At first glance, Children's Hospital No. 4 in Minsk, Belarus, looks like many other hospitals around the world. But there's one big difference: It treats children suffering from illnesses that doctors say are the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
I visited the hospital two years ago and met some of the children whose lives were changed forever when an explosion and fire at the V.I. Lenin Atomic Power Plant in Chernobyl sent a deadly radioactive cloud over Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and parts of Europe.Singing songs and sporting the green Boston Celtics baseball caps we brought for them, the children greeted me in high spirits, despite their ailments. Many of them would not have been there if it weren't for Chernobyl.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, a tragedy that continues to haunt us to this day. In the vast wasteland around Chernobyl, villages remain ghost towns, rivers are contaminated and rich farmland is still unusable. I remember being warned not to eat a grape in Minsk because crop soil might be radioactive. Even the protective cover around the reactor is crumbling.
These are the obvious after-effects of Chernobyl. But what makes this tragedy so horrible is that the full extent of the damage may never be known. It will take years, if not generations, to understand the explosion's total impact on the environment, the food chain and human genetics.
Doctors and nurses in Minsk told me that they were seeing increasing rates of respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects. They also reported abnormally high rates of thyroid cancer and other thyroid diseases in children - diseases that before the explosion rarely appeared in people so young. Those rates are expected to climb, since cancers that result from radiation exposure often do not develop for 10 to 20 years.
Pregnant women at the Left Bank Center for Maternal and Child Health Care in Kiev, about 60 miles from Chernobyl, shared worries with me about whether their children would come into the world with birth defects resulting from exposure to the radioactive fallout.
Infertility and other reproductive problems continue to plague couples throughout the region. In 1994, for example, Belarus and Ukraine were the only two countries in Europe that experienced negative population growth. Just last week, Nature magazine reported that scientists have found genetic damage in children born to parents who lived in Belarus at the time of the disaster.
As with so many tragedies, some good has emerged in the 10 years since Chernobyl. Many people around the world are coming to the aid of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
American doctors from Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh have traveled thousands of miles to treat patients and share new medical techniques with their counterparts in Belarus. Large boxes of blankets, syringes, bandages and medicine have been delivered to hospitals through Operation Provide Hope, a U.S. military program that sends surplus medical supplies to the former Soviet Union. When I was there, we passed out crayons and coloring books donated by American companies. This is the brighter half of the Chernobyl story.
Often at risk to their own health, doctors, scientists, religious leaders, business people and private citizens have spent the past decade aiding the victims of Chernobyl. This week at the White House, Vice President Al Gore and I are hosting a ceremony to celebrate these relief efforts.
We are also celebrating the resilience of the children of Chernobyl.
One of those children is 11-year-old Vova, whose family lived in a town that lay directly in the path of Chernobyl's fallout. In 1990, when he was 5, he was flown to the United States from Ukraine for treatment for leukemia.
"We should not forget the many children who need our help, who are not as lucky as I have been," he says. "Please do not forget Cher-nobyl."
The little Ukrainian boy reminds us that he and children like him - the children of Chernobyl and children everywhere whose health and lives have been devastated through no fault of their own - were and always will be our common responsibility as members of the human family.