Steve Peters

Experience Design

A Flight to Remember

Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. Can't believe it was 20 years ago already. I vaguely remember when I first heard about it, saw the pictures on the news, back in those Max Headroom days. It's twenty years later, and most people in the U.S. have pretty much forgotten about Chernobyl. Everyone moved out of the area, leaving entire cities as ghost towns, crisis passed, right? Well not exactly.

Seven or eight years ago, I traveled to Minsk, Belarus, to lead some workshops at a music symposium. This was one of those trips where everything seems to go wrong. We missed a connecting flight in London, British Air said it wasn't their fault, and we ended up stranded at the airport hotel for two days, until the next flight left for Minsk. Yeah, I said two days.

Then, once we arrived, I promptly got seriously sick. In Minsk. In the winter. I got Pneumonia, and spent my days in my hotel room trying to get up the strength to do my sessions. It sucked, really. Never wanted to get home so badly in my life.

So, the day of my return flight comes, I'm feeling just good enough to travel, so we head to the airport, where we sit for 9 hours (I'm not making this up!) in an unheated terminal waiting for a plane that we thought would never arrive. There were seriously only about a dozen flights out of this airport daily.

Now here's where the story turned around for me. As we sat in the terminal, passing little chocolates around for sustenance like some post-apocolyptic refugees, I noticed a group in the corner of the waiting room we were trapped in. Looking closer, I could see it was about a dozen or so children, between what looked like 8 and 12 years old, with 3 adults tending them. It struck me how unphased they all were by the situation. I mean, this sucked! Trapped in a decrepit old airport waiting room, with no heat (it was easily 50 degrees in there) and only one restroom, that I didn't even want to approach, let alone use.

These kids were so well behaved! They actually looked a little bit excited! They had to be as hungry and cold as I am, so what gives?? Curious, I approached the little group, and the kids looked at me like "Hi! Isn't this great?!" I got to talking to one of the adults, who turned out to be a British gentleman. He finally filled me in on who they were.

Turns out these kids were "Chernobyl Children." They live in an area in Southern Belarus that still has pretty substantial radiation levels. As a result, they're at constant risk for things like heart anomalies, leukemia, thyroid cancer. Most of these children were from smaller villages, where medical care was sporadic at best. Left on their own, they were almost guaranteed to suffer some sort of physical problem due to the radiation that surrounded them, which infiltrated the water and dairy products.

It turns out, though, that if they can get away and spend as little as a month in a radiation-free area, it would enable their body to recuperate and radically strengthen their immune system. All of these kids were being flown to England to spend a month with host families in the countryside. For most it was their first time out of their village, not to mention their first plane ride. They were quite literally about to take a flight that would give them hope to have a future.

I talked with this gentleman for quite a while. He worked for a children's charity organization much like this one, who provided Belarussian children with recuperative trips to England, in order to give their bodies a fighting chance. I learned a lot about the conditions there, and was pretty saddened that I had basically forgotten all about Chernobyl over the years, not realizing the tangible impact it continues to have on so many lives, especially children.

Our plane finally arrived, and we all boarded for the trip to London. These children were all around me, animatedly talking in Russian as the plane took off, their noses pressed against the windows. They all spoke a little English, which they practiced on me as we headed west. I taught them English words, they taught me some Russian. We really had a great time. For some reason, I didn't feel quite as sick as I had before.

That day, the Chernobyl disaster was given a face for me. Well, many faces, actually. And here's one:


I'll never forget now.

EDIT: There's a good online article at National Geographic, Chernobyl: 20 Years Later.