“This is the first time we have met with a delegation from the United States interested in what we did,” she told Militant correspondents with the help of translator Oksana Demyanovych.
Present at the meeting along with Piltyay were eight young women who had gone to Cuba for medical treatment and two of their mothers, as well as Tatiana Burka, a woman associated with the program who worked for years as a “liquidator,” helping to evacuate people from the Chernobyl area.
Piltyay was assigned by the Ukraine Komsomol — the Communist Party youth organization — to organize participation in the Cuban program when it began in 1990. Today, Piltyay works in a cardiac program for the Ukraine Ministry of Health.
“When the explosion at Chernobyl took place on April 26, 1986, it was a social tragedy,” she said. “The authorities didn’t tell anyone the extent of what was taking place. To this day, I don’t know why they did not cancel the big May Day demonstrations in Kiev and other cities in zones where radiation was high.”
“Until the early 1990s spreading information about the true extent of the radiation and the number of those affected was prohibited,” Piltyay said. “But some of our young scientists got the facts together and at the end of 1989 this material was published, focusing attention on the extent of the radiation danger to the population.”
Much of this material was published in articles and later a small book by Alla Yaroshinskaya entitled Chernobyl: The Forbidden Truth, which exposed the cover-up by Soviet authorities, who even curtailed aid to downplay the disaster.
“As a result the government was forced to extend the official affected area and the number of people eligible for compensation,” Piltyay said. “This was the first time residents of Kiev, the country’s largest city, were included. The government was worried about how much they would have to pay.” Kiev is about 80 miles from Chernobyl.
Cuba offers free medical care“We younger leaders of the Communist Party responded by calling for international aid,” she said. “People at the Cuban consulate read some of the material on the true extent of the disaster and heard our call. Sergio López, then Cuban ambassador, came to the young CP members and offered to help. He said Cuba would be pleased to offer free medical treatment to those in need.”
“Two weeks later, three of Cuba’s foremost doctors came to Ukraine. They visited hospitals and towns, selecting the sickest children to go to Cuba,” she said.
“Once the first group had been selected — 139 children and some of their parents — we asked the Ukrainian government for plane tickets,” Piltyay said. “But they said there was no money in the budget. The medical authorities were critical of us, accusing us of having doubts about the Soviet health system.”
“On March 29, 1990, two Cuban planes took the first group to the island,” said Piltyay, who was on the first plane. “Cuban President Fidel Castro met us when we landed in Havana. He was surprised and shocked by the condition of the children.
“He went into a huddle with other government representatives right there, and by the time the second plane landed three hours later, he announced that Cuba would take 10,000 children from Ukraine, Belorussia and Russia,” Piltyay said.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I asked the translator whether he had made a mistake. But he hadn’t. And the Cubans did it, and more.”
Castro gave a speech July 1, 1990, at the dedication of the medical program’s facilities at the former center for the Pioneers children’s organization in Tarará, outside Havana. Construction was completed in less than three months by more than 7,000 volunteer workers Castro said, who responded to the challenge with a great “spirit of internationalism.”
The Pioneers’ seaside location was chosen not only because it had medical facilities. “For a child, it is depressing to be imprisoned in a hospital,” Castro said, “We planned recreation and vacation programs, trips to the sea.”
“Because Ukraine officials wouldn’t take any responsibility for transporting the kids to Cuba, from 1991 to 1998 we got together with some of the parents of the children and organized our own fund,” Piltyay said. “I was able to make an appeal on television that got us some publicity and a big response.”
“After that, we raised the money ourselves,” she said. “We got donations here, from Canada where there are a lot of Ukrainians, and elsewhere. It took a huge collective effort, but we were able to organize a charter flight every two months.”
“The Cubans organized all the housing, medical care and other help,” she said. “Cuba was the only country in the world to organize a program like this. We got some help from other countries, Germany, Israel, France, even the U.S., but Cuba was the only one with a far-reaching, long-term program.”
“And they did this when they confronted serious challenges of their own, what they called the ‘Special Period’,” she said.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost 85 percent of its foreign trade, creating an acute economic and social crisis marked by shortages of food and other basic necessities.
“For 24 years, Cuba has provided care for more than 25,000 people, more than 21,000 of them children,” Piltyay said. “Forty percent of them were seriously ill, with thyroid cancers, other cancers or physical defects, including blood and skin diseases.”
“Cuba had such a high level of medical care,” she said. “Ukraine couldn’t match it. And the love the Cuban people gave, the doctors and everyone, was something else again.”
“In 2012, Ukrainian bureaucrats in the health care system convinced then-president Viktor Yanukovych they should take over all treatment of Chernobyl victims, and the government ended relations with the program,” Piltyay said. “We continued to fight, and in 2013 Yanukovych said he would allocate funds in the next budget to send 100 more children.”
Yanukovych was ousted in February at the height of popular anti-government mobilizations. As of now, the future of the program to get Ukrainians to Cuba for treatment is unclear.
“Some people still get care in Cuba, but they have to raise the funds to cover transportation themselves,” she said. “Cuba is willing to continue the program and we hope we can find a way to get the funding.” There are hundreds of young Ukrainians still on the waiting list, she said.
“Cuba says they do what they do for moral and ethical reasons, so they never kept count of what it cost,” Piltyay said. “But we estimate they spent more than $2 billion. We will never forget what Cuba has done.”
‘Second Homeland’The group gave two gifts to the Militant, one a book in Russian entitled Second Homeland — which is how all the young women described Cuba. The book describes the Cuban medical program in Tarará. Piltyay and some of the other women are pictured in the book.
The second was a painting by Inna Molodchenko, a young woman who came to the interview with her mother Tatiana. Molodchenko is the first on the waiting list.
“For the first eight years of her life Inna couldn’t chew,” Tatiana Molodchenko said. “She had the benefit of six surgeries in Cuba over a number of visits, which make it possible for her to swallow. She also had skin disease and difficulty moving her hands.”
“I first went to Cuba in 2008 and just came back from spending a month there in January 2014,” said Tatiana Bernadska. “It really did feel like a second homeland. The doctors were special, and the Cuban people are special people. They helped us as if we were their own kids.”
“My grandfather was an engineer in Chernobyl,” Yulia Palamarchuk said. “I didn’t have any confidence in myself when I went to Cuba. The Cuban people helped me with love and understanding, helped me learn to love myself.”
“The whole program — educational programs, concerts, dancing, cultural exchanges, a library with books in Russian, teachers from Ukraine to help us, all paid for by the Cubans — the whole environment was great,” she said.
“My head was injured at school and when they sent me to the doctor, he said I had brain cancer,” said Yulia Panasiuk. “They performed surgery on me in Kiev, but when I woke up they told me there was nothing they could do and I had six months to live. My family found out about the Cuban program by chance.”
The other young women have similar stories. Because the Ukrainian government took no organized responsibility for the program, it was not widely publicized.
“I saw the Cuban doctors and they moved fast, in three days I was on my way to Tarará,” Panasiuk said. “I thought I would be there for 45 days, but ended up staying for treatment for five years with my mom.”
“When I got back to Ukraine, my health deteriorated again,” she said. “I came back to Cuba for more surgery. You can still see I have some paralysis on my left side. They gave me physical therapy to rebuild my mobility.
“The Cuban doctors were fighting to help me. I am really glad destiny gave me the chance to go to Cuba,” she said. “The experience taught us a different attitude toward people.”
Many of the young women said that while they were in Cuba they learned about the fight to free the Cuban Five and they have helped to get out information about it in Ukraine.
Solidarity with Cuba important“I worked as a liquidator, one of those who helped to evacuate people,” Burka told us. Hundreds of thousands served as liquidators. Some were volunteers; others were conscripted for military duty.
“The area I was assigned to was supposedly empty, already evacuated, with very high levels of radioactivity,” said Burka. But people continued to live in the village as late as May 17, more than three weeks after the meltdown, she said. “At first they only evacuated people who were vomiting.”
“In 1989 the contamination zone was extended, which prompted the evacuation of 50,000 more people,” she said. “It was after this that the Cuban program began. We were very grateful to the Cuban people, they were the only country to show this kind of human solidarity, all at their own expense.
“The Cuban program didn’t get enough publicity,” she added. “Many people didn’t know about it, this was the only limit on those who could take advantage of it. We need to get that information out now and get the program strong again. We will never forget the Cuban people.”
“This was an irreplaceable program,” Piltyay said. “It showed that the Cuban Revolution is alive and that solidarity with Cuba is very important.”
Separatists lose support and ground in east Ukraine
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