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Chernobyl charity: Child welfare humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine

As war continues to rage in Ukraine, the Voluntary CEO of Chernobyl Children International, Adi Roche speaks about how her organisation is mobilising to help the most vulnerable.

By Lydia O’Kane

“I have remained in this fog of war since the 24 February," waking, like everybody else, to hear the terrible news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, says Adi Roche, Founder and CEO of the Irish-based organisation Chernobyl Children International.

The date is now etched in her mind just like that of 26 April 1986, when an explosion at the Chernobyl plant, 130 km north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, led to the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

For 36 years her charity has been tirelessly supporting the children of Chernobyl, Belarus, and Ukraine, but she described the occupation of the Chernobyl plant at the start of the war as an ominous sign.

“The quickest route to Kyiv was to come through the world’s most toxic environment… through the Chernobyl exclusion zone and that told me in that one cavalier act… this signified to the world that the nature of modern warfare that we have known up to now had changed fundamentally forever,” she says.

A cry for help

The CEO is familiar with the community of people in a number of the towns and villages in the zone, where three hundred thousand people were living in terror in bunkers for that five or six weeks period until Russian troops left the nuclear plant.

“They came to us and I can still remember the words, ‘don’t send us your compassion, don’t send us your love and solidarity; we want water, we want food. We won't die of a bomb or a bullet, we will die of dehydration and starvation.’”

Having appealed for help from a number of aid organizations, Ms. Roche says it was Caritas who stepped in to provide support; and within 24 hours of the troop withdrawal from that region, Caritas, on her organisation’s behalf, was delivering food and water to those in need.

Listen to the interview

Lifesaving treatment

Chernobyl Children International continues to provide support and care decades on from the 1986 nuclear disaster in the form of specific programmes, such as a child cardiac surgery programme in Belarus and Ukraine to combat the marked increase in cardiac birth defects.

One of the centres the charity helped set up is in the now war-torn city of Kharkiv, which had already been put under severe pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the early days of the war, the head surgeon and his team were determined to keep going and continued to perform operations in the hospital’s basement.

Ms. Roche says what moved the surgeon and his wife to flee was when their apartment building in the city was bombed, leaving them with just the clothes on their backs.

They managed to get to Lviv, where the medical team is now based.

As the onslaught of war continues, the charity is planning to send an 18-strong surgical, cardiac, and pediatric team into Lviv to perform lifesaving surgeries on newborn babies who were born in bunkers and other terrible conditions, but who cannot survive with their current heart conditions.

This will be the second time since the war began that a group of medics will have made their way to Lviv to perform lifesaving operations. Just three weeks into the conflict, and under the radar, they arrived in the city from Krakow despite the risks to their safety.

Abandoned children

Last week, the human rights organization, Disability Rights International, published the findings of an investigation that found that children with severe disabilities have been abandoned in Ukrainian institutions since the beginning of the invasion.

Speaking about the plight of children in these orphanages, Adi Roche says a huge child welfare humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Ukraine.

“There are between a hundred and fifty and two hundred thousand children that are warehoused in 700 orphanages dotted throughout Ukraine, many of which, as we speak, are in occupied territories, and the shocking thing to know is these are the children that are not on anybody’s radar.”

The CEO goes on to say that in one orphanage alone, findings revealed that these children, some of whom are disabled, were abandoned by their carers.

“These children were on the cusp, on the edge between life and death from dehydration and from starvation,” but thankfully have been saved, she says.

“Unfortunately, in every war borders become porous and you have people with ill intent taking advantage of the agony and the suffering of others.”

The chief executive also highlights that evidence is now emerging which shows that human traffickers are targeting orphanages in Ukraine, and describes this as another fallout from “this terrible war as it's unfolding.”

Refugees and trauma

Since the start of the war, millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their towns and cities, making the journey to other European countries in search of support and safety.

Asked about the issue of refugees and the possibility of bringing seriously ill children to other European countries for treatment, Roche acknowledges that the issue is being very “hotly debated.”

“What is being hotly debated is whether countries can keep going at the level of refugees we have all over Europe and that we will have in the future as the war progresses. And sometimes the answers are not necessarily what we would want to hear, but the debates are raging.”

Some of the world’s experts in trauma, in the aftermath of war, she adds, have the view that the world should be propping up the nearest geographical areas because people recover better from trauma and shock if they are reasonably close to where they come from.

She also says the thinking on bringing seriously ill children to countries such as Ireland for treatment is that “sometimes the risk is too great” because of the whole question of their survival when they are already in a very fragile state.

“That’s why we have gone for, I suppose you could say, the most dangerous route but actually for us, it’s the most honest and it is the most immediate, which is you do it in culture and in-country within the war zone.”

Constant support

For 36 years, Adi Roche and the organization she founded have been a lifeline to the children of Chernobyl and beyond. Now as this war continues to rage, she says, “we will continue to watch over Ukraine… you are not forgotten.”

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09 May 2022, 11:35