It is impossible to forget the children of Chernobyl: A campaign on radiation sickness changed the lives of Clif Sanderson and his wife, Galina, reports Susan de Muth

Susan de Muth
Tuesday 30 March 1993 23:02

'EVERYBODY seemed to be waiting for a miracle - for someone, somewhere to help them. But it didn't happen. I decided then that we had to help ourselves.'

Three years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident on 26 April 1986, Galina Sanderson, a programme maker for state television in Belarus, was filming children with leukaemia in hospital at Minsk, about 200 miles from the power station. 'One little girl died just three days afterwards; between 10 and 12 die every week. It was really hard for me as a mother. My own six-year-old, Dimitri, was sick - he had never been well since the accident, though he was perfectly healthy before.

'Although our doctors were doing their best, they didn't know what was going on, far less how to cope. Mothers in the hospital were desperate.'

A neat, dark-clad figure among the Wedgwood-blue ruffles and antique furnishings of a friend's home in Kensington, south-west London, Galina, 35, is surrounded by papers for a talk she is giving about the children of Chernobyl that afternoon. She is accompanied by the man who has revolutionised her life, a faith healer from New Zealand and now her second husband.

Clif Sanderson clumps up the stairs, bringing us herbal tea, nuts and raisins. He looks a little like a New Age Moses but his manner is down to earth. He has achieved remarkable results with the Chernobyl children where orthodox medicine failed and people were left in ignorance of the dangers.

Galina recalls: 'Four days after the accident we were advised to wash our hands more carefully - that was all. My boy and all the others carried on playing outside and eating the contaminated foods. Dimitri started to be ill after only a few weeks - first colds and flu, then kidney infections, pneumonia - it was never-ending. His complexion became yellowish and he developed big shadows under his eyes.

'This went on for years and it was the same with my friends' children. The doctors couldn't explain it and the authorities denied there was any health risk from radiation. We were all frightened and I was furious.

'I soon found myself in conflict with the authorities. The government wanted people to believe that nothing was wrong. I wanted to show the truth, so I made my film about the Chernobyl legacy in Belarus as an independent film maker.

'Only a 30km (18-mile) zone around the reactor had been evacuated. For the rest, we were not told of the extent of contamination until four years later. When I was making my film I had a Geiger counter with me all the time - I filmed children and pregnant women, all living in a highly contaminated environment, yet receiving no advice whatsoever.

'Because children are more vulnerable, they are the guinea pigs. They are even set apart socially - in holiday camps kids from the contaminated zones are shunned and called 'the radiated ones'. The academic debate about the long-term effects of radiation rages on, but it is hideously irrelevant when you are in a hospital holding one bald child after another in your arms as they die.

'It's not only a matter of shortages, but method. Doctors admit they do not know how to help most cases. Dimitri, like many children, had obviously suffered damage to his immune system, a well-known effect of exposure to radiation. I wanted to find out about alternative therapies, for Dimitri's sake and for all the people.

'Here they could help themselves, without expensive drugs or medical expertise. The problem was that nobody in the republics seemed to know about such things.'

In 1990 Galina visited the United States. 'I found a book in New York called Diet for the Atomic Age by Sarah Chanan, which specifies what foods you should eat and avoid if exposed to radiation, based on evidence that a macrobiotic diet helped people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

'I translated and published this book myself in Minsk as soon as I returned. I also brought back some blue-green algae tablets and arranged for proper scientific tests which proved that they help the body rid itself of radiation. This very small progress resulted in me being labelled a CIA agent. But I was determined to continue this search.'

It was while in America that Galina heard about Clif Sanderson. He was already in Moscow, working closely with doctors and specialists in the oncology department of a big hospital.

His insistence on proper clinical tests at every stage was producing impressive results the establishment could not ignore - results so remarkable that Clif became the first alternative practitioner to win the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Award for Complementary Medicine in 1992.

'I had a real intuition when they told me about Clif,' Galina recalls. 'Here, at last, fate had brought somebody to us who might be able to help Dimitri and other children when everything else had failed.'

She pauses, twisting the wedding ring on her thin finger. 'That he was my future husband was something I could never have dreamt of - especially as housing shortages in Minsk were so acute that I was still living in the same flat as the man I had divorced three years previously.'

'When Galina wrote and invited me to the Minsk Haematological Centre, I decided to go at once,' he says amiably, sitting on the floor.

'We certainly did not meet under the most romantic circumstances,' Galina says. 'The place was overcrowded and ill-equipped. Teams of foreign medics would come there trying out their own brands of chemotherapy, but it seemed to do little good. The atmosphere was one of total despair.

'The doctors didn't really know what to make of Clif - you have to realise that in the old Soviet Union anything 'spiritual' was considered totally insane - but they let him get on with it.'

Clif calls his healing the 'psycho- rhythmic method'. It is in essence the laying-on of hands, which can result in a physical improvement and may bring other forms of comfort.

'In Minsk, Clif worked a lot with terminally ill children who were in agony,' Galina says. 'There was one little boy who was so bad that even the morphine cocktail they gave him wasn't helping. Clif's big hands on the boy's frail shoulders somehow moved the child away from his pain.

'They were looking into each other's eyes. He died the next day, but Clif taught me then not to be angry any more. He said that this little boy, and many like him, knew there was a spiritual dimension - it was all right with him, even to die.'

Clif had also been treating Dimitri with visible success. After two weeks his constant cough disappeared, along with the various infections that had plagued him since the Chernobyl accident. 'He had pink cheeks, he lost the rings under his eyes. He was well again for the first time in four years,' says Galina. 'At last I dared hope.

'There were changes at the haematological centre, too - the children were more joyful and active. The doctors were suddenly interested in Clif's methods - some even asked him to heal their own aches and pains.

'As we talked we realised how attuned we were to one another. I found Clif fascinating - he had been travelling all over the world for 20 years, healing and learning from traditional practitioners. I had only been abroad once - to the US when I was 33. I knew about the spiritual life from my own experience and reading Dostoevsky and Chekhov, but I had never talked about it. I was ready for a spiritual teacher and Clif came along.'

Clif, 53, who had been solo with no home, no car and no telephone for 20 years, succumbed to what he gruffly describes as 'the usual magic', and proposed. They had known each other three months when they eloped to the United States, fearing problems with authorisation in Belarus.

Galina was married in New York on 31 January 1991 with neither family nor friends at her wedding. 'It was a sudden thing,' Clif acknowledges. 'But we were both sure it was right, and it seems to be working out fine.'

All thoughts of personal stability were left behind as Galina and Dimitri joined Clif in the nomadic lifestyle to which he was accustomed. 'It was hard to leave my people,' Galina admits. 'To be always in a strange country, in someone else's home, to feel like an outsider. I also gave up my career - but we have a purpose and I am a witness to what is happening in Belarus. This is much more important than making films.'

Clif and Galina established their own organisation to bring help to Belarus, with the emphasis on alternative medicine and educating people about diet and self-help methods. Focus (Friends of Children United to Save) was registered in the United States last year and the couple, with Dimitri, now travels the world, seeking funding for work that they then return to oversee.

Last summer Clif and Galina took 170 children from the contaminated zones to Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. 'The children were treated by a variety of natural medicine practitioners,' Galina says. 'They had acupuncture, herbal remedies, massage, good food and fresh air. It was the first time in the history of radiation-caused illness that natural medicine had been used on a large scale.'

Clif invited Larissa Evetts, who heads a research group of doctors at Grodno Medical Institute, eastern Belarus, to do scientific tests on the children before the month at Baikal and again two months after their return. 'Professor Evetts found they showed substantial improvements in the immune system, improved blood and radiation counts.'

Focus aims to establish a permanent centre at Lake Baikal. It already has government approval and is seeking sponsorship from companies and individuals abroad.

As we finish talking, Dimitri, now nine and rosily healthy, wanders into the room, looking for something to do. 'It is hard for him, this lifestyle,' Galina confesses, putting her arm round him. 'Tomorrow we are going to speak at a conference in Norway. We have been in London one month now and have moved three times from friend to friend. He has to come to meetings and keep still and quiet. For two years he has rarely had the chance to go to school or play with other children.

'I hope we will be able to settle and have a home one day soon. It is a sacrifice, but I chose it. Clif and I both made this decision. Once you have seen the children of Chernobyl, you cannot forget them.'

Focus can be contacted c/o 75 Fifth Avenue, London W10 4DW.

(Photographs omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments