Monday, September 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Minsk Blocks Chernobyl Children from Getting Treatment Abroad

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 20 – The Belarusian government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka has suspended and quite possibly ended one of the most important and successful people to people efforts of all time, the program that has brought up to 25,000 Belarusian child victims of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster to the United States and other countries for treatment.
This week, in a move that that everyone involved except the Minsk regime has denounced as “scandalous,” the Belarusian government announced that it would no longer allow children from regions exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident to go to Western countries for treatment (
The reason, as Moscow’s “Novyye izvestiya” pointed out, is that “not all of the young people are agreeing to return” to Lukashenka’s Belarus after receiving treatment abroad, including 16-year-old Tatyana Kozyro who refused to come back from the United States this month despite the efforts of Belarusian diplomats to compel her to do so.
If the Belarusian government does not reverse its decision, thousands of Belarusian children will suffer and die who might otherwise be cured and have healthy, happy and productive lives – arguably the best reason that Western governments should put pressure on Minsk to allow the children to get treatment in the West.
Although most people think that the Chernobyl accident affected Ukraine more than any other country, in fact, it hurt Belarus and its people even more because the Chernobyl plant lies only a few miles south of the Ukrainian-Belarusian border and the prevailing winds carried more radiation north than in any other direction.
Despite Soviet efforts at the time to play down the accident and prevent people from finding out just how dangerous certain regions exposed to radiation had become, brave people in Belarus, Ukraine, the Russian Federation and elsewhere took extraordinary steps to reduce as much as possible the consequences of this explosion.
In Belarus, Stanislau Shushkevich, a nuclear physicist, travelled around the country to identify hot spots and warn the population to leave. His actions saved thousands of lives and led to his election as Belarus’s first president. Unfortunately, his belief that the West would help clean up contamination in his country was misplaced, leading to his replacement by Lukashenka.
But despite that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarusian émigrés and their supporters in the West launched a program to bring youthful victims of the Chernobyl disaster to Western countries for treatment, an effort that has benefitted more than 25,000 over the last 17 years.
Unfortunately, as so often happens, the Belarusian government is more interested in controlling its own people and its international reputation than in ensuring that young victims of the Chernobyl disaster receive the best possible care and have a free choice about where and how they will live.
On August 5, Tatyana Kozyro, who had been in the United States for treatment, did not show up at the San Francisco airport to fly back to Minsk. Instead, she applied for an extension of her visa and thus was able to remain in the United States pending a resolution of her particular case.
The Minsk regime has declared that it considers Kozyro’s decision as “an impermissible violation of the agreed obligations” of the U.S. organization, the Chernobyl Children’s Project. And on August 14, Belarus officially protested against what it said was the “illegal detention on the territory of the United States” of a child of Belarusian citizenship.
Immediately after that, Kozyro told the California media that she was undergoing treatment and wanted to remain there because she felt that “here is [her] real family.” Her grandfather in Belarus added that her biological mother had deserted her early on and her biological is an alcoholic.
Because of that background, her grandmother who is now the girl’s legal guardian in Belarus, said that in her opinion, Tatyana Kozyro “has made her choice” to remain with the family in the United States who have welcomed her while she is undergoing treatment and that “I support her decision.”
Kozyro is not the only Belarusian youth who has decided that she has a chance for a better life in the West than she would in the land of her birth, and because of the embarrassment this causes for Lukashenka and his regime, it is perhaps not surprising that his operatives have announced that this program is “stopped for the time being.”
But one can only agree with Gennady Grushevoy, the leader of the Children of Chernobyl organization. He said that the policy of the Belarusian government is “inhuman, unwise, and uncivilized.” One can only hope that Western governments will agree and stand up to Minsk rather than returning the victims of Chernobyl to Lukashenka.

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