“Chernobyl generation” on the way to the exodus

The French association Les Amis de Rivne takes children and their mothers from regions affected by the 1986 nuclear disaster and who are now fleeing the war.

Friday in March The moon shines over the path of the sun. At 05:50, a light blue bus with Cyrillic inscriptions arrives at the Pâtural recreation area on the A6 motorway near Villefranche-sur-Saone. There are fifty-six Ukrainians on board, young mothers and their children. The trip was a long one: a three-day journey from Rivne, in western Ukraine, not far from Chernobyl, an area held by the Ukrainian army. They crossed Poland, Germany, before arriving in Strasbourg and heading south. The day before they stopped in Nuremberg, where a priest was waiting for them with sandwiches and water.

Nicole Cadenel, 71, president of the association Les Amis de Rivne, gets into the car, which continues on its route. Travel to Orange, Aix-en-Provence, then to Sisteron (Alpes-Haute-Provence), stages where each refugee brother or sister will join a host family. For 13 years, Nicole Kadenel has headed this structure, which, as a rule, organizes sanatorium treatment for families living in areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. A few days in France is enough to bring down cesium levels “, she said. The consequences of a nuclear accident can be calculated over several generations. Thirty-five years later, if experts are still rushing about for human casualties, many people continue to get cancer. The seventy-year-old claims that the best doctors agree that it takes 1000 years to decontaminate the soil “.

Today she faces another emergency, with war. Among today’s refugees, this Courageous Mother says,some of them are mothers who were welcomed by the association in the past when they were small. We helped them, took care of them. We couldn’t let them down now.»

From the very beginning of Vladimir Putin’s offensive, Nicole Cadenel, experienced in conducting this course, mobilized her network in Europe to establish a real humanitarian bridge between Rivne and France. The one whom she calls helps her in this. Ukrainian sister “, Oksana Zalipskaya, a former deputy of Chernobyl, with whom she has collaborated for more than a decade and is part of the trip. “ There are no such terrible shellings in Rivne as in the East”assures this tall, graceful blond with blue eyes. So we can arrange an evacuation.

Chernobyl generation»

The mother, looking like a teenager, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, throws herself in tears into the arms of the president of the association. “ Dober? Dober? (how are you?, in Ukrainian, ed.)she asks, wiping her cheeks. This is Anastasia. “ My husband and I took it twenty times, the volunteer said. She has five sisters. Their mother died at 32 from cancer in Chernobyl. You know, it’s from the thyroid gland, like many young people at that time. Today she came with one of her sisters, Svetlana. To say that I knew her very young too, and now she has six children, from eight months to eight years old. »

With war it Chernobyl generation again struck by fate. Nicole Cadenel describes the fate of another brother. Three Ukrainian orphans, whom she also hosted for several years during their organized stay. “ Today two elders are at the front. One of them wrote us a farewell letter. It was terrible ! He thanks us, explains that we are like his parents. He even apologizes to my husband for the mistakes he may have made in his workshop. “.

I hear the most terrible horrors about what is happening in Ukraine, Nicole Cadenel’s resume. Things they don’t talk about on TV. Do you know what the Russians did to a group of women who were making Molotov cocktails? Those who resist? Worst bullying, like in 1940. They were seized, raped, killed, and then hung upside down. I received photographs of young women cut in half. She closes her eyes. Try to forget those horror visions that come to mind. Several consistent civilian sources testify to sexual violence committed against Ukrainian women in recent days. Ukrainian Foreign Minister and MP Lesya Vasylenko also condemned war crimes.

Distress signals

The day begins. The silence is broken by the rustle of opened packages of cake, cartoon music, children’s crying. Eyes reddened from fatigue, everyone is trying to freshen up. Nicole Cadenel sits in front. With one hand, she clutches a cardboard folder with documents; in another, she clutches her phone, which never stops ringing. “ I didn’t sleep for three nights in a row last week. So much to organize, so many kids to evacuate Every day she receives dozens of distress calls from Ukraine. But also many French host families who offer food and lodging.

Nicole Cadenel joined her two sisters, Svetlana and Anastasia, at the back of the carriage. The first is crying hot tears with a baby in her arms. “ She didn’t want to come sighs seventy-year-old. She made it for the little ones “. Another baby sleeps curled up in a stroller on the ground, in the driveway.” With kids… the trip… it was too hard – Anastasia articulates with difficulty. “ I’m exhausted, says Natalia, mother of three children. I’m so afraid for my family.»

A slender little girl sits alone at the window. She watches the landscape. What is seven-year-old Volotina thinking about? Left with her mother and nine-month-old sister, she has cancer and now lives with only one kidney.

7-year-old Volotina is ill with cancer. She lives with only one kidney. Clara Galtier

In Orange, a joyful sixty-year-old Chantal is waiting for her protégés to join her home. This avid volunteer knows the association well. “ The kid I used to greet since I was seven is at war today she said, showing a photo of a fighter. “It’s horribleShe poses for a photo with her hosts, who, confused, succumb to the game with relative joy. The atmosphere is strange. There is great relief among the refugees that they have arrived. And anguish from not knowing how long this new life will last.

In Orange, Chantal, a volunteer of the association Les Amis de Rivne, poses with two young Ukrainian women and their children. Clara Galtier

Time to leave. On the bus, Nicole Cadenel’s phone rings again. This time it’s Rafael, a young association volunteer who is married to a Ukrainian. He is waiting for the convoy at the next stop to pick up relatives. “ It was our first Franco-Ukrainian marriage, she said, he worked in a pioneer camp, she was a translator in this pioneer camp. At that time, EDF offered the association twenty days of stay for twenty children. “.

Integrated logistics

A little later, in the afternoon, the bus was greeted with great pomp in front of Sisteron’s town hall. There is television and the press. It’s like a holiday. The city even prepared a welcome buffet for Ukrainians. Among the welcoming committee, Bernard and his wife, two residents of Manosque, come to look for Oksana, the young mother, who throws herself into their arms.

She doesn’t arrive in an unknown land “, – explains the pensioner, to whom the young woman has been coming regularly for 10 years, – in summer and winter we waited for her as our daughter. She likes to say that we are her second family. Time passes, and his marriage and the birth of children did not separate us. It only does Covid. And now we welcome them in circumstances we never thought possible! In a sense, this is our duty. A little warmth, peace and love… What else can you give them?»

Nicole Cadenel, the drivers and the rest of the brothers and sisters will be accommodated 10 km from here tonight. The last travelers will be back on the road tomorrow morning. Last stop: Toulouse. Other convoys will follow if the association manages to raise funds – 7,000 euros for one trip. Very difficult logistics. “It’s worse than exhaustingNicole insists. If Putin wins, they will no longer have a place in Ukraine. But we won’t give them up. »

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