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Belarus/Ukraine: Oscar Win Boosting Cause Of Chornobyl Children's Project

  • Jan Jun

This year's Oscar-winning documentary film "Chernobyl Heart" looks at the work of the Chernobyl Children's Project, which provides aid to children in Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia who continue to suffer from the effects of the 1986 nuclear accident. The Oscar win has helped promote the cause of the Irish-based group, which is to deliver a new aid shipment for Easter.

London, 2 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Chornobyl nuclear disaster took place 18 years ago, but it has left a lasting legacy for millions of people.

There are those who suffered immediate effects after an explosion in the fourth reactor of the Chornobyl plant sent a radioactive cloud spilling over parts of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

But the world's worst nuclear accident has also taken its toll on children born in the years since the disaster. Birth defects and cancer rates in the region are skyrocketing.

"So it follows the pathway of radioactivity from the reactor itself, right through to the life of pregnant women, to children, to the land, and to the life of ordinary people in the deserted villages."
The international community -- once eager to help in cleanup and medical efforts -- has now largely forgotten Chornobyl, as the town is known in Ukrainian.

The Chernobyl Children's Project is an exception. The charity, based in the Irish city of Cork, has established a permanent aid presence in the Chornobyl region.

Adi Roche, the founder and head of the Chernobyl Children's Project, says, "We recognized very early on that Chornobyl has been relegated to the realms of history, and that most of the international community has dropped this issue off the international agenda, and very little sustainable work is being done by the international community. We decided it was not just enough to work as a humanitarian aid organization in the region, but that we would have to awaken the conscience and the responsibility of the world."

Since its inception in 1991, the project has helped fund hospitals and other medical care facilities in the areas affected by the Chornobyl accident. Roche tells RFE/RL the magnitude of the task at times has seemed insurmountable.

"Nine million people, according to the United Nations, have been affected in those three countries. In fact, the real story of Chernobyl will only be coming out in the coming decades, because of the longevity of radioactivity. We will be seeing the effects of it for the rest of time in the DNA of human life, of plant life, flowers, fauna," Roche said.

The Children's Project, through a network of worldwide affiliates, has sent more than $50 million in aid to the region, and established a number of long-term sustainable programs there.

The work remains daunting, but the project has made a difference in the lives of many children.

Twelve-year-old Veranika Smyeyan, of Belarus, was born with a severe heart defect. Her mother had been exposed to radiation from the Chornobyl accident. But now, after two operations in Dublin, Veranika says she has never felt better.

"Now, I feel excellent. I just have one wish -- to go to Ireland again. When I say Ireland, I imagine the ocean, the fresh air, the zoo we used to go to. The ocean -- I had never seen it before," Veranika said.

Roche's project has received a significant boost from the film "Chernobyl Heart," which this year won the U.S. Academy Award for best documentary film.

The film's director, Maryann De Leo, became interested in Chornobyl three years ago after attending an exhibition of photographs and sculptures dedicated to the work of the Children's Project and the lives of children in the affected areas.

"Maryann contacted me. I said to her that I had made many documentaries before, for British TV, Australian, Irish, you name it, and that I was very ready to make a documentary for an American audience. And she traveled with me several times to the radioactive area. Particularly, we concentrated on Belarus, because they have the largest problem of the three affected regions, even though it is substantial in the other two regions also," de Leo said.

The women's aim, as Roche puts it, was to re-alert the world to the crisis; to show that the horrifying effects of Chornobyl had not gone away.

"A film that would be all witness, all testimony, to the despair, to the suffering, to the agony, to the isolation of this tragedy that 18 years on has not gone away. So it follows the pathway of radioactivity from the reactor itself, right through to the life of pregnant women, to children, to the land, and to the life of ordinary people in the deserted villages, people that are evacuated, and scientific people, the medical world. We talk to everybody," Roche said.

Roche says the film, in addition to its Oscar win, has had a powerful impact on audiences in the United States. She hopes someday the film will be shown in the countries affected by the Chornobyl disaster -- although she says the governments of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia remain reluctant to address the true breadth of the crisis.

"We would love for there to be a major screening in the [three countries'] capitals and in the towns of the three affected regions, but we will wait to be invited. We feel that maybe in the three affected countries, too, it is not much talked about any more, and yet so many people continue to suffer. So we hope there will be an awakening in the three governments, also, because they need help. It is not an easy thing to make a documentary about another country, because it may seem to be critical, or you know, a country may feel that it is not seen in a good light. But this is always a problem when you are a filmmaker, when you're making something about an issue in another country," Roche said.

In the short term, the success of "Chernobyl Heart" has helped the Children's Project secure extra funding for additional aid shipments.

Roche says the next such shipment, carrying over 2 million euros ($2.42 million) worth of aid, is due to arrive in the Chornobyl region in time for Easter Sunday, on 11 April. Protestant and Orthodox Easter fall on the same day this year.

And the work won't stop there. As Adi Roche puts it, the children of Chornobyl will need aid "for many years to come."

(RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contributed to this report.)
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