'Heart wrenching' trip to Chernobyl
The Cavan Rose has vowed to return to Belarus to help children whose lives have been shattered by the ongoing effects of the Chernobyl disaster, and have been left abandoned or given up by their parents.
Lisa Reilly joined 17 other Roses to visit the Vesnova Children's Mental Asylum where 170 of the young victims of the 1986 nuclear tragedy have been institutionalised. Many local children continue to be born with horrific deformities and illnesses linked to the radiation.
Lisa says thst the asylum's location 'in the middle of nowhere”, a three-hour journey from the Belarussian capital of Minsk, is quite deliberate.
“There is a message that Chernobyl is over and these children don't exist anymore - that's why they're put out into the outskirts and forgotten about,” says the Montessori teacher from Ballinagh.
Thanks to the work of Chernobyl Children International over the last three decades, and its founder Adi Roche, who escorted the Roses, this asylum is the best equipped in the country, yet the limited staff can't provide the care needed.
“There could be 15 children with only one woman feeding them, and they have just 10 minutes to feed them,” says Lisa. Even this limited care is only financed through the fundraising associated with the Rose of Tralee trip.
One child with severe autism and physical disabilities left the 26-year-old teary eyed.
“The food they got was just gloop. It was hot water with lumps of bread and porridge oats, and he just hated it and was crying when the lady was feeding him. She was just doing her job, if he doesn't eat he'll be malnourished, so she was shoveling it into him and he was gagging and coming up and it was an awful sight to see.”
In one room, where the children suffered from severe disabilities, she recalls seeing two brothers.
“They looked like someone I'd see in school, in maybe junior infants, and senior infants, so in my head I had it that they were maybe five or six years old – they were actually 17 and 18. They couldn't feed themselves, they couldn't speak – we don't even know if they even knew they were brothers. It was really just heart wrenching.”
Another young child, Ilya, had just arrived three weeks earlier to Vesnova. A tumour had caused fluid to amass in his head, which a shunt would have relieved.
“For some reason he didn't get that, and his head has slowly got bigger and bigger and bigger, and it's gone past the stage where a shunt would help him because they don't think he would survive the procedure. Basically the nurses are going to come in one day, and it's inevitable he's going to be dead in the bed – it's just a waiting game at this stage.”
The weight of the four year old's head is such that he can't lift it, and as a result he suffers from black bed sores “the size of my hand” on the back of his head. He's also enduring constant pain, and has limited vision.
“The pressure was going down on his eyes, so for him to see he has to get his little hand and pull down the bottom of his eye, and he'd see slightly. He loved if you played with little instruments around him – he'd love love noise and he'd be giggling, which was lovely to see, but then it's just inevitable that the poor little boy is just going to be left there to die.”
To try to ensure that children like Ilya and the others get the care they require, Lisa and some of the other Roses are determined to fundraise, to coincide with April 26 which has been designated Chernobyl Awareness Day.
“I cried for a couple of days when I got back – I spoke to my class about being grateful for what they have and I suppose I'm not going to take things for granted as I did before – because it really hit home. I was heartbroken. But it was very worthwhile.”
The Cavan Rose also relates one story, which has an Irish resonance after the revelations in Tuam. They went to a secluded spot to visit the grave of a young girl, Aya, who had died in the asylum just a few weeks earlier.
“When you got to the graveyard, one half was the local town's which had fancy headstones like you would get here, and the other half were just cement slabs with a number on it and that's where the children from Vesnova were buried – they would never have a funeral, no one would go to it, they were just brought in a box and buried. So we had a little ceremony for Aya.”