On April 28, 1986, a team of workers at a Swedish power plant raised the alarm when they detected radioactive particles on their clothing.
As Sweden set about finding the source of the particles, the first whisperings began to creep out from behind the Iron Curtain, that a disaster the likes of which the world had never seen before, was unfolding more than 1,000 kilometres away from those workmen, at a giant Soviet Union power plant in the city of Chernobyl.
It has now been 28 years since a fire and explosion in Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Power Plant on April 26, 1986, spewed giant plumes of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, making real what had previously only been the stuff of diaster movie plotlines and nightmares.
The catastrophe prompted an outcry from the international community and gave serious weight to the anti-nuclear campaign, but over time, Chernobyl, and the lasting horror of its consequences, has somewhat faded from people’s minds.
Not so for one Castlebar woman.
Ann Coleman has travelled to Belarus, the worst hit area by the fallout from Chernobyl, dozens of times and, for her, the events of 1986 and the shadow it has cast on the lives of the people and children of that country, are still very much headline news.
Ms Coleman has been volunteering for 10 years now with the Castlebar branch of Chernobyl Children International, the charity founded by prominent humanitarian campaigner Adi Roche.
Since it began in 1996, the Castlebar branch has brought some 240 children from orphanages and poverty hit families living in Belarus to Ireland to experience what is called a ‘rest and recuperation’ holiday - a chance to spend some time away from their daily lives in the most toxic environment on the planet.
“It is estimated that this holiday in Ireland adds an additional two years to the life expectancy of these children,” explained Ms Coleman.
“Where they live, the ground is contaminated, the water is contaminated, and their food is contaminated. They are exposed to radiation every day.
“When they come to Ireland, they are not exposed to that radiation and eat clean, non contaminated fresh food and water. During their stay, the children are hosted by families in Castlebar who open their homes. The local committee organises outings and purchase shoes and clothes for them to bring back to Belarus.”
Ms Coleman first became involved with the charity in 2004 after visiting a Belarusian orphanage with a friend.
On her return, she promptly signed up to volunteer with Castlebar CCI.
Since then, she has visited an orphanage at Vesnova multiple times, sometimes up to four times a year.
“People say to me now that ‘you must be hardened to it’ but that is not the case at all,” she said. “It is sad, desperately sad, and it always will be. The ground there has been destroyed and it will be like that for thousands of years. These children have been written off because they have disabilities. I believe every child has the right to be treated with dignity and respect and I believe that volunteers who travel there give these children the respect and care they deserve.”
Many of the children were placed in the orphanage because they were born with disabilities. Their families would be encouraged to place them in institutions because of the culture of poverty and a shortage of adequate medical attention.
In Belarus some 85 per cent of children carry what are called the ‘genetic markers’ of Chernobyl, and many suffer from birth defects and health difficulties associated with radiation exposure.
Next week, on Wednesday, October 15, Castlebar CCI is holding a fashion show in the TF Royal Hotel and Theatre, to raise much needed funds for this programme, which includes the rest and recupperation holidays and outreach work at the orphanage in Vesnova.
Special guests on the night will be Adi Roche, who will speak about the work of CCI in Belarus, Ukraine, and Western Russia, and Rose of Tralee, Maria Walsh, from Shrule.
“We are delighted they have taken the time to include this event in their busy schedules, so grateful,” said Ms Coleman.
For fashion lovers, the show promises to be a real treat.
Well known local boutiques such as A Stor, Annette Gerard, Leah’s Labels, Pamela Scott, and Rosewater will show their autumn/winter collection.
For followers of male fashion some members of the Mayo senior football team will be modelling the latest designs from Padraic McHale and Unit 7.
All money raised on the night will go directly to the Castlebar CCI Outreach Group and will help to bring the children to Ireland next summer on the rest and recuperation programme.
Tickets cost €15 each (€7.50 for students and children ) and are available from Leah’s Labels, C&C Cellular/Vodafone, Market Square, or the Royal Theatre. Doors open at 6.30pm and the show starts at 8pm.