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Chernobyl's children find respite in Estonia

  • 2000-07-27
  • Laura Bailey
In the large wooden bunkhouse at Kotka Children's Summercamp on Estonia's northern shore, a handful of rambunctious Belarusian children play Ping-Pong in the recreation room. Next door, their classmates pass the rainy afternoon with card games and occasional gymnastic feats from the metal frames of their bunkbeds. They look like any other healthy children their age - energetic, cheerful, full of life. But underneath a playful appearance, whether they are fully aware of it or not, they carry a special burden that most of the world's children could not comprehend.

That burden is having to grow up in the Gomel district of Belarus, just across the border from Chernobyl, Ukraine, the site of the world's worst nuclear accident to date. Their vacation in Estonia is one of the two trips they take every year to escape the high doses of radiation that are a daily fact of life in their home town of Dobrush.

"Eighty-seven percent of the children at our school have health problems and diseases. Only 13 percent are more or less healthy," said the children's schoolteacher Nadezhda Shablovskaja, who is a chaperone for the 20 children on their holiday, an all-expense paid trip courtesy of the Estonian government.

Gomel was devastated by the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, which contaminated 70 percent of the region with dangerous radionucleids. Most of the children were not yet born when the meltdown at the nuclear power plant in Northern Ukraine sent out doses of radiation 200 times the amount of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs. But experts say the region is still contaminated and that effects of the accident will be seen for decades to come, leaving the children to live with a poisonous legacy.

"All of our children have to be tested two times a year for radiation," said Shablovskaja. As an adult she has a choice, but for children in her region, she explained, such medical tests are mandatory. They must also eat fruits and vegetables brought in from other regions because the soil in Gomel is too contaminated to grow "clean" produce.

In Gomel, thyroid cancer, a disease rarely seen in children, is estimated to be 100 times higher than before the catastrophe, according to a report on the UN's Chernobyl Web site. While none of the children at Kotka suffer from such severe afflictions, they do have an array of other medical problems, such as ulcers, goiter and respiratory problems, their chaperones said.

"The children don't want to talk about it that much," said chaperone Irene Parkhomenko, who was a child herself when the disaster happened. "We are just accustomed to it. We don't think about it as much now," she said matter-of-factly. "What else can we do?"

Unlike their parents, the children don't have memories of the accident to suppress. But they have a vague understanding that something very bad once happened in their country.

"My mother told me there was an explosion and then a strong wind," explained 14-year-old Vitaly, who was born the year of the accident. "All of the fruits and vegetables are contaminated in Dobrush. They tell me that even those that are brought into the region get that way, but I don't know if it's true," he said.

Another boy, an 8-year-old who is the youngest of the group, knows that "radiation is death." More than that, he can't explain, but what he does understand of nuclear power, is more than most children his age do.

Researchers have yet to agree if the reported increase in health problems in Gomel are all related to radiation exposure, but there is a consensus about one thing: Living in the midst of an ecological and economic calamity is not good for the psyche.

Two weeks in Estonia will allow them to recuperate from the radioactive environment and also give them a new experience and show them something of Estonia, said Vahur Soosaar, a spokesman at the Foreign Ministry, which spent 209,810 kroons ($12,600) to cover the costs of the trip. The children, all selected from Dobrush's Secondary School No. 3, were chosen because they live in one of the most affected areas, which has received the least international aid, Soosaar said.

The trip is the second of its kind to be sponsored by the Foreign Ministry since 1998, when the government felt Estonia had achieved enough economic success to begin funding international humanitarian projects. The first trip was for a group of Ukrainian children from the Chernobyl region to visit the same camp in Lahemaa last summer. Other Estonian aid projects for Chernobyl victims have included funding for computer equipment for a secondary school in Ukraine.

Respite trips have been funded by a number of countries, such as Germany and Switzerland. Lithuania has also sponsored trips for schoolchildren from contaminated regions. International charity groups as far afield as Ireland and Canada have also hosted children for long-term stays.

Experts say that while respite trips may not be a protection against serious health problems, they are good for the children's well-being.