of the Chernobyl Children's Project, which over the past four years has provided recuperative holidays in Ireland for over 1,000 children and delivered pounds 1.5m in medical aid to hospitals and orphanages in Belarus.

None of the visiting children has cancer, but many have thyroid problems or deformities of the spine, and all live on contaminated land. The Chernobyl nuclear plant is in Northern Ukraine, but when it exploded in April 1986, 70 per cent of the radioactive debris fell on nearby Belarus.

Much of the project's work in Ireland (and since January this year in Greater Manchester) is done through schools. Children raise the money, learn about the issues and often persuade their parents to invite Belarussian children into their homes.

The Manchester branch is collecting supplies for a 32-ton truck which will go out to Belarus in October laden mainly with medicines, but also with pens, paper, books, blackboards and sports equipment for schools. Linda Walker, the project co-ordinator, is relying on British schools to help.

"The children from Chernobyl need the help of all of us.We do not believe the West is doing anything like enough for those who were caught in that horrible event," she said.

Schools or suppliers that can help should contact One World Centre, 6 Mount Street, Manchester, or telephone 0161 834 8176.