Chernobyl Children in Cuba: an Untold Story (Part 2)

March 29, 2022 was the 32nd anniversary of the arrival in Cuba of 139 children from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus; after the impact of the explosion of the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. On that day, the longest humanitarian program in human history was born. CubaenResumen resumes the publication of Cubaperiodistas on the occasion of the date and proposes these stories published in its pages, be seen as a contribution and encouragement to true peace and for a better world. In a special showing, our documentary “Sacha, a child of Chernobyl” will be broadcasted again tomorrow on Cuba Visión channel of Cuban TV.

In March 1990, the first group of children from the areas affected by the explosion of the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant arrived in Cuba.  By July of that same year, with the voluntary work of thousands of Cubans, almost all the facilities at the Tarará spa had been reserved for the massive reception of children from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

From the very beginning, the Cuban Ministry of Public Health directed the program and all the health institutions and research centers of the capital were involved, given the magnitude and complexity of the program and the difficult period that began for Cuba after the disappearance of the Socialist Camp and the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.  Likewise, the whole society, in one way or another, got involved in volunteering with translators, professionals from different sectors and the Cuban education system itself.

For example, the Ministry of Communications guaranteed the children’s telephone communication with their families back home; the Ministry of Transportation supported the transfer of patients to hospitals, medical centers and excursions as part of their psychological rehabilitation. Likewise, in coordination with the Ministry of Culture, cultural activities were organized in Tarará to bring joy to the children living there.

Dr. Julio Medina, part of the medical program team since its inception and its director since 1998, affirms that in the midst of these conditions the program was sustainable thanks to the political system that allowed mobilizing and organizing resources, the strength of the Cuban health system and the immense humanity of the Island’s health professionals, who shared their care for Cuban children alongside those from Chernobyl, in the same hospital wards in the capital.

Over time, the program evolved in what today we would call different stages. As part of the first stage, until 1992, the patients were common to all three countries. After that date, the number of Russian and Belarusian children decreased and the number of Ukrainian children remained massive.

During the first ten years some 2,000 people, including children and their companions, were permanently in Tarará, with a high level of occupation; those recovered returned to their countries and others arrived in Cuba. In that first stage, flights to Havana were jointly paid for by international funds for humanitarian aid to Chernobyl victims and other international efforts.

However later on the logistics of air transportation became more complex and it was necessary to start bringing children by regular flights, which made their arrival more difficult. So Cuba organized with the Ukrainian government quotas for some 600 children that corresponded to their transportation possibilities along with the preparation of the necessary infrastructure in Tarara.

This is the stage described as the most difficult of the program, which meant its design and implementation, the care of the sickest children and their families, who also received medical assistance. It is the stage of experimentation in the scientific and medical field and of course of learning and systematization of the results that were being achieved for their later analysis and presentation before international conventions that would give an account of the results of the medical and scientific work carried out.

A step to a second stage of the program can be considered as what Dr. Julio Medina explains as the solution reached to guarantee the follow-up of the program in Cuba with the opening of a similar medical program in Ukraine in 1998, in a sanatorium in Crimea. There, joint work was developed between Cuban and Ukrainian specialists who provided medical care to help overcome the limitations of air transportation.

Tarara and Crimea were maintained until the conclusion of the humanitarian program in 2011.  This contributed over the years to the strengthening of the Ukrainian health care system and to the more effective handling of the impact of the nuclear accident on its population. Also at the end of the 90’s, in this new stage, treatment alternatives began to be developed at the Institute of Hematology in Kiev; and the collaboration between the Island and Ukraine favored the care of patients in both scenarios based on the experience obtained in Cuba, the joint research and the application of international protocols of medical care in these cases.

The program continued until 2011, in the last stage, with fewer patients on the Island compared to the massive concentration and effort of the first two periods. Medical and scientific practices were consolidated, which represented an effort of thousands of Cuban professionals. Texts and references related to the subject were translated into Spanish, which were very useful in the measurement of radiation and its subsequent interpretations.

Since 1990 the Center for Radiation Protection and Hygiene of Cuba developed dosimetric and biomedical studies to evaluate the impact of the accident, providing valuable research to know the contamination levels, estimate the irradiation doses and their influence on the thyroid, as well as to follow up the pathologies derived from the contamination in the localities of origin. The professionals of this research center still keep in their archives both the equipment used (some of which they made themselves) and the original records of their research.

This helped to create an important database, considered by international experts as the only one of its kind in the world, which makes the study carried out in Cuba one of the most recognized sources for the evaluation of the radiological impact of the Chernobyl accident.

On the other hand, the program was not only a medical and scientific experience but also a human and cultural symbiosis experience that included children with long stays in Cuba continued with their classes, fraternization was encouraged between Cuban and Ukrainian children in dances, games, excursions, meals and customs from one side and the other. Island traditions such as the celebration of the fifteenth birthday of Cuban teenagers were also practiced with the teenagers from Chernobyl, and each one of them who turned fifteen in Cuba had a party as a tribute.

The testimonies of many Cuban professionals and patients who lived for a long time on the Island and others who stayed to live forever in Cuba are of great importance to know the dimension of the humanitarian program. Their stories are also voices of Chernobyl.

Source: Cuba en Resumen