Sadness over last Yorkshire visit for the children of Chernobyl

FOR a small band of children from a forgotten part of the former Soviet Union, East Yorkshire has become a second home.

Christmas will be tinged with sadness as an extraordinary effort by a mother and daughter team which has allowed the young people from Belarus precious weeks of breathing unpolluted air and eating clean food comes to an end.

None of the children was born when on April 26, 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the northern Ukraine overheated, exploded, and went into rneltdown.

But the radiation from the world's worst nuclear accident still affects everyone in the area – and will for another 24,000 years.

For the past nine years groups of children have been coming to East Yorkshire for holidays of up to a month from Mogilev, in Belarus, local families putting up them up.

But this Christmas is the final group respite visit, as the charity set up by mother and daughter Jill and Beth Quarmby can no longer afford the mounting costs.

The story began in 1999 when a passing reference was made at Beth's school assembly to the Belarus children's shockingly low life expectancy.

It struck a chord and Beth, then just 14, was determined to help, and she roped in her mother Jill.

Beth said: "When I discovered what they had and what we had, I wanted to try and do what I could to help.

"When they first arrived and came through the airport they looked very ill – their eyes gave it away. Over the nine years we have seen quite a big progression in their health.

"They are beautiful children, willing to join in but they do get tired very quickly because their immune system is damaged."

Although it is the very last Christmas that such a big group will come across, private visits will continue and the pair have pledged to support all the children until they are 18.

Beth said: "There is a massive sense of pride and achievement and I adore seeing the children when they visit and run to you and just want to cuddle you constantly. It is absolutely wonderful."

Mrs Quarmby said: "We are very ordinary people and we just decided to try and help. I think it inspires other young children and I think Beth is an inspiration.They have become part of a big family and Beth is sister to them all."

The first group of 16 children came the summer after the Chernobyl acident and for four more after that, a second group of 23 then visiting for three years.

Yesterday the children were visiting the crew at RAF Leconfield, before going out for lunch.

One visitor, Olga, 15, is staying with the Quarmbys in Ruston Parva, near Driffield, along with her 10-year-old sister Katsya.

Poignantly she says her sister is often ill in the winter, but feels better after a stay in Britain.

The scientific evidence is that one month's respite care gives a child an extra two years of life.

At home the sisters live in a small flat in a bleak high-rise block along with their mother and grandmother.

Christmas is celebrated on January 7 with a single present, and they are thrilled by the much more lavish affair here – especially the lights on the houses.

When Olga first saw the giblets cooking on the stove she thought it was Christmas lunch. "She couldn't believe it when I opened the oven door," said Beth.

Chernobyl is synonymous with environmental disaster and in demonstrating the potentially devastating impact of nuclear technology.

Even now the reactor continues to leak its poison into the atmosphere and when the wind blows north it re-contaminates Belarus.

Translator Tamara Doroshkova, who is accompanying the group, says many people suffered thyroid problems and many young children had leukemia: "We begin to forget and the whole world begins to forget about Chernobyl.

"We just live. We have no solution to the problem."