Visit Of Belarus Chernobyl Children Threatened

Hundreds of Belarussian children suffering from radiation after the Chernobyl power plant disaster in Ukraine have been denied a visit to Switzerland.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko cancelled the trip after fearing some children would not want to come back home. The decision has angered Swiss organisers who say the youngsters are being used as political pawns.

For more than a decade, about 400 children from the eastern European country - aged between seven and 16 - have made an annual journey to Switzerland to receive medical treatment and social support.

They are all suffering from the effects of radiation that still lingers on in the region following the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in neighbouring Ukraine in 1986.

The charms of democratic freedom have proved irresistible to some of the visitors to western countries and two have claimed political asylum in recent years.

Although these cases did not take place in Switzerland, Lukashenko still demanded written guarantees that the Swiss would reject asylum seekers. When this demand was rejected, on the grounds it conflicted with human rights laws, Lukashenko stopped the visit.

" The children are very down and disappointed. There was hope for their health and that has now disappeared. " Andreas Goerlich-Koch

Children "hostages"

Andreas Goerlich-Koch, of the Hardwald Chernobyl aid project based near Zurich, believes the children have become the victim of hardball politics.

"When they come to Switzerland they see democracy and a better way of life than in Belarus and that makes them ask why things can't be like that at home," he told swissinfo. "The president is holding these children hostage for the sake of his policies."

"The children are very down and disappointed. There was hope for their health and that has now disappeared."

Goerlich-Koch's charity is among around a dozen that invite the children every year. They do not get specific treatment for radiation illnesses, but they do receive vital vitamin courses and dental care that is denied to them at home.

And just a few weeks away from the dangerously high levels of radiation they are normally exposed to are enough to help reduce the concentrations in their bodies.

Relief continues

Part of the programme has also been aimed at fostering links with Swiss children and families to offer moral support.

"Nobody wants to visit a country with so much radiation so they lack contact with the outside world. If they come to Switzerland they get hope because they come into contact with people and know that they have not been forgotten," Goerlich-Koch said.

The Chernobyl Hardwald group plans to visit Belarus this year to organise treatment in local hospitals. And if the ban on children travelling is not lifted, the charity said it would invite adults who are not covered by the presidential decree.

"The president is tough but we are also tough. The worst message would be to say we have stopped," said Goerlich-Koch.

Officially, the Chernobyl meltdown resulted directly in 56 deaths, with the eventual death toll estimated to reach as many as 4,000 people. But some organisations, including Greenpeace, say the numbers have been underestimated.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich



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