BOUND FOR MAYO Mayo News journalist Michael Gallagher with two of the young children who made it safely out of Chernobyl. Pic: Karen Cox
On the line between savagery and salvation the blazing lights of the border post illuminate the darkness raging against the dawn.
Perched on a rise to the left of the border installation stands Lily Luzan, anxiously peering into the night. The well-known director of the Candle of Grace charity from Castlebar says little as her eyes flit between the stream of vehicles pouring out of Ukraine and the mobile phone held tightly in her hand.
Ms Luzan, renowned freelance photographer Karen Cox and The Mayo News have been at the border all night scanning the eastern sky. Two buses carrying more than 100 children, 80 of them orphans, set off from the radiation-ravaged lands around Chernobyl early on Sunday and there’s still no sign of them at the border.
The children’s journey is fraught with treachery. The children’s journey is a huge gamble. The children’s journey will save their lives – if the buses make it.
Earlier in the day, 60 children, women and old men had been blown apart when the Russians bombed a school in Bilohorivka. The news hit Luzan hard. Little more than a toddler when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor destroyed her neighbourhood, she has spent almost her entire life giving the people of the polluted area opportunities and possibilities instead of almost certain death.
As Sunday night moved towards Monday morning the project dubbed #OperationMayo was causing her great heartache. Luzan knew if the 106 children remained in their home villages they were in grave and imminent danger of death from the new waves of radiation poisoning engulfing the area. Luzan also knew if #OperationMayo was successful the fresh air and the expertise in west Mayo would save 106 lives.
However, there was absolutely no guarantee the buses wouldn’t be obliterated before crossing the border into Poland, the EU and onwards towards the green (and red) land.
Behind the scenes, the people of Candle of Grace had worked tirelessly to make #OperationMayo possible. Negotiations with the very highest echelons in Ryanair had secured a plane at a much-reduced price which would fly the children and their chaperones out of Krakowice at 8am on Tuesday. That was the deal, that was the time – there would be no deviation.
Back in Mayo, there wasn’t a wink of sleep to be had by Professor Bandazhevsky. The imminent scientist had dedicated his life to the study and treatment of radiation poisoning and was extremely confident of saving the children if they got to Mayo.
He had sat in on meetings all week – watching, advising and hoping. “I left Ukraine and came to Mayo a few weeks ago because Lily (Luzan) offered me safety, told me her charity would get the impacted children out of Ukraine and promised a research and treatment centre would be built in Mayo.
“There were times when I wondered if Lily and Candle of Grace could do it, but I shouldn’t have doubted her,” he explained with a smile.
Back at the border between war and peace, the charity worker, the photographer and the journalist still peer towards the brightening eastern sky. There has been no contact from the buses for the past four hours, and Lily is beginning to wonder if Lady Luck is looking the other way.
Everything else had been tied down in Lily’s own inimitable style. The plane, the buses at each end, the protocol at both airports and the other logistic challenges had all been perfectly ironed out. The only thing not directly influenced by Luzan was the possibility of the buses being blown up before they arrived in Poland.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to live if that has happened,” she says. “I know it’s the right thing to do. I know the great lives the children will have if we can get them to Mayo and to Professor Banzhevsky, but this is a barbaric war and there’s no guarantees.”
The night which began in shirtsleeves now needs a big hoodie to keep warm and the trio on the border are thinking about the warm beds awaiting them in the nearby hotel. Then, suddenly Luzan’s phone buzzes and she desperately prods at the screen to see what news it brings.
She takes an inordinate time to read the words and then tears began to streak down her cheeks. Devastation dances in the stomachs of the photographer and the journalist. How could this happen? How could life be so cruel? How could bombs be dropped on buses carrying children, 80 of them orphans?
Luzan turns around and sees the two journalists in bits and suddenly bursts out laughing. “I wasn’t crying with sadness you fools. The text from the woman on the bus said they could see the lights of the border. They’re just down the road, they’ve made it. We’re going to bring them back to Mayo.”