Eleven-year-old Olga enters the beach house in flip-flops, her hair still wet from a dip in the Caribbean.
“I really like it here,” she says. “The food is great, the beach is awesome. I made some fantastic friends.”
A typical child’s reaction to a beach holiday, perhaps — only this is no ordinary seaside break. Olga is a Ukrainian “Chernobyl child,” in Cuba not for a holiday but to undergo intensive medical treatment with some of the country’s best doctors.
She goes to school here along with 180 other Ukrainian children.
“I miss some bits of my home town,” she said. “But I don’t ever want to leave.”
Olga is one of more than 18,000 Ukrainian children to have been treated over the years at the Tarara facility near the Cuban capital, Havana. The program was set up in 1990 to treat the victims of the world’s most devastating nuclear accident four years earlier.
Twenty-three years after Chernobyl, the Cuban program is still going strong. Remarkably, children born years after the disaster still suffer physical consequences of the meltdown that irradiated large parts of Ukraine and Belarus; equally remarkably, despite isolation and economic miasma, Cuba still manages to tend to them.
Olga’s freckled face is marbled with pink and brown patches because of depigmentation. Her arms and legs are also affected. She suffers from vitiligo, a skin disease that some believe is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Both those causes can be attributed to her case: She was born in a small village in northern Rivne Province in Ukraine, near Chernobyl.
The cost of Chernobyl will be met over decades and over generations. There will never be an exact figure of the victims of the catastrophe. For many, the impact is not in their past, but in their future. The damage is not only physical, said Maria Teresa Oliva, a paediatrician and deputy director of the program.
“[The children] are very much affected by not only medical ailments but also by the psychological effects of their environment and their dissease, so they require permanent special care,” she said.
In Tarara, the children get treatment based on the seriousness of their illness: sometimes 45 days, sometimes six months — in Olga’s case a whole year. Next to her 13-year-old Marina from Kiev is half bald, but slowly recovering her hair. She arrived in March for a third visit to be treated for alopecia.
“I love coming here,” she says. “I feel much better since I started coming to Cuba. For me there is really no reason to miss Ukraine. The doctors, the teachers, everybody is great.”
While some disorders — such as the 30-fold increase in thyroid cancer among Ukrainian children — are directly linked to the Chernobyl accident, it is not known whether some of the other pathologies are caused by radioactive pollution or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“But there is a nexus,” Oliva said.
Ukrainian authorities have expressed their gratitude to Cuba on several occasions. But though it forms part of Cuba’s international revolutionary public relations, the difference between this program and others — such as the exchange of Cuban medical expertise for Venezuelan oil — is that there is no economic gain. The program even survived Cuba’s economic crisis of the early 1990s, the so-called “special period” after the fall of the Soviet bloc.