Belarus and Back 2011 (Chernobyl)

by Keith Brocklebank, Society Member

Before I start my story I would like to give you some background information on the Chernobyl Atomic Power plant that caused the disaster.  On 25-26th of April 1986 scientists at the Chernobyl plant which is in the Ukraine and bordering Belarus, were trying to seeif they could handle a situation that leads to a meltdown.  Obviously they couldn’t and as a result an explosion occurred and this started a real melt down.  Within the next few days all of Europe had been contaminated.  Belarus had 70% of the fallout from the disaster. Towns and Villages had to be evacuated immediately, everything the people possessed was lost because the radioactive fallout was so deadly. There was a 30 mile exclusion zone that only people working on the disaster could enter because of the danger.  Everything was contaminated, the soil, all that stood on it and the atmosphere.  The people of Belarus were more or less left to deal with it themselves as the Russian government of which Belarus was part of at the time had a couldn’t care less attitude.  A lot of people died and are still dying with different cancers.  The country will remain contaminated for many Thousands of years to come. 

That’s how the children became known as the Chernobyl Children.

 

And so to my story.

Keith Brocklebank

Six weeks before we were due to travel to Belarus, our team leader called us together for bonding sessions.  There were 30 of us in the group 10 older adults and 20 between 14 and 25 years.  We were then split into small groups depending on what you had to offer in the way of experience.  My group of 3 were the photographers, whom I might add were myself and my 2 grandsons.  We are all qualified photographers.  The other groups were made up of dancers, painters, makeup, acting and singers.  My daughter was also on the trip as she manages Bettws Life Centre, who played a big part in supporting the children on their visits to us in 2010/11.

For the next 5 weeks we carried out activities to help us to bond and get to know what we had to offer the children when we arrived in their school.  We were also sending out a lorry of aid 2 weeks before we travelled.  This we had to repack and load onto the lorry, one of the items was a pool table my daughter had from a pub that was closing.  This was quite heavy and had to go on first, it took 6 of us to lift.  The aid we were sending had been held up as we had to get a lorry load, or it would have been uneconomic to send.  By the time the lorry was loaded we were all exhausted, the local paper was there to see it off 3 weeks before we flew out.

Our group leader and his father travelled out 3 days later to receive the lorry in case of complications.  When the lorry arrived the driver told them of the problems with customs on the different borders he had to cross.  Some palms had to be greased with whisky and cigarettes as they are all on the make.  He also said he was lucky to get through as the lorry was two and a half tons over its weight limit and was lucky he travelled in convoy with other Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline lorries taking aid to other parts of Belarus.  All of the aid then had to be unloaded into a room in the school under the supervision of the customs officers.  This was done with help of the school children.  The room was then locked and sealed until the customs gave the go ahead for the release, which was after we had returned to Wales.

On returning to the UK our two leaders then had to chase after our visas.  This was nearing the date for our trip, it was two days before our departure that they finally had our visas.  They had to travel to London to the Belarusian Embassy to get them in time for our departure.  It caused us to become very anxious as to whether we would be able to go or not, in my case I had been waiting since October 2010.  When they returned  and said they had them all there was a sigh of relief from us all.

On the morning of the day of travel (25/09/11) I was up at 03.30 as I had to get to Llangeinor in the next valley to ours (Maesteg) to catch the coach.  It was leaving Blaengarw at 05.15 and I was having a lift from my daughter who had to come from Bettws to pick up my oldest grandson and me.  Everything went like clockwork, when we got to the square in Llangeinor there were about a dozen more waiting.  The atmosphere was buzzing with the excitement of us all.  The coach finally arrived and we departed at 05.30 for Gatwick airport.  Most of the younger group were asleep within an hour of travelling, we older ones were wide awake discussing the coming week.

We had one stop on the way for some refreshments, as soon as someone mentioned food all of the youngsters were wide awake and off the coach.  After our breakfast I gathered all the group together for a photograph by our coach, we were all wearing bright red fleeces with the Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline badge on the breast funded by Gwirvol.

This attracted quite a bit of attention  during our trip as some thought we were something to do with the Olympics until we explained.  On arrival at Gatwick we quickly proceeded to the check in and by all of us being in red we were soon checked in.  We had about 2 hours to wait so we made our way to a restaurant to have our last decent meal.  After we had all eaten, we boarded our airplane which was a Belair belonging to the Belarusian airline and their planes are all second hand.  You could tell this by the wear on the seats and paintwork outside.  We took off at 14.10 and had a good flight so there was no need to be nervous about the aircraft.  The in flight meal seemed as though it was second hand as well and it was a good job we had filled up at Gatwick.

We arrived in Minsk Belarus at 17.40 BST, the flight took three and a half hours roughly but because they are 2 hours ahead of GMT, the time was 19.40.  After waiting and collecting our luggage we had to go through border control and customs.  This we were told was a very serious time and they would not stand any messing, so we were all a bit nervous.  Myself, I felt alright as I have been through customs in Communist countries before and knew how they screened you.  It was nerve racking for the others who had not experienced this type of customs.  Seeing there were 30 of us, it did not take all that long and we were soon cleared.

We were met by our interpreter and teacher at the school named Slava, who had also accompanied the children on their visits to Wales, and was a very nice person.  Our transport had not arrived so we had to wait a short while, in the mean time one of the group had found a bar or cafe that sold the local beer which was only 40p per litre.  This helped us pass the time and it was really nice tasting beer.  The coach arrived and it looked like an old army style coach in military green colour.  There was not as much room for the luggage on it as ours, but what the hell we were in Belarus at last.  Ahead of us was a four and a half hour journey on a straight level road in the pitch black dark.  The coach was really comfortable to our surprise and most of us started to doze off.  We stopped at a roadside cafe about 2 hours into the journey for a comfort break and hopefully something to eat.  The edibles on sale were crisps washed down with more beer.  On leaving the cafe someone noticed how bright the stars were owing to the fact there were no lights at all for hundreds of miles.  This was absolutely perfect conditions for star gazing, we were there for about 15 minutes just looking up.  It was now time to press on.

We arrived at our destination, Goradets School at 01.30, and had been travelling for over 18 hours.  All the staff at the school had stayed up to welcome us and the Director (Tomara) was there to shake us all by the hand.  It was a really warm welcome and we sat down to our first meal of shredded chicken and something.  We thought it was potato but couldn’t be 100% certain.  Needless to say none of the young girls ate it as it was tasteless without salt and they wouldn’t even try it.  So it was off to bed in our different dormitories.

The day starts at 06.00 for the children and by 06.30 they were knocking on our door.  I was up straight away to photograph the reactions between them and our group.  Some of children had gathered on the landing of our floor and were very excited.  I knew a few of them personally as they were over in the Summer 2011, one of them had stayed with my wife and myself for a month in 2010.  He was pleased to see me, and a few tears were shed on both sides.  They were starting to get a little impatient as our group wouldn’t get up, so I beckoned to them to go and wake them up, which they promptly did by charging into the dormitories.  All hell broke loose as the young boys with us charged the children in a playful fight, who loved being chased.  That’s when the laughter started and it lasted until we left.

Day one started with breakfast of shredded chicken and something else which tasted alright to me with a little salt on it, but the girls still wouldn’t try it.  My oldest grandson reckoned he was on all inclusive and ate his and some of the girls food, he is a human disposal unit.  All the adults and the boys ate everything put in front of them to the delight of the cooks.  The girls only ate what they had taken with them in case they didn’t like the food.  By the end of the week they were feeling hungry but still wouldn’t try anything.  Nearly all the food we had was the same each day, which we were told to expect, so I won’t say anymore about the food.

After breakfast we had free time so that we could mingle with the children and get to know them better.  I had noticed that there was an armed policeman at the top of the stairs on our landing and asked Slava why, he said it was law that if there were more than five Europeans staying in any place a 24 hour guard was needed.  This was because of Chechnyian terrorists taking hostages, he became very friendly and I took a few photos of us together

A bond was soon struck up between a lot of the children and our group, children could be seen all over the school clinging to their favourite group member.  This was the same throughout the week as it was love that they were lacking and our group really excelled in this department.  They hugged and kissed them for all they were worth, it was moving to see this happening, love was in abundance.  When the children went into class at 09.00 our group set about packing the sweets, we had all taken with us, into paper bags.  I went outside to photograph the surrounding area with my grandsons.  As we went about taking the different shots some of the children filtered out from the school and were following us just watching what we were doing.  They had never seen cameras like ours they were fascinated and loved having their photograph taken so they could see it on the back of the cameras.

The artists in our group had asked permission to used a wall for a mural, this they had in one of the halls leading from the dormitories where everyone travelled daily.  They started with an outline of what was going to be in the painting.  It depicted the journey from Belarus to Blaengarw, that the children had made in the Summer.  The wall was quite a large project to fill but with the children helping as well it took less time.  The children helped in lesson times as part of their lessons, they loved getting paint on their hands.  It would take a few days to finish so that the colours wouldn’t run into each other.

By the time we had gone back into the school the packing group had packed about 300 bags. This was more than enough for the first hand out.  Overall they packed more than 600 bags which were enough for three handouts that were also given to the staff.  They weren’t to be handed out until day two.  Later in the afternoon we set up a disco for them as they love pop music and flashing lights.  We had taken an electrician with us who was made to work hard for a few hours setting it all up.

When the disco started their faces beamed with joy, another something they hadn’t seen unless they had been to Wales.  They danced about for a few hours and then we put on party games for them, which they thought was hilarious, joining in everything.  There was no language barrier at all, we learnt some words and so did they.  Supper for them was at 19.30 and you never saw any waste food with them, all plates were clean at every mealtime.  After they had been fed it was our turn and by the time we had finished they had to go to bed which was at 21.00, which we called lock down.  The Director would tour the dormitories to make sure they were in bed, woe betide anyone who wasn’t.

This was now our own free time, which we spent in the common room they had provided for our use only.  We had found a small shop, if you could call it that, next to the school.  Within an hour we had bought all the crisps and beer in there.  They had to wait until the end of the week for more supplies.  Some of our group had also been down to the village shop which was about half a mile away and bought beer and vodka.  The beer was 90p for 2 litres and 80p for half litre of vodka.  It was no wonder there were so many alcoholics out there.  But saying that there were very few to be seen, you can see more on our streets at home.

Our first evening we spent talking about the children and their reactions to us, this was so we could plan for the days ahead.  We were also having a joke with each other and really relaxing.  The girls just talked about the food and what they had brought with them to eat, they were obsessed with food and eating.  By 23.00 it was becoming a party atmosphere and I had relaxed so much with the vodka I had to go off to bed and couldn’t remember what had gone on that night.

Day two began much as the first, excited children knocking on our door demanding we get up which we did.  I went off for a shower and had been warned about the smell of the water, which was foul but clean.  We were told it was the pipes that were cast iron and very old that made it smell.  I took no notice as I have showered in pithead baths.  I used some shower gel and that took the smell away and I felt nice and clean after.  Some of the group wouldn’t use the shower (and I mean shower as there was only one for the 30 of us) as they thought the water was contaminated.  After I had reassured them it was OK and told them to use something that smelled nice, they were queuing to shower.

After our breakfast we split into our groups to tour the class rooms and give out the bags of sweets to the children and staff.  This was one of my favourite moments, to see their faces as they were given a bag of sweets all of their own, it was magic.  Some had never had that many sweets and their faces said it all, they were beaming.  The teachers hadn’t expected to receive any, and promptly popped them in their mouths.  They too were delighted as sweets were a huge luxury and expensive to them.  Slava our interpreter told us they earned less than the equivalent of £200 a month and clothes were very expensive but they had to keep themselves presentable at all times, which they were.

The paparazzi (photographers) as we called ourselves were very busy at this time capturing all these moments, we took over 2,700 photographs during the week between us.  They were all passed to me for processing.  These had to be downloaded, resized, focused and sorted when we arrived home.  This took me 178 hours to complete and archive ready to go on our website.  Each of the group had a CD burnt with their own personal photos we had taken for which they donated £5.00 each to the Children’s Fund.

Dinner time passed and some of the groups went out into the school gardens which the children have to look after as part of their education.  They had to pick the seeds off any dead plants ready for the next planting season.  This was to teach them the farming skills they would need to get work when they left the school, as Belarus is big in agriculture.  The countryside is all collective farms with fields that go for miles and are completely flat.  The seeds that were picked were saved in cartons and stored in the dry ready for planting.  Everything seemed to grow like mad there, even though the soil was contaminated.  After school was out, the children and their new friends sat in the garden in lovely warm sunshine.  We couldn’t believe how warm it was the week we had out there.

It was now time for the obligatory disco and games, which they looked forward to every evening.  One of our groups started to teach them “Street Dancing” and within an hour they were showing the group moves they hadn’t seen.  They were really fast learners and thoroughly enjoyed every minute.  Some of them were spinning on their heads and backs on the floor in the gymnasium then springing to their feet with no effort at all.  This I just had sit and watch as I am too stiff to bend, let alone dance.  All the time I watched and took photographs, I never saw a child without a smile on their face, they were so happy.  To me this was pure gold, money couldn’t buy or replace the happiness that was on show.  Lock down came to quickly for them as they would have gone on until the early hours.  It was time for Tomara to take over.

Our relaxing time was upon us again and new stocks had been bought from the village shop.  Most of the younger members preferred to stay in their dormitories to have a few drinks while us older group members stayed in our common room.  We were just talking about the children and how they were enjoying our company.  There was no TV or Radio to listen to.  Some had taken DVDs with them but they didn’t interest us.  We just liked the banter and jokes to pass our time.  The funny thing was we never missed the TV.  By 23.00 I was the worse for wear again, the vodka was a lot stronger than what I am used to and I had to go to bed.

Day three began with my shower and breakfast and then it was time for our groups to go off on visits to different children’s families and their houses.  One group stayed behind to go apple picking with some of the children.  They were given three baskets to fill, as they thought, and off they went in the school lorry.  When they arrived at the orchard they got stuck in to the task.  It wasn’t long before the baskets were full and they thought they had finished.  Then came the shock, they were told they had to fill the lorry.  You should have seen their faces, they were all gob smacked.  Their team leader soon snapped them out of it and the picking began in earnest.  It was a flat back lorry with sides about two foot high but it still held a lot of apples.  It was late afternoon by the time the lorry was full and everyone was ready for their dinner, they were also tired out and never wanted to see another apple.

My youngest  grandson went to visit one house and I another while my oldest grandson went digging carrots up with his group.  The house I went to was bad but I had been told it was not the worst, that was to come later in the week.  There was no running water, it had to be drawn from the well about 100yards down the road.  They had little food in the house and hardly any furniture, I could only see 1single bed to sleep in for 4 people (2 adults and 2 children).  This was filthy dirty and my dog at home has a cleaner bed.  The people seemed happy enough and the baby of about 2 years old was well looked after but his hands and face were filthy dirty.  A few of us had taken packets of noodles with us to give to them which we did with about 50 dollars, firstly making sure there were no signs of drink in the house.  We left with a different outlook on our lives after seeing the poverty they had to suffer.

When we arrived back at the school I asked my youngest grandson how many photos he had taken, he replied none.  He then explained that the group had all been overwhelmed by the poverty in the house they visited.  Four of the younger ones had to come out of the house as they were in tears and he was one of them and that’s why he hadn’t taken any photos.  There was no furniture only a broken old bed, no food and the smell was terrible.  They left some food but no money as they were alcoholics.

My oldest grandson had been having a whale of time pulling carrots.  They had to dig up a row about 50 yards long and 2 foot wide.  The size of the carrots were enormous and had to be taken to the Winter store house (shed).  The children loved this job as they could hide the carrots to be eaten later by them.  Later on you could see children eating carrots everywhere.  They had stuffed them down their trousers, socks, shirts and pockets, they had even used the group members to hide some.  It was a sight to see them walking back up the field to the school.  It has to be remembered that these were all contaminated (the carrots).

At the disco that evening we had the 2nd hand out of the sweets, this was after they had been dancing for about an hour.  We then had them running about playing games as they were very competitive in everything.  It was them and us, we made sure they won most of the games as we want to go back again.  They have a very good 5 a side football team, which was due to go to Minsk for the finals later in the year we were told.  They wouldn’t be able to go as they hadn’t the money to pay for travel and accommodation, on hearing this my daughter, myself and another got together and paid for it all.  We were paid back straight away with hugs, kisses and smiling faces, which was more than ample payment.  The dancing went on until lock down, the children were a little tired to our delight, thinking we might get a lie in next morning.

In the common room that evening I told them no more vodka for me as I was missing out on what was happening.  It was wiping my memory clean, but luckily never a hangover.  I just drank the beer and enjoyed it more.  While in the kitchen that night I noticed the water we were washing up with was black.  I emptied it out and refilled the bowl.  As soon as I put washing up liquid in it and the glasses and the cups it went black again.  It was a reaction with the soap liquid, all the dishes came out clean.  We chatted and joked until about 23.00 and I was off to bed as I was starting to feel the result of travelling and being busy all day plus getting up at the crack of dawn.

Day four was a trip into Rogachov.  All the group went in by coach which had to refuel about an hour into the journey and we were told that we had to get off while it was being refuelled by law.  Apparently it was common for vehicles to catch fire while refuelling.  When we arrived in Rogachov we had to get some local currency (roubles), the bank was in the back of a transit type van with no security at all.  We all queued up and the locals were eyeing us up and down as we all had our bright red wind cheaters on and looked like a visiting football team.  Their money was ridiculous 7,400 roubles to the dollar, a 10,000 note was worth less than a pound sterling.  We felt like millionaires with all the high denomination notes, the only thing with about 50 dollars worth you needed 2 pockets.  We walked around and enjoyed the market but bought very little as it was mostly tat.  After the market we went to see the town itself, which was very clean with few decent shops.  We made for this one shop that sold Russian dolls that fit inside each other.  They must have sold about a dozen to us and the one I bought  was 116,200 roubles about 15 dollars or £9.50.  We toured through the parks which were kept clean and well looked after with lots of flowers, there were also old military hardware on plinths, tanks and artillery pieces.  They also had war memorials in a number of places as two thirds of the population  of Belarus were killed in WW2 by the Germans.

It was a nice sunny day and there was no hurry to get back as the children were in class.  Some sat in the park for while soaking up the sun, while we went on walk about for a cafe bar.  This we found and were welcomed with open arms as they didn’t get many tourists, we had one drink and off to do some more shopping for presents.  An hour later we were heading back on the coach as there were only about a dozen good shops and we had done them all.

We arrived back as the children were having their lunch, then it was another day in the fields picking carrots and potatoes.  Real back breaking stuff for us but the kid’s loved it when they had our company.  They were really hard workers and kept going a lot longer than our group members.  Our artists and children were putting the finishing touches to the mural painting, which I promptly photographed with the group that painted it.  The children thought it was great as it reminded them of their holiday in Wales.  There was a map of Wales and Belarus with an aeroplane flying to Wales and the route from Gatwick to Blaengarw.  There were also both country’s flags, sheep, daffodils and leeks as a border around it all.  We finished about 17.00 and got cleaned up and then settled down to play board games and just hang out with the children until it was time for the disco and games in the gymnasium.

The evening started with five a side football, this was mainly for the young but of course the challenge came up and some of the older in the party fell for it.  Needless to say there were some tired oldies at the end of the game.  They were very fit children as regards to sporting activities, which surprised me seeing what they had to grow up with, meaning the contamination.  Disco time again with special spot prises of sweets, which had to be explained beforehand.  They like dancing, music and what made it even better, getting paid to do it with sweets.  What we hadn’t told them was, everyone would get a bag.  Each time the music stopped someone was picked on a certain spot, which they thought would be the same spot each time.  So you can imagine the panic to get on the spot only to find we changed it each time to make it fair.

We weren’t late going to bed that night as we were feeling the strain of the early mornings plus we had a busy day ahead.  Some of us were house visiting others tidying a WW2 war memorial.

Day five was the morning we all went to the Russian Orthodox Church in the village as we had an invite to attend.  This was something none of us had experienced before.  The service had started about 08.00, we arrived about 09.00and it was still going strong.  There were only ten people in there when we arrived but the singing was tremendous.  We were all given a candle to light and all the females had to wear head scarves.  They allowed us to take as many photographs as we liked so long as we didn’t get in the way of the priest.  Naturally the collection box was pointed out to me, into which we all donated.  The service was to go on for another two hours Slava told us, so we left quietly with a lot of smiles from the local congregation.  Some of them came outside to wave to us and thanked us for our donations to the church, they also posed for photographs with us.  On our way back to the school we noticed a well, which Slava told us it was the village water supply where everyone had to get their water.

We split into our groups and went our different ways some on the house visit and I went with the war memorial group.  We had about 45 minutes drive into a forest where we found an overgrown memorial about the size of quarter of a football field.  The grass was about 15 inches high and we only had spades to cut it with.  They all got stuck in and in no time it was looking good.  All the grass had to be dumped in the forest which the children carried in blankets they had brought with them.  In all it took about 2 hours to clear but we got to thinking it would have been a lot quicker if we had had a strimmer.  When we asked if they had one they said it was old and had broken down some months earlier, so we had a whip round and bought a brand new one for them.  That was only to make it easier for us next time.

The house visitors had another surprise when they arrived at their destination.  This group hadn’t been on a house visit before.  They were a little prepared from what they had heard of the other visits that had gone before or so they thought.  No running water, the toilet was a hole in the garden, no food in the house, filthy conditions, very little furniture but the people were so nice even though they had nothing.  A few tears were shed and some food given to them and money and then it was back to the school.

Some of the arty girls set up a stand on our landing and started to paint their finger nails, this soon attracted the attention of the children and within a short time nearly all the girls in the school had pretty nails with flowers stars and the like on them.  Some of them also had their faces painted, lions, rabbits, mice and birds, which they all loved.  In one of the classrooms another group were teaching boys and girls how to sew with the machines we had sent over in the lorry, these had been released along with a pool table which our team erected and showed the older children how to play as it was only for them.

In the evening it was show time.  The children and teachers had been practicing for us visiting them.  With their limited resources they put together quite a good show.  The teachers started with beautiful singing and them made a presentation to the leader of the group.  They had baked a loaf of their traditional bread that had to be broken by both sides and eaten, to seal ours and their friendship.  A number of speeches were made and translated by Slava.  They thanked us for all the happiness and love we had brought to the school and the lorry load of aid.  The little children then danced for us, which was about the Autumn and the falling leaves.  There were 6 dancers 3 girls and 3 boys.  In Belarus whatever the children did, both sex’s did together.  Neither were embarrassed to accompany the other.  The older ones then sang some folk songs, which even though we couldn’t understand the words we could understand the actions.  While all this was going on it was being photographed from 3 different angles.

Then it was the turn of our artists, who I must say did really well with the little time they had to practice.  We had a pair of twins both singers and in their 50s who were very good.  They both done their turns separately and then came on as the Blues Brothers.  They had the children rocking with laughter with their antics, making them join in and dance with them.  They also made the teachers and the general staff join in so no one were forgotten.  Next we had an Irish dancer, a very pretty girl and very good dancer.  She was well received as the children love anything to do with dancing and it was all new to them.  There was also a street dancer, 3 more singers and a mime artist, who had the children in doubles laughing.  When it all ended it was done with our traditional dance to “The World In Union”, some of the children new it from their visits to Wales.  It wasn’t long before they all picked it up and were bouncing about to the music.  It was then time for lock down.

We retreated to our common room for the usual refreshments and discussion on how we were being received.  This was a concern, as we hoped to go back again.  We were also wondering what we could do special for the last night there.  It was decided to have the Disco and just love the kids and get everyone dancing.

Day six was another visit to a house, just 2 groups went as the others wanted to play with the children.  When we arrived at the house or I should say flat, it was the flat of the little boy my wife and I had hosted this year (2011).  His mother was out on the farm she was working for and had to be fetched.  She was a very small woman only about 6 stone and very swarthy.  As soon as she knew who I was she ran over to me to give me a hug and a kiss to thank me for taking her son in for his holiday.

We went up to her flat and it was horrendous, the walls were soaking wet as the roof was leaking badly and no one would repair it.  We had a quick peep in the fridge and there was only an egg in it, nothing else.  The bedroom was really damp and all the paper was hanging off the walls.  The bed was pulled away from the wall but would still be damp and it wasn’t very clean.  Her stove was just one dirty electric ring which I would have been afraid to turn on.  But for all her poverty she welcomed us into her home and was proud of her little boy.

We gave her food and about 120 dollars as she wasn’t an alcoholic.  We hadn’t realised how much she had been given until each person (4 of us) said what they had given her.  This would have been about 2 months pay for her.

We then went off to see another house, and this one was the worst we had seen.  What I couldn’t understand was no matter how bad the houses were they all had an electric supply albeit not very safe.  The smell of this house was rank, beds were filthy with no tidy mattress and a rusty bed frame.  The only food was some mushrooms that were being dried for storage.  These would be highly contaminated as they were picked from the forest which took most of the fallout from Chernobyl.  Their toilet was in a shed outside and you had to hold your breath to go in which I did to photograph it.  No one else would go in as we had never seen anything so bad before.  The husband and wife were both alcoholics so we only gave them food hoping they wouldn’t sell it to buy Vodka.

We returned to Goradets to find nearly everyone in the gymnasium playing games with the children.  It was to be our last evening with the children, so we all tried to make the rest of the day as special as possible.  Everyone joined in the games and the children loved it, Slava said they had never had so much fun and laughter in the school.  This went on until it was time for their tea, which didn’t take them long to eat as they wanted to get back into the gymnasium ready for the disco.  We had our tea and then it was time to make them laugh for the last time.

All of our 30 strong team were feeling very emotional, I personally had a job to see through my view finder to take photographs because of the tears.  I have also had some very emotional moments writing this story and had to stop.  Seeing some of the photographs I had taken brought all the memories flooding back.  To get back to the last evening, we danced and loved them all evening.  They loved it when we had dances where you all had to do it in unison.  It was now time for the last hand out of sweets, which they had not expected.  You should have seen the excitement at having more sweets.  The Director allowed the children a late lock down because it was our last night, it also helped to make the children extra tired so as not to wake when we left early next morning.

All around the gymnasium you could see children hanging onto our group members, some were in tears as it neared the time to say goodbye.  Myself and my two grandson’s were busy catching all the emotions we could.  It was pitiful to see the children, the staff and our members sobbing.  In the end one of our members took my camera off me and said ” If you are going to photograph us crying I’m going to photograph you crying as well”, which she did as I couldn’t hold back the tears.  Love was everywhere, they were hanging around our necks not wanting to let go.  This went on for about half an hour and it was time to say goodbye, the hardest part of our trip.  The Director with tears in her eyes ordered them off to bed as it was getting late for them and we had to be up early to leave by 04.30 for Minsk airport.

We had a bit of a wind down before going to bed and reflect on the past week.  I was then called to go down to the children’s dormitory downstairs as the little boy my wife and I had hosted in 2010 was crying his eyes out.  He wanted me and only me, when I got down there he was sobbing bitterly.  I just put my arms around him and held him until he started to go off to sleep.  As I came out of the dormitory two of the young girls I knew were waiting and promptly threw their arms around me, crying and pleading for me to stay and hide in their dormitory.  The Director was coming along the corridor, so I scooted them off to bed.  Just as I turned to go there was this little girl about 6 years old looking at me as much as to say no one has loved me.  I just held my arms out and she ran into them and I gave her a hug and kissed her.  All she had on was a little vest and pants, no pyjamas she looked so pitiful.  That little girl and her sister are coming to Wales in 2012 and will be staying with my wife and myself and the first thing they will have are a few sets of pyjamas each.

Day seven we woke at 03.00 next morning having packed what we wanted to take home, as we left things like sleeping bags etc; we had our last breakfast of shredded chicken and something and it was then time for our goodbyes to the staff who had got up to make breakfast and see us off.  The coach was on time and making a lot of noise, we all piled on as fast as we could so the children didn’t wake.  We now had a five hour journey ahead of us to get to Minsk airport.  We were all fairly quiet on the journey due to being tired and sad at leaving.  Everything went well at our check in and had a good flight home to Gatwick.  We arrived home in the early evening, I just wanted a nice cup of coffee and to tell my wife about the trip and to inform her I would be going back.

You can find photos of the Keith’s trip to Chernobyl here.

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