31 years later: The terrible truth about the aftermath of Chernobyl
Warning: This article contains images that some viewers may find disturbing.
On April 26, 1986, the world got a terrifying piece of news: the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, near the Ukrainian city of Pripyat (part of the Soviet Union at the time), had suffered a catastrophic accident.
Among the first international volunteers bringing aid and support to the affected population was then 31-year-old Adi Roche. At that time she was working for the Irish branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
It was incredibly hard for aid workers to provide support in the area — even in an extreme crisis the Soviet regime was suspicious of outsiders and refused to pass on valuable information. Just a few days after the accident, the government declared the situation under control. The rest of the world had no idea whether to believe those words.
Then five years later, after the accident had become a distant memory, Adi got a fax with a very unexpected message.
The document wasn't just addressed to the Campaign, but to every aid organization in the world. The first lines explained the emergency: "SOS. For heaven's sake, please help us get the children out of here!" The fax had been written by a group of Ukrainian and Belarusian doctors who were desperately trying to get the world to pay attention to the thousands of children suffering from the results of radioactive contamination.
Together with several colleagues, Adi set out immediately for the Ukraine and Belarus to get a better overview of what was happening. What they discovered when they arrived shocked them to their core.
Parents were totally overwhelmed by the task of taking care of their severely handicapped children. Many of the kids were simply left at state-run orphanages in the hope that they would be better looked after there. Adi and her colleagues found over 300 orphanages filled with thousands of so-called "Chernobyl children."
The homes were lacking staff, funds, medication, and food. And due to their proximity to the disaster zone, they were still in range of radiation exposure.
Adi was so moved by what she saw that she decided she had to act. She set up a little office in her home and started organizing "Rest and Recuperation" trips for a few kids from Chernobyl, with help from Irish families. Soon after that she founded Chernobyl Children International, a non-profit aiming to help more children in need.
The organization has since grown enormously: in Ireland alone they have more than 10,000 volunteers and have brought over 22,000 children into the country for medical treatment. Chernobyl Children International has ended up helping more than 1 million children in the last 25 years.
Another goal of the organization has been transforming old orphanages in Belarus into modern medical facilities where children can be properly cared for.
In the area around Chernobyl, children are still being born today that suffer from radiation-related genetic defects.
Last year, on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Adi Roche was invited to address the United Nations General Assembly.
"Chernobyl is not from the past. Chernobyl is sadly forever," she said. "The impact of that single shocking nuclear accident cannot be undone. Its radioactive footprint is embedded in our world forever and countless millions of people are still being affected by its deadly legacy."
At the end of her speech, she encouraged the assembly to declare April 26 UN Chernobyl Day.
In this video (in both English and Russian) you can learn more about the brilliant work being done by Chernobyl Children International:
Through their work, the organization sends the whole world a very clear message: "There is still hope. You are the hope."
The Chernobyl disaster should never be forgotten — both for the many people affected by it, and for all of us today: we need to ensure that such an accident never happens again!