What happened on April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is a topic which is talked a lot and at the same time little about. HBO has just released a five-part series to raise the issue and shed the light on the first days after the catastrophe. The book "Chernobyl Prayer" by the Nobel prize winner, Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich, featuring the interviews with eyewitnesses whose lives were dramatically twisted due to this tragedy has recently been translated into numerous languages. But still there are voices who yet have not had their say. The voices of children. Google the word-combination "Chernobyl children" to know who they are. They are the kids of Belarus, officially living on the territories contaminated by radiation
. But often they have no idea of being labelled as such. Few of them know what radiation actually is. Because according to the official discourse of Belarusian authorities, radiation doesn't exist. There is no need for evacuation. Not only are people allowed – they are actually welcome and invited to live and eat off the radioactive earth – the areas marked red on the radiation maps banned for distribution and sale in the Republic of Belarus.
The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was recognized as the largest man-made disaster of the XX century. And if the USSR was officially keeping the information about it top secret, doctors shocked by the diagnoses of the patients they were receiving had a moral obligation to seek for help. One of the foreigners to get their "SOS" signal was Edie Roach who would later become the founder of the first humanitarian organization established specifically to assist "Chernobyl children". In 1991, it was difficult to assume that the initiative for the rehabilitation of children abroad would grow into one of the most well-known forms of humanitarian help: according to approximate estimates, over 30 years more than 500, 000 children have participated in such programs
. For Belarus with its sharply aging population of about 10 million people in total this makes the whole generation of the youth – born in remote Belarussian villages of the "Chernobyl" south and actually raised "across the border".
But in the 1990s and 2000s, traveling abroad and being hosted by foreign families was something much more than healing and strengthening the kids' immune system. Doctors said that even 2 weeks spent outside radioactive area was reducing the level of body contamination by 30–50% and mentioned a positive impact of changing one's diet and climate. However, there is no research where psychological effect on the child's personality is studied: still most of them were spending from 2 to 4 months yearly with a host family speaking a different language and living in a completely different world. The world that was much bigger than theirs.
The regions of Gomel, Mogilev and Brest were affected by the accident at the NPP were least economically developed, and the kids participating in humanitarian programs often lived in disadvantaged families or orphanages. In the late 1990s, many had no telephone, heating or bathroom, some had to daily walk to the nearest school for several kilometers. The problems of alcoholism, unemployment and early sexual debut remained topical. What did they feel stepping off the plane and finding themselves in wealthy Europe, Canada or the US? It was like finding oneself on another planet. Or in a dream.
Through humanitarian programs, especially those whose structure supposed regular trips of the same child from 6-7 to 18, an entire generation of Belarusians with a very special system of values was gradually brought up. Village kids who spoke freely two languages, had a cultural baggage of European and American museums, bunch of social connections in another part of the world – and, what is more important, experience of living in the society with different values. They had hope and belief in themselves. They saw freedom.
Since 2000, I have been working as a volunteer for the charitable organization "Hope for the Future" based in Minsk (the capital of Belarus) regularly accompanying groups of "Chernobyl children" for their winter and summer trips to host families in Italy, Belgium, Holland and Canada. In all these years I have seen dozens of children growing up and transforming from scared little ones to self-confident, purposeful teenagers – some of them moving to bigger cities of Belarus, others – abroad to enter universities and build their way in life. However, watching the changes, I was repeatedly asking myself questions about what these children were feeling in their first trips, how they managed to find in themselves strength and courage to face their unbelievably harsh reality on returning from European or American "paradise" – come back to the realities of alcohol addicted parents, poor unhealthy food, schools that sometimes had no windows or toilets… And the country's official propaganda assuring them that it WAS "a good life" they needed to enjoy and, moreover, be proud of…
The project "Bigger than I" is the result of my observations of lives of "Chernobyl children" from the groups I personally worked with as a teacher and translator. It includes interviews and fragments of sincere talks with the kids, family archives and passport photographs made in the early 2000s, as well as numerous pictures I made during my foreign trips as a part of humanitarian missions. In total – almost 20 years of work reflecting the passage from childhood to adulthood for many of my little friends, now – university and college graduates, mothers and partners, brave and critical, sometimes crazy and sometimes doubtful. But anyway – having experienced "the bigger world". And thus, hopefully, feeling what true freedom is.
Publications related to "Bigger than I" photobook:
- "Children of Chernobyl
" - All of Us? by Darya Amelkovich (in Belarussian)
- More than a Photobook on Chernobyl Children
, by Tanya Kuznetsova (in Russian)
- Chernobyl Children Phenomenon
, by Julia Szablowska (in Belarussian)
- TGR "Estovest" special edition program, by Cecilia Tosi (in Italian)