By Ray O’Hanlon
A dynamic duet took center stage last Thursday evening in a building not infrequently noted for its lack of dynamism.
That’s not a gratuitous slap in the face for the United Nations. Organizing more than 180 often bickering nations to do anything in a hurry is not a job to be envied.
But there are times when the inertia spawned by sheer size should, and must, give way to the energy and grit of an individual — or two of them.
This was no less the case at the UN’s East River headquarters, where an exhibition marking the 15th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster sought to remind the world that Chernobyl is far from over — indeed, is only a spark or two beyond its catastrophic beginning.
Adi Roche, founder and executive director of the Chernobyl Children’s Project, an Ireland-based charitable foundation that is battling against the still mounting death toll from radiation poisoning in the Ukraine, Belarus and Western Russia, holds in her slim frame the human equivalent in raw energy that might otherwise be found in a nuclear fuel rod.
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And after the somewhat pedestrian performances of more than one speaker, that energy was guaranteed to fire up a crowd which had come to the UN’s public foyer to sip wine while casting uneasy glances over an exhibit of photographs, paintings and sculpture that left little to the imagination when it came to confronting the barely imaginable human cost of Chernobyl’s more or less eternal legacy.
Roche’s speech, and that of Ireland’s minister of state at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Liz O’Donnell, was delivered from a podium that, minutes before, had been shaken by the prancing and pounding feet of dancers from the "Riverdance on Broadway" show.
This being an Irish event, there was, regardless of grim circumstance, an inclination to seek out the brighter side of the story. And there are indeed brighter sides to Chernobyl, at least if you can measure love and dedication on a Geiger counter.
Roche and O’Donnell, whose department partly underwrote the cost of the exhibition, both spoke from a position that was overshadowed by irony. Above their heads was a replica of Sputnik, a space age achievement for the ages courtesy of the old Soviet Union.
But the subject of the brief talks delivered by both women was a monumental screw-up for the ages courtesy of that same power in its dying days.
There could be no better illustration of that unwelcome legacy than in what happened after both Roche and O’Donnell spoke. A trio of children from the Chernobyl region were brought on stage to present a traditional gift to the top UN officials presiding over the event.
The gift was a loaf of bread wrapped in a cloth embroidered with the word "welcome." The cloth had to be made in a safe place and inspected for radiation contamination before being allowed into the U.S. The bread could never be eaten in this country because it was baked in the contaminated region.
Yet millions of people eat food produced under the shadow of Chernobyl every day. And in the years ahead, millions will see their lives drastically shortened as a result.
The exhibition at the UN, "Blackwind/Whiteland — Living With Chernobyl," confirmed even to the most ignorant in the crowd that the consequences of incompetence in the context of atomic energy is as immeasurable as the heat at the core of an overheated reactor.
To describe some of the pictures as disturbing was an understatement.
Still, and as always, there was hope. Hope in the fact that there was a good turn out in a city with so many easier distractions; hope in the fact that more than 8,000 children of Chernobyl have been given longer lives by virtue of holidays and treatment in Ireland funded by the Chernobyl Children’s Project.
Hope above all that even the lumbering giants of the world, nations and powers, great and not so great, can be called to order by one person, one woman. Or sometimes two.
Donations can be sent to the Chernobyl Children’s Project (checks made out to same) c/o World Information Transfer Inc. 451 Park Ave. South, 6th Floor, New York NY 10016.