Cork man: Anxious emails from my friend - a Colonel in Ukrainian Army

Trevor Laffan volunteered for many years delivering aid to Belarus, which borders Ukraine. Here he reflects on the ongoing war
Cork man: Anxious emails from my friend - a Colonel in Ukrainian Army

IN THE FRONTLINE: A Ukrainian Army soldier inspects fragments of a downed aircraft in Kyiv after the invasion by Russian forces

IT’S more than 20 years since I first went to Belarus and western Russia. It was in the aftermath of the accident at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, and over the following ten years, I became very familiar with Gomel, where the recent talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations took place.

I have also been to Kiev and Lviv, two beautiful, civilised cities currently featuring regularly in the news.

It’s difficult to watch what’s happening there now. 

The loss of life and the destruction of property is obscene and the attack on the largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine brought back some horrific memories.

The sight of a fire at that facility sent a shiver up my spine. We’ve seen the devastation that can be caused when these places are damaged, and we don’t want a repeat of that.

Everyone over a certain age will remember the nuclear accident at the reactor in Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. National Geographic give a good account of it for anyone who needs reminding about the worst nuclear accident in history and how it unfolded.

More than 36 years on, scientists estimate the zone around the former plant will be uninhabitable for up to 20,000 years.

On April 25, 1986, routine maintenance was scheduled at the plant, and workers planned to use the downtime to test whether the reactor could still be cooled if the plant lost power.

During the test, however, workers violated safety protocols and power surged inside the plant. Despite attempts to shut down the reactor entirely, another power surge caused a chain reaction of explosions inside.

Finally, the nuclear core itself was exposed, spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Firefighters attempted to put out a series of fires at the plant, and helicopters dumped sand and other materials in an attempt to quench the fires and contain the contamination. Radiation spread as far as Sweden, where officials at another nuclear plant began to ask about what was happening.

After first denying any accident, the authorities finally made a brief announcement, and the world slowly began to learn of the horrific consequences of that incident.

The world rallied round. Hundreds of charitable organisations sprung up to offer help to those affected as a result of the fallout. 

Humanitarian aid in the form of food, clothing and medical supplies was collected and delivered to Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia by convoys of all shapes and sizes. We rose to the challenge too in this country.

The nuclear plant was in Ukraine, close to the border with Belarus, but following the explosion, the wind took most of the radiation into Belarus, so they suffered more than most, which is why much of the relief effort was focused there.

They had other problems too though. There was blatant institutional neglect, lack of funding and complete mismanagement of childcare facilities. Thousands of children were housed in institutions and orphanages in terrible conditions.

The Belarus regime cared little about the welfare of those children, so it was left up to other countries to do what they could, and many Irish people did.

Humanitarian aid worth millions of euro was delivered to Belarus and Western Russia over those years and was gratefully received by the ordinary people, but all the volunteers got from the Belarus President, Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994 and is now the longest serving European president, was obstruction.

Customs officials in particular were a complete nightmare to deal with. They made life very difficult with mountains of red tape and volumes of paperwork. Endless checks were required before the aid could finally be delivered to where it was needed most.

Customs officers in Gomel were particularly difficult. On one occasion, a group of us with truckloads of aid, were locked in a compound for more than 24 hours until they found time to deal with us. Delays like that were normal.

Lukashenko’s officials certainly didn’t lay out the red carpet, so it struck me as ironic that Gomel was chosen as the location for peace talks.

Lukashenko is by no means the people’s president. He rules by fear and intimidation, and you can feel that oppressive atmosphere once you cross the border from Poland into Belarus.

Allowing the Russian President to use Belarus to access Ukraine for his invasion will not be supported by the ordinary citizens of Belarus who, like Ukrainian’s people, are decent, hospitable, and generous.

I have many friends in Belarus and Ukraine. People I met during my Chernobyl days and during my time working with the United Nations.

I shared an office with a guy in Cyprus who is a Colonel in the Ukrainian Army. I received an email from him the other day from his base in Kiev and he’s worried about his family.

He’s also disturbed about the number of civilian casualties and the destruction of his country. He is wondering what the future holds.

He has every reason to be worried about the future. Any ceasefire from the Russians is being met with distrust after it was reported that families were killed as they tried to leave. They’re running out of food and water.

But even if the Russians do honour the ceasefire and allow people to leave, the humanitarian corridors don’t offer much in the way of refuge.

The Russian defence ministry said in a statement that under Moscow’s ceasefire proposals, civilians in Kyiv will be offered safe passage to Gomel in Belarus, while those in Kharkiv, the second biggest city, will have a corridor leading only to Russia itself.

Sounds like out of the frying pan and into the fire to me.

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