Letters From Ukraine

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There are life-changing opportunities that only come along once. LifeNets' Chernobyl Trip 2003 was one such opportunity. On Jan. 12, our team of seven set out from Indianapolis International on a weeklong trip that would change our perspective on life, the world and each other.

Jan. 13: We landed in the Ukrainian city of Kiev late this evening, and after we got through customs, we were met by Dr. Pasichnyk, director of the "Revival" Center for the Medical Social Rehabilitation of Disabled Children. The center is located about 40 miles east of the doomed Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The seven of us had already begun to bond by the time we landed in Kiev, some 20 hours after our first takeoff. We were tired, dirty and the only ones in sight who spoke English.

The airport in Kiev was small and intimidating, filled with uniformed personnel who looked like soldiers who directed our every move. I felt uncomfortable in our first moments in Ukraine, but when we walked through the customs gate and saw the gracious smile on the doctor's face, it was the last time any of us felt any awkwardness or inhospitality.

It took us about three hours to get to the rehabilitation center in the neighboring province of Chernihev. As chance would have it, we arrived on the eve of the Ukrainian new year, and although it was getting late, the festivities in the town were just beginning. Holidays are celebrated by the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Western calendar.

When we arrived at the center, the staff was waiting to begin their celebration, not only for the new year, but also for the "good friends" the new year had brought. We were greeted with a program they had been preparing the entire day before—with gypsies, costumes, dancing, singing and Ukrainian folk songs. Even the doctor joined in the dancing, and soon they invited us to join them. After the program was over, we sat down to our first dinner in Chernihev where we were able to get better acquainted with the doctor, his wife, Natasha, and the rest of the center's staff. The food, along with the company, was wonderful, but we were all tired and ready for bed.

As soon as dinner was over, we were taken to Dr. Pasichnyk's apartment building where we would be staying for the rest of our journey. Dr. and Mrs. P., as we affectionately grew to call them, had an apartment next door to their daughter, Anna, and son-in-law, Valera. The men took root with the doctor and his wife, while we women settled in with Anna, Valera and their 4-year-old son, Georgie. They had a small apartment that the three of them shared with their grandma, whom they called "Baba."

One of the first impressions I had of life in Ukraine was the inconvenience of everyday living. The entire city runs from the same water supply, and the hot water is turned off at night. There were no hot baths before bed, just two tubs of cold water beside the sink in the bathroom that were used for brushing teeth and washing face and hands. But a hot bath was the last thing on my mind that night. They had set up beds in the living room and set out juice and cookies for us on the desk. It was obvious to all of us that they had given us their best. It had been more than 24 hours since any of us had slept, and bed had never felt so good before that night.

Jan. 14: Today was a full day! The first thing we did was eat breakfast. While we ate, Dr. P. and his wife told us the story of the Chernobyl disaster and how he and his wife founded the Center for Rehabilitation. In a way, it was a sad story—about their failing government and poor economy—but he's done a wonderful thing here. He's a very respected man in the city of Chernihev and considered a pioneer. He took us on a tour of the center, and we met all the children.

It was the first time since we arrived that we were able to get out and see the city. We visited an art museum and ancient Orthodox churches and took a walk to a place called "the Twelve Cannons." It's a park in a city that's set on a hill, and I could see an entire village from the top. The falling snow against the leafless, black trees gave everything a black-and-white feel, and with the train rolling along a bridge in the background, I felt like I was in an old war movie. But it was good to see a city for what it really was and not as a tourist attraction.

It occurred to me that, although the seven of us had known each other for years, this was the first time we were really learning about one another. Before the trip, I knew but little more than just their names and familiar faces. Yet by the second day of the trip, we had already formed a bond that will last a lifetime.

Each of us brought something different to the group. Mr. Kubik, of course, was our communication link and the man we looked to for his example. Mr. McClure and his son Jonathan provided our daily dose of laughter. Mr. Peine, I began to see, was not only a father figure to me, but to all of us. And of course, Katie and Debbie Shabi were instant friends and the only female companions on the journey. I was a little disappointed in myself that I hadn't gotten to know these wonderful people before—and they had been there all along.

Back at the center, dinner was just starting to be prepared. I decided to see if there was anything I could help with in the kitchen, and of course, the Ukrainian women said no, but I stayed anyway. There was an English translator who was visiting for the day and I got a chance to talk with all the ladies about their lives as women in the Ukraine. They talked about their husbands' annoying (but endearing!) habits, their children and being a woman in the workplace. We spoke a different language, but we were all speaking about familiar things. After talking with these wonderful women, it was so obvious to see that they are loving and dedicated wives, magnificent conversationalists, gracious hosts, compassionate mothers, loyal friends and hard workers who labor without complaint. They made me want to be more like them, and they could serve as wonderful teachers to our women in America.

Jan. 15: We woke up early to be on the road before the sun came up this morning and drove for four hours to Chernobyl. Normally, it's only a one-hour journey, but you have to cross through six miles of Belarus to get there. Since relations between the United States and Belarus are a bit strained, we were not able to get a transit visa through Belarus and had to go three hours out of the way to get to the closed nuclear power plant. Since our arrival, we had been hearing about Chernobyl and the tragic disaster that affected so many people's lives. Now, we were going to be able to see it.

No one is allowed within 25 miles of the power station, and passes are usually given only to scientists and journalists. You have to pass through three checkpoints to get to the actual town where the people lived when the disaster occurred. We were only able to go because Dr. P. is so respected there. He was able to get us passes, which had to be signed by the mayor and other influential people. Just beyond our last checkpoint were the gates to Chernobyl. As they opened, we drove into what was called "the Dead Zone," the area surrounding the reactor site that still harbors radioactivity.

Our guide, whose name was Yuriy, gave us some history about the disaster. On April 26, 1986, one of four reactors at Chernobyl exploded. While thousands of people in the immediate area were evacuated, the government did not let the world know that anything was wrong until May 6. They didn't want to ruin the upcoming May Day celebration, so for days the people living and working in the surrounding areas were going about their lives, walking in the contaminated air, breathing radioactive dust and allowing their children to play in the streets where radiation was present. Many firefighters trying to extinguish the flames of the explosion died. Doctors' offices were filled with people who had mysterious burns on their bodies. Pregnant women later gave birth to babies with severe defects and disabilities.

Our tour guide then took us to the reactor site and walked us through Pripyat, a ghost town about a mile away in which 45,000 people once lived. We walked around Pripyat and were able to go into one of the deserted apartment buildings. Everything was abandoned; only scattered furniture and pictures were left. We then walked to a park that had become overgrown with moss. Carousels, bumper cars and a play set were rusted and the paint was peeling off. We were in a state of awe. These used to be symbols of laughter and innocence, and now they stood in ruin and decay. It made me think of what the world might look like closer to the end of the age.

We also saw a nursery in the town. It was an old brick building that, like everything else, had been overtaken by weeds. Inside there were several small rooms down a concrete hallway, with one main room on the end. All the windows had been broken out and the concrete floors were cracked. There were wrought iron beds and furniture scattered around the rooms. Books, toys, wooden blocks and shoes that weren't even the size of my palm were lying in ruin on the floors.

In the corner of one room, there was a pink, stuffed, dirty little bunny on a pile of concrete, and lying next to the bunny was a gas mask. The one thought that kept replaying in my mind was that some of these children died. It was just too much for me, and I couldn't hold back the tears. I was so overwhelmed. I've seen movies in which hundreds of innocent people die in a tragic catastrophe, but standing there, seeing the aftermath with my own eyes, it seemed very real. I thought about Revelation 21:4-11 Revelation 21:4-11 [4] And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. [5] And he that sat on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said to me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. [6] And he said to me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to him that is thirsty of the fountain of the water of life freely. [7] He that overcomes shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. [8] But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. [9] And there came to me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come here, I will show you the bride, the Lamb's wife. [10] And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, [11] Having the glory of God: and her light was like to a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal;
American King James Version×
and the future time of restoration.

Jan. 16: After our usual morning routine of breakfast at the center, we walked, in freezing weather, to the market place in Chernihev. The market place looked more like a festival than a convenience store. It's not inside a building. Rather it's out in the open, and everyone runs his or her own stand, selling everything from oranges to books, from meat and fish to ladies' pantyhose.

Later that evening, we all got dressed and went out to dinner at a formal restaurant. There were so many people there, including the vice mayor and some well-known doctors. The atmosphere was so formal—quite a change from the rest of the town. It was funny to me that Valera thought we were used to fancy dinners and expensive foods. If he had known the truth, it was the first time I had ever been to an expensive restaurant or tasted raw salmon.

Soon after the meal began, it was time to give the traditional rounds of toasts, which are the cornerstone of every Ukrainian meal. The usual order begins with toasting the host or the event, then continues with the second, honoring the children. The third toast is always given by the men in honor of the women, and the fourth toast honors the men and is given by the women.

Jan. 17: Today we were finally able to work with the children! We've been able to meet with them for little bits at a time, but our schedules have been so busy that today is the first time we've been able to spend the entire day with them. We played games and sang songs, and the differing language was not as big a barrier as I thought it would be. When we couldn't speak to one another, we laughed, and then we understood what the other was saying. It's funny how easy it was.

Jan. 18: We held a church service at the center today, and all the children and staff members stayed. After each one of the songs, the children would clap their hands in applause for us, and Mr. Kubik told us later that they thought we were putting on a concert for them. Several of the children brought presents for us. We all exchanged hugs and said our good-byes. I hated to think about how hard it would be to leave. The Ukrainian people had put away their preconceptions of us as Americans and welcomed us with open arms.

Before we went to bed, we said more good-byes and cried a little. The next day at the airport, I knew one of the most incredible experiences of our lives was ending. Yet the people I met taught me lessons that will stay with me for life.

Among many others, one of the most important lessons I learned was that you don't have to have a lot of material wealth to understand what's really important in life. Those we met taught me to be accepting of everyone, and not be judgmental of others. They taught us lessons of hospitality, respect, genuine love for other people and passion for a greater cause. I hope to see these wonderful people again someday. But most of all, I hope to keep them, and the lessons they taught us, in my heart always. VT

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