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The sun beats down on the tanned children frolicking on the beach just east of Havana. Over the sound of the surf, their high-pitched voices taunt each other not in Spanish, as you might assume, but in Russian. Oddly enough, the dozens of children cavorting comfortably on this stretch of Caribbean sand are from the Ukraine, and they are not at a resort, but at a beachside hospital run by the Cuban government for young victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Thirteen years ago this spring after the world's worst nuclear mishap, Tarara as the hospital is called is a showcase for the fiasco's lingering medical mess. The children being treated here are victims not only of the catastrophe but also of the larger breakdown of the Soviet empire. The mismanagement of the nuclear reactor, the economic collapse of the Soviet Union and its republics, and the resulting failure to clean up the Chernobyl area and provide adequate health care have conspired against Tarara's young patients. And the fact that Cuba is still taking them in speaks to the small country's valiant insistence on providing humanitarian aid despite its own declining fortunes.
The radioactive contaminants and toxic heavy metals spewed by the nuclear reactor over northern Ukraine and Belarus are considered responsible for some 200,000 deaths. Local life expectancies have plummeted men in some surrounding towns now live an average of about 50 years and cancer rates have soared. Among children, the worst affected because their growing organs are especially sensitive to radiation, levels of thyroid cancer in some areas near the reactor site have climbed to 100 times the predisaster rate.
Kids born after the 1986 blast never saw the plume coming from the nuclear plant and were never exposed to the highest levels of radiation, in the seven days following the explosion. But they nevertheless have abnormally high rates of thyroid and other cancers. With about 3.5 million people still living in contaminated areas and some of the radioactive isotopes expected to take hundreds of years to break down, birth defects are as much as twice as common as before the accident.
Most of the children now filtering through the Cuban resort-turned-hospital are younger than 13, and thus suffering from the aftermath of Chernobyl rather than the event itself. A few children make their way around the pristinely kept grounds in ancient wheelchairs. Some are bald. Still others seem healthy though appearances may be deceiving.
Planes began ferrying sick children 16 and younger to Cuba in 1989, when the hospital was a logical expression of Soviet-Cuban solidarity. At the time, the Soviet Union was still spending billions to subsidize the small nation. The Russians provided the Cubans with military and technical aid. They even helped construct Cuba's very own nuclear reactor, which remains in a state of half-completion. In exchange, the Cubans, who have more than 63,000 doctors (roughly one for every 163 people, as opposed to one for every 358 in the U.S.), were able to offer their medical expertise.
After a few weeks at Tarara, the latest crop of visitors are already beginning to see their skin darken, pick up a few essential Spanish phrases ("No comprendo" is a favorite), and settle into a daily routine: After spending the nights in separate casitas, the children have a morning meal together. Kids who have appointments for treatments then head off to meet with various doctors and nurses. Later, those who are able make a short trek down the palm treelined paths to the beach, where they swim and run around until they tire themselves out.
So far, more than 15,000 children and 3000 parents have passed through the hospital. Every two months, Ukrainian medical personnel and the one Cuban doctor permanently stationed in the Chernobyl area select about 250 kids to visit Tarara. Kids with the worst illnesses leukemia, lymphomas, kidney problems, and cancerous tumors sometimes stay as long as five years, though most spend only a couple of months benefiting from Cuban medical know-how and seaside repose.
But what the impoverished Cubans can do is limited. On this particular day, for example, some of the latest arrivals are delaying their daily beach jaunt in order to have their teeth checked or, more precisely, to wait to have them checked. The power has gone out in the main building, which houses the dental clinic, temporarily suspending any drilling of teeth or shining of light in the children's mouths. These little patients are accustomed to such dysfunction, both at home and here, where blackouts are not uncommon. So they just wait patiently on the benches even the youngest, whose feet swing well above the floor. When the electricity eventually does come back on, a dentist pokes her head out of the office and calls a strapping 12-year-old named Alexander, beckoning him with the internationally understood kissy face and arms held wide.
Indeed, these days, as both Cuba and the former Soviet Union struggle financially, Tarara has little to offer other than the spirit of goodwill its workers wordlessly bestow on its young patients. (There is at least one Russian-Spanish translator in the group, but when he is occupied, patients and staff often resort to facial expressions and gesticulation.)