When a plume of highly radioactive material billowed into the atmosphere from Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power station, few realised its effects would be just as prominent for decades to come.
Yet as the catastrophic disaster nears its 25th anniversary, toxins still pervade areas affected by the fallout, particularly in neighbouring country Belarus, where 70 per cent of the radiation fell.
The country’s ground, water and food are still contaminated and will be for thousands of years. But a charity set up to help children suffering from the fallout is determined to make sure the rest of the world doesn’t forget the disaster.
At 8pm on Monday, the anniversary will be marked with a candlelit vigil in Portsmouth’s Guildhall Square.
The candles will be lit in the shape of the number 25 and members of the Portsmouth and Hayling Island Link of the Chernobyl Children’s Life Line charity will gather.
They give children a holiday in the UK to help improve their health and many local families have played host over the years.
Marian Stapley has welcomed children into her Paulsgrove home for the last six years.
‘It’s always very exciting and very busy before the children arrive,’ says the 44-year-old, who is also chairwoman of the Portsmouth and Hayling Island branch.
‘It’s a great experience for them – they get to see a completely different life. Some of them have never been in a car before, let alone an aeroplane, so this experience really opens their horizons.’
The main focus of the charity is to bring children from Belarus to the UK for one month when they are aged 10 or 11.
Research has shown that a four-week trip away from the country to enjoy fresh air and non-contaminated food and water improves their health dramatically.
They are brought over at that age because it’s when the thyroid gland is developing, and experts say that’s the part of the body which absorbs the most radiation, often leading to cancer. The catastrophic failure and subsequent explosion of Chernobyl’s reactor number four still causes health problems for babies born in Belarus today.
Victor Mizzi, founder of the Chernobyl Children’s Life Line in the UK, says: ‘People have started to forget about Chernobyl but there are just as many children in the hospitals there now as there was in 1986.
‘The people living there are still eating contaminated food and drinking contaminated water – it’s not gone away just because people have forgotten about it here.’ For information visit ccll.org.uk
Young Pavel is doing really well
Pavel Rubachok’s plight really touched the heart of News readers when he visited Gosport in 2006.
He was suffering from ‘drooping eyelids’ – meaning he could only open his eyelids a fraction and had to tilt his head right back to see out of the tiny slits.
The condition was thought to be a result of nuclear fallout from Chernobyl, as it had affected his village in Belarus.
When readers heard about Pavel’s story they rallied round and donated £11,000 to pay for an operation at London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital.
Now 14, Pavel is doing well and enjoys cycling, studying and tending to his family’s cows – thanks to readers’ generosity.
Pauline Howe, who hosted Pavel during his visit, says: ‘It’s made an enormous difference to his life. Now he can go out and do things other young boys take for granted.’
‘Their confidence grows so much’
GRANDMOTHER Christine Warringer has been involved with the Chernobyl Children’s Life Line charity for around 15 years.
The 67-year-old and her husband John, 72, from Gosport, started donating to the cause in 1986, just after the disaster. But after meeting some of the youngsters eight years ago, Christine decided to become a host.
‘The difference in the children when they leave from when they first arrive is incredible,’ she says.
‘They really blossom when they are here, their confidence grows and you can tell that they are so much more healthy when they leave to go home.
‘I love children and when I look at my grandchildren and see how lucky they are, it makes me feel really sad these children live in such poverty and hardship – that’s why it feels so nice to know you are giving them an experience they will always remember.’
‘We are excited about helping out’
FIRST-TIMERS Rowena Shrimpton, 46, and Christopher Cassimer, 51, are looking forward to having a child from Belarus staying in their home.
This is the first year they’ve been involved with the Chernobyl Children’s Life Line charity and their own kids have already set up a bedroom in preparation for the arrival of their guest at their home in Fareham.
Rowena says: ‘Christopher used to work in Azerbaijan, which is really near Chernobyl, so he has seen first-hand how the children live – that’s why we were so keen to get involved.
‘My children are so excited about it and can’t wait to show her their school and everything they enjoy doing here.
‘It’ll be really good for them too because it will help them see that not everyone has the kind of life that they’ve got.’