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Home > Israel > 2001: A new beginning

2001: A new beginning
Chabad's Children of Chernobyl airlifts 2,001st child from areas contaminated by nuclear explosion

September 22, 2000

Alan Clingman (center), president of the American Friends of Chabad's Children of Chernobyl, escorts twin sisters Irene and Svetlana Smolyanov, 11, arriving in Israel from the Ukraine. They are the 2000th and 2001st arrivals brought to Israel from the Chernobyl region by Chabad.
JERUSALEM—In August 1990, four years after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded less than 50 miles from his home in Gomel, Belarus, Mikail (Misha) Gechtin made the heartbreaking decision to send his two young children far away from the radiation-infested areas.

"We didn't know what happened at Chernobyl," he said at a press conference to announce the impending arrival of Chabad's Children of Chernobyl's (CCOC) 54th flight carrying the 2,001st child and to release an alarming medical study further validating the project's 10-year rescue effort. "We were outside marching on May Day, five days after the explosion. Once we knew, I measured the radiation and saw terribly high levels. My daughter was losing her eyesight. I had constant headaches. I knew I had to get my children out of there. It was hell."

Gechtin sent his 12-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son to Israel with Chabad's Children of Chernobyl. He joined them four months later. "The staff was completely devoted. They gave my children excellent medical care, healthy food, and a good education," Gechtin said. "Today Irena and Yevgeny are healthy."

Gechtin and his daughter were among the 600-plus crowd gathered September 19 on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport to welcome the 62 children airlifted from Belarus and Ukraine, more than 50 percent of whom were from Gechtin's highly-contaminated hometown of Gomel. Israel's Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Knesset Members, UN Chief of Advocacy for the Department of Humanitarian Affairs Phyllis Lee, and foreign diplomats partook in the celebration.

The 2,000th and 2,001st children, twin sisters Irena and Svetlana Smolyanova, 11, of Butcha, Ukraine, descended from the plane accompanied by Alan Clingman, president of the American Friends of CCOC and Director Yossie Raichik. "Our hearts are full of happiness at this milestone," Raichik said. "But the danger is growing and we must redouble our efforts to reach the goal we set 10 years ago-to evacuate a total of 3,000 children. We intend to do it by 2004."

The medical study, conducted by the Raanana-based Selikoff Center for Environmental Health and Human Development, underlines the urgency of removing children from the irradiated regions. It demonstrates that the longer children live in the contaminated areas the higher the risk for developing thyroid, liver, lymph and other diseases. This is true both for children alive at the time of the disaster and those born after -- indeed, children born after may be at even greater risk. Most of the youngsters who accompanied the Smolyanova sisters were born after 1986.

Dr. Yogesh Choudri, lead epidemiologist on the research, made international headlines when he explained that the findings indicate that newborns born after the disaster may be more at risk than those who were over the age of 1 at the time of the April 26, 1986, explosion. "Our results raise a red flag about the health dangers to those living in contaminated areas," Choudri stated.

CCOC Medical Liaison Jay Litvin emphasized that this particular study must be seen in the context of other studies that indicate rising levels of radiation in the contaminated areas through 2060. "Without intervention," Litvin says, "we may be looking at growing numbers of sick children, while medical care and services in the affected areas remain virtually non-existent."

CCOC, under the auspices of Chabad Youth Organization in Israel, was founded 10 years ago in response to appeals to the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Jewish parents in the contaminated areas who feared for their children's lives. It is the only program in the world to evacuate children permanently from the irradiated zones.

CCOC also provides critical medical assistance to relieve the suffering of the population, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in the irradiated regions. At a time when breast cancer rates in Ukraine have risen 70%, CCOC is opening mammography centers and shipping the first-ever needle biopsy equipment to northern Ukraine.

"You cannot see the terrible suffering in Ukraine and Belarus, as we have, and do nothing," said Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Aronov, director of Chabad Youth Organization in Israel. "Our fear is that as the disaster recedes in time it will be forgotten."

Mirroring Rabbi Aronov's concern, the UN's Phyllis Lee -- who was sent to Israel especially to join the celebration -- delivered UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's plea: "We must not forget that 7 million people, including 3 million children, are at risk in the contaminated regions," Lee said. She noted that the UN will continue to work with CCOC to ensure that the needs in the region are met.

"We are profoundly grateful to Chabad's Children of Chernobyl for its exemplary leadership in saving many children from disease," she said. "We hope governments and grassroots groups will follow CCOC's example and make a real difference to the millions living under the grim specter of radiation."

In Gomel, radiation continues to reap a terrible harvest. Gechtin, who recently returned to his hometown to visit friends and relatives, recalled his shock at seeing that the city's vast new cemetery, opened in 1993, was already filled. "I knew why," he said, "but my friends explained it in one word, 'Chernobyl.'"

©, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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