I’ll take your pain

[b]In April, the whole world recollects the Chernobyl disaster. Kiev recently hosted the international conference — 25 Years of the Chernobyl Catastrophe: Future Security — featuring the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. Such high level representation was no mere tribute to the sad jubilee. Over all these years, the social-economic rehabilitation of those regions affected by the disaster has remained high on the UN agenda. However, international aid can never compensate for the loss suffered by Belarus[/b]The date marks a stage in our tragic fate — an ultimate injustice; having lost thirty percent of the population during WWII, Belarus was then afflicted by this Chernobyl pain. Over 70 percent of the radioactivity fell on our territory, with twenty percent of Belarusians affected, including over 500,000 children.
In April, the whole world recollects the Chernobyl disaster. Kiev recently hosted the international conference — 25 Years of the Chernobyl Catastrophe: Future Security — featuring the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. Such high level representation was no mere tribute to the sad jubilee. Over all these years, the social-economic rehabilitation of those regions affected by the disaster has remained high on the UN agenda. However, international aid can never compensate for the loss suffered by Belarus

The date marks a stage in our tragic fate — an ultimate injustice; having lost thirty percent of the population during WWII, Belarus was then afflicted by this Chernobyl pain. Over 70 percent of the radioactivity fell on our territory, with twenty percent of Belarusians affected, including over 500,000 children.
Belarus’ spiritual treasury includes a book known to every Belarusian: I’ll Take Your Pain. Its title symbolises all that has been endured: we analyse, recollect, grieve and thank all those who have shared the pain of Chernobyl with us. Italy was among the first to offer aid and is now one of Belarus’ major humanitarian partners.
The Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Italy, H.E. Mr. Yevgeny Shestakov, tells us about the role of Italian charity organisations in the recuperation and rehabilitation of Belarusian children.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe, I’d like to talk to you about the efficiency of international assistance rendered to Belarus by Europe. How do you view Italy’s contribution to Belarus’ overcoming the consequences of the nuclear power plant disaster?
Italy is now among the major humanitarian partners of Belarus, primarily as regards children’s recuperation abroad. We are very grateful to our Italian friends for this help. Their unselfishness and mercy have been widely evident, enabling us to alleviate the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster for thousands of Belarusian children over past decades. Moreover, our nations have come closer via interpersonal contacts. An atmosphere of friendship and mutual understanding has been created.
In 1993, Italian humanitarian associations began realising the first recuperation projects for Belarusian children from Chernobyl-affected regions, on Italian territory. Since then, the country has led in this sphere, as confirmed by Belarusian and Italian statistics. The statistics of Belarus’ Education Ministry state that, every year, Italy accepts about half of all Belarusian children going on recuperative trips. Meanwhile, the Italian Ministry for Labour, Health and Social Policies notes that, in 2010 alone, about 13,900 Belarusian children visited Italy for medical rehabilitation; 72 percent of all foreign children who have taken part in Italian recuperation projects are Belarusian.
It’s evident that the efforts of the Italian humanitarian movement are still concentrated on the recuperation of Belarusian children, with efforts primarily spontaneous; these originate directly from Italian families and are not backed by Italian state organs.
No less importantly, in the two and a half decades which have passed since the catastrophe, Italian recuperative projects have also embraced other categories of children: those without parents, lacking parental care and coming from unstable social environments, alongside those suffering from psycho-physical disorders. It’s wonderful that the care and affection shown by Italian families has improved the mindset of our children, encouraging them to care for others, showing mercy and kindness.
Italian humanitarian associations have also supplied food, medicines and clothes, while funding reconstruction projects. They have helped repair buildings and have purchased new equipment and computers for orphanages and social establishments. In 2010, Italy provided $1.9mln of humanitarian aid to Belarus: $1.2mln in the form of money and $0.7mln as material help.
The financing of repair works and equipment purchase for Belarusian medical rehabilitation centres by Italian charity organisations has contributed to the strengthening of their material-technical base and expanded the potential of our country regarding the recuperation of under-18s here.
Why do you think the Italians demonstrated such profound spiritual kindness towards those Belarusian children who needed rehabilitation? Who pioneered this movement?
This is connected with the specific character of Italian culture and mentality, since they see families and children as being of fundamental significance. Some of the Italian charity organisations rendering help have been doing so since the early 1990s. One such is the Aiutiamoli A Vivere (Let’s Help Them Live) charity, headquartered in Umbria’s Terni. It was set up in 1992, inviting initially just 18 children. To date, it has invited about 5,000. Moreover, it has sent humanitarian aid to Belarus since 1992; it sponsors a boarding school in Senno, while supplying modern equipment to the Gomel Regional Ophthalmological Centre. It has also reconstructed a ward at Minsk’s city clinical hospital #3 (for children suffering from mucoviscidosis).
The White Horse charity, from Rome, offers an interesting example of humanitarian co-operation. Since 1995, it has annually invited children suffering from mental retardation to Italy (from Begoml’s orphanage). Apart from welcoming them to Italy, the organisation helps their rehabilitation in Belarus, offering professional training courses to improve the social adaptation of teenagers suffering from mental disorders.
One of the oldest and largest Italian associations welcoming Belarusian children is PUER, headquartered in Rome and operating since 1993. Every year, it invites from 3,500 to 5,000 under-18s, with 85 percent from orphanages. PUER organises rehabilitation for children suffering from serious diseases, while assisting disabled children and organising sporting events for them. Jointly with other associations, it is developing a network of social services and offers professional training classes at orphanages. The association also trains highly qualified teachers and supports several hundred children, annually sending financial allowances. Dozens of students at Belarusian universities receive grants from Italy. In July 2004, four houses for children opened in Mogilev Region, partially funded by PUER, which donated 150,000 Euros. It continues to work in other Belarusian regions.
Such Italian associations as Group Accepting Belarusian Children, International Solidarity, Garda Solidale and Heart are also worth mentioning.
Is this Italian help a purely public initiative, or has the state played a role? Also, has Belarusian-Italian humanitarian co-operation been taken up by other European states?
Interestingly, regarding international rehabilitation of children who have suffered from the Chernobyl catastrophe, almost every organisation is non-governmental. However, there is a certain exception; since 1994, Italy has had an interdepartmental committee for foreign children’s affairs (now part of the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Policies). It co-ordinates the work of Italian associations implementing recuperative projects.
Constructive interaction between the Belarusian and Italian state authorities resulted in an agreement, signed on May 10th, 2007, outlining the terms for recuperation of Belarus’ under-age citizens in Italy, on the basis of non-repayable aid. The document came into force on January 10th, 2008, and is the only one of its kind signed by Italy with a foreign state; this confirms the importance of the matter for our bilateral relations. This agreement — the first for our country — could lead to similar documents being signed with other states currently providing recuperative support.
What is your attitude towards Belarusian children who have been adopted by Italian families? Have any problems emerged, requiring state intervention?
Belarusian and Italian charity associations welcoming Belarusian children abroad follow the principle that international adoption and recuperation are separate fields. Our states have the necessary legal and administrative mechanisms to ensure bilateral interaction in the spheres of recuperation and adoption and our state bodies are always ready to solve unexpected situations, if any emerge.
I’d like to stress once more that, owing to this mechanism, we’ve avoided problematic issues regarding humanitarian co-operation, which could require state intervention.
Which stories have impressed you most of all?
The recuperative projects organised between Belarus and Italy are full of unique cases, which show the true personal and moral qualities of Italian families. One such case occurred in 2005, when a 13 year old girl was returning home from her recuperative visit to the Island of Sardinia. On their way from Minsk-2 Airport, there was a terrible car accident in which her father died and she received great injuries. The Italian humanitarian association which had invited the girl immediately arranged her flight back to Italy for medical treatment. In early 2006, she passed a six month course of treatment at an Italian hospital and has been offered a three month rehabilitation course annually. The Mayoral Office of Sardinia’s Cagliari and the Italian charity association financed the girl’s medical treatment.
Has the recuperation of Belarusian children in Italy gone beyond purely humanitarian action, becoming ‘people’s diplomacy’?
That the recuperation of Belarusian children in Italy is something more than merely humanitarian action has been many times confirmed by sociological studies conducted across the Apennines Peninsula. One of the most wonderful results of Italian families hosting our Belarusian children is that, in most cases, they significantly change their attitude towards our country, becoming more positive.
Before meeting our ‘young diplomats’, the Italians quite often have generalised ideas about Belarus, which fail to match the realities. However, on meeting our children and, especially, on visiting our country, they drastically change their perception of Belarus and their attitude towards us. To understand this, we should remember that Italians had much rebuilding to do in the post-war years, so can empathise with modern Belarus as a young, dynamic state, now actively developing. These people have had to apply their own efforts to allow Italy to flourish, so can put aside stereotypes and cliches imposed by the western media and accept those aspects which set us apart from our neighbours.
The most intensive period for our children’s recuperation in Italy was in 1996, when over 50,000 visited the country; today, the Italian recuperative movement unites over 230 associations, which realise over a thousand projects annually. Over 400,000 Belarusian children have visited Italy during the period of our co-operation. On growing up, many have stayed in touch with the Italian families which hosted them. Around 15,000 Italian families accept our children every year, learning about our country by chatting with their young guests and those adults who accompany them. These Italians become closer to us. This ‘people’s diplomacy’ helps our countries find a common language on the most diverse issues.
The efficiency of Belarusian children’s ‘people’s diplomacy’ in Italy is based on a wider scale, present in all spheres of Italian society and state. The Italian Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Policies states that the country’s northern regions (Veneto, Lombardia and Piemonte) more often accept children, boasting more ‘well off’ homes than in the southern regions. However, the central (Emilia Romagna, Lazio and Toscana) and southern (Campania, Puglia and Sicilia) regions also hospitably welcome Belarusian children.
I’m convinced that over two decades of such diplomacy have brought our countries closer, inspiring mutual co-operation in such vital spheres as culture, education and science (and trade to a lesser extent). We are realising the unique potential of Belarus and Italy owing to our many years of interaction in the recuperative area.
How have humanitarian co-operation and personal contacts influenced the rapprochement of Belarus and Italy on a wider scale? What are the prospects of this collaboration?
No doubt, humanitarian contacts continue, with new spheres of co-operation evolving, including relating to trade. Many Italians who visit our country for the first time with a humanitarian goal find unexpected aspects: a dynamically developing economy, an expanding domestic market and well trained staff. As a result, joint projects appear and business ties are established, with contracts concluded. In some cases, Italian business is a continuation of humanitarian activity, with Italian families creating jobs for their former ‘Chernobyl children’.
Thousands of young Belarusian citizens, who have many times visited Italy, learn its language, gaining acquaintance with Italian life. They are our common wealth, able to help develop our co-operation. They are potential staff for new joint ventures funded by Italian money. Clearly, our states will long enjoy a fruitful relationship.

By Nina Romanova
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