What am I expecting as Peter and I set off on our flight to Minsk? It is my first time venturing into Eastern Europe and I have a vague idea that life there might be basic and even sad … after communism and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Brother Liam O’Meara’s warm welcome at Dom Zara, the hospitality and administrative centre for the Dobra Tut foundation, and then meeting the Irish volunteers, combine to quickly overcome our feelings of being a stranger.
Next day we are heading north, with Yura at the wheel, towards Svir. We enjoy the huge tracts of forest, the fields of crops, and herds of cows organised by the collective farms. We are passing through villages with wooden houses and small-holdings. Yes, it is basic with little signs of commercialisation.
We arrive at the adult asylum at Svir and are warmly greeted by some of the 150 residents. Burren-Chernobyl, the Irish charity, has been working here for some years and we’re about to see what they’ve been doing. But first there is some Belarus hospitality … we find ourselves sitting at a table laden with food … lots of vegetables from their garden, juice from the larch trees, and all washed down by three rounds of vodka!
We can see that the plastering, painting, and refurbished washing facilities make a great difference when compared with the areas not yet touched. We meet residents, most of whom wander freely around the grounds. One group who are locked in a compound all day are a sad sight, but is good to meet the bed-ridden people outside on their mattresses. Back at Dom Zara we enjoy a meal and the stories of the day with the Irish volunteers.
We are driving through beautiful woods now on our way to Tarisicki adult asylum. It’s a big place at the end of a road going nowhere else. Brothers Ned Hadyen and Tom Earley are part of another team of Irish volunteers busily painting and refurbishing the showers. Successive groups have done a great job. Whilst I find the bedrooms smart and tidy, it is the state of some of the residents which I am finding distressing. I’m next to a shrivelled young man of skin and bone huddled in his bed and covered with flies. I am feeling so upset and angry that I don’t say anything and just walk on to the next room. They tell me that he came from Cherven like this and was not expected to live long. What is God saying through this young man?
We are walking past a locked compound where thirty or so residents spend each day … lying on the ground, walking around aimlessly, or sitting in huddles. I wonder: why are human beings living like this? It is to stop them escaping, but why spend all day doing nothing? Because there aren’t enough staff to supervise, because staff don’t know how to engage with these people, because …?
We are happy back at the orphanage: it’s the last day for the Irish volunteers (and for us). I am finding the lunchtime feeding of those in wheelchairs a most moving experience – the teenage boy is so trusting and patient with me. The young adults are now milling around outside and there is an air of excitement. The music has just begun and soon we’re all dancing away most enthusiastically. Lots of photographs and a ‘lucky bag’ for everyone - lovingly put together by Maria. Goodbyes, some tears … “see you next week?” “… next year?” … when is that?
Walking round Minsk I’m amazed at how clean and modern it is. It’s only in the World War Two museum that I realise why. I am seeing the horrific story of how over eighty percent of the city was destroyed during WW2. The Nazis took the city in 1941 and the Soviet army recaptured it three years later – at massive cost of lives. I am even more disturbed to see pictures of some of the two hundred Nazi ‘extermination camps’. Millions of Belarusians died during these sad years.
I’m finding prayer in the Catholic Red Church and St Mary Magdalene Russian Orthodox church gives me some peace after absorbing some of the horrors of war. There seem to be very few such places of religious worship in Minsk.
The Trust came into being following the explosion at Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986. Large areas of what is now southern Belarus were contaminated and there have been higher than normal levels of physical and mental abnormality. It was the children with special needs which drew an amazingly compassionate response from Ireland, especially the people of Ennistymon. Though systematic assistance to the orphanages continues apace, the aim is to have as many young people as possible living in a family. So day-centres for young people with special needs are being opened. We found the Mary Rice Centre in Cherven drew together the young people, parents, and supporting adults into a real community, a circle of compassion.
You can find the story of how this work continues on the website: www.burrenchernobyl.ie It is also well described in Liam O’Meara’s books: Fallout (Columba Press, 2003) and Meltdown Moments (Minsk Technalohija, 2010).
Christian Brother Francis Hall
Published August 2010