NINE-YEAR OLD Misha thinks no one is watching. His unusually large, round blue eyes scan the kitchen. His papery, quasi-translucent hand reaches out to steal fruit from atop a plastic table. The muscles of his tiny hand tremble as he jerks a banana from its bunch.
He sticks it down his pants, then reaches for a bottle of coke, which quickly joins the banana. Misha’s eyes dart around as he latches his belt even tighter around his absurdly tiny waist. The belt’s tattered brown leather is riddled with homemade-punched holes that span the long length of his belt so far along that the unused portion dangles, curling upward into swinging capital J. With his booty securely stashed, Misha slips through the kitchen door into the sunshine. Score.
Misha doesn’t normally steal, but then again, it’s hard to resist the temptations in the land of plenty where bananas and bottles of coke abound. Misha, along with 34 other pale, pint-sized children, just arrived in sunflower-swept northern Italy from Belarus. The young Belarusians came at the invitation of The Chernobyl Project, a group of tireless, chattery Italians from the northern province of Modena who are intent on not forgetting Chernobyl’s continuing line of victims.
I follow Misha out to the soccer field where the other young Belarusians play. I think of ways to sneak up on him, tackle him and bust him on his secret. But before I finalize my exact approach, I watch him rip the peel off the banana and shove it whole into his mouth. He hurriedly mashes it, chomping as though he’d just been rescued from days adrift at sea.
Misha doesn’t look guilty; he looks terrified. He can’t believe his luck, but there’s no celebration, only the sense of fear he may never see another banana for the rest of his years. Indeed, it was his first, I later learned. I turn back to leave him in peace.
Kids like Misha aren’t making the news anymore, nor is the world’s worst nuclear power accident. Although 26 years have passed since Chernobyl’s fourth reactor failed on April 26, 1986, spewing tons of radioactive fallout across much of Belarus, the radiation levels in the soil and water are still such that children like Misha are more than 40% likely to get thyroid cancer simply from living under Chernobyl’s shadow.
The cows out at pasture still produce poisoned milk. The radioactivity in Belarus has even changed the shapes of leaves, their cells mutated into sloppy versions of once symmetrical patterns. When I think of the leaves, I think of Misha. I imagine his cells shifting, distorting, altering his life.
I arrived in Italy gung-ho to find refuge from my own tragedy. A divorce left me feeling sorry for what had changed and vanished in my own life. I had thought a summer of volunteering abroad entertaining young souls would do me good; selfish thinking made me believe they’d lift my spirits. But when I arrived at The Chernobyl Project in Carpi, Italy hours late and drenched in hurry, the flinging open of a kitchen door put to shame my own interests.
Desperate to connect, I try my best to recall my four years of college Russian. I rattle off canned greetings and phrases, not prepared for the answers, or any variance that strays from my textbooks. Despite my attempts, Misha just blinks at me. Days pass on the playground. I chase Misha, pursuing him, unable to let him be. I’m drawn to this little boy. Though he is half the height and weight of his similarly-aged Italian counterparts, he is strong in spirit and resolve; he doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t grasp why he’s in Italy at all.
At last, Misha begins to pay attention to me, correcting my Russian, offering guidance and showing me patience. He draws pictures in bids of cross-cultural communication and encourages me to follow suit. He takes me by the hand and runs me across the playground to show me creatures he’s found. I enjoy this role reversal: I, the child, Misha the instructor.
During the day, Italian doctors with The Chernobyl Project screen Misha for cancers. The Italians know the clean air and food in their countryside commune will lower the radioactive levels in children like Misha. When I ask him about why he’s in Italy his big eyes just blink, his long lashes travel down for what seems like eternity: long way down, long way up.
Like other nine-year-olds, Misha’s got other things—more important things—on his mind. On the top of Misha’s mind is a game of kickball, followed by some fierce foosball, and then mounds and mounds of spaghetti. And coke.
Watching the Belarusians, it’s hard to understand how they stay humble and gracious. Their chalk-white skin looks dull in the sun and they tire easily. I make Misha take frequent breaks while he plays in a field with the local Italian children.
It seems the whole of northern Italy welcomes the Belarusians. Storeowners take brooms to their shelves emptying rows of candy and snacks into paper sacks whenever the young Belarusians stop by. The summer nights bring festivals and carnivals to Carpi. Misha grabs my hand and points to a red balloon.
“давай!” he pleads, “Come on.”
We cut through the crowd running faster and faster. With our zigzag speed, we become our own makeshift, cross-cultural family parting happy, healthy Italian families. Misha is on a mission and so am I. I take us faster, clutching tightly at his little hand. We near the balloon stand and it’s there, when we stop, our hair wind-blown from our run, our lungs out of air, where I have my first motherly instinct in all my life. I want to grab him. Pick him up. Hold him tight. Protect him. I want to will his body to be healthy. I scan the crowd trying to figure out where we could run, where I could give him a better life. I want to steal him away. But I don’t. We get the balloon and walk back instead.
We meet up with the others at an outdoor art display at the festa. The young Belarusians have painted drawings — a gift to the Italians for their generosity. The paintings are of lush green forests from their homeland. But what’s unusual about these is that nearly most of them contain signposts of nuclear symbols showing that access to these lush forests is forbidden due to high concentration levels of radiation.
“Какой из них вашей?” I ask. “Which is yours?”
Misha points to one on the far right. He has drawn two vertical panels from left to right, a before and after. Scribbled on the left is “April 25, 1986”. Beneath the date there are deer eating grasses and swans floating down a river, an idyllic cottage with smoke coming from the chimney. On the right panel “April 26, 1986” is written — the day Chernobyl’s fourth reactor exploded. The deer are dead on the riverbank, the swans, too, are lifeless, floating in the river. The cottage windows are boarded up. Black etchings fill the top of the paper with an ominous sky and a sign stands in the green forest forbidding access to it. I can’t help but cry as I stand there with Misha’s hand in mine, his red balloon in the other.
“Почему плакаешь?” “Why are you crying?” he asks.
Misha doesn’t understand. I don’t see before and after panels in his drawing. I only see what’s in front of me: Misha. Unlike his drawing, I know there isn’t a magical line where the contamination starts and where it supposedly stops. A signpost hardly delineates on which side the deer should feed, on which side the swan should swim, and on which side Misha should stand. I only know that he saw this sign with his own eyes, and that is enough. The citizens of Carpi, too, wept as they lingered at the paintings, but the young Belarusians didn’t understand. It just is. They’re simply happy to have a red balloon and to be in Italy.
I contemplate Misha’s future. Little boys grow up, and lives go on. When asked about the future of the young Belarusians, Alexandra, the homestay coordinator, is frank and dry in her assessment.
“You can’t change their lives, they just go back home and live their lives out as they were before. That’s up to them to change their lives,” she tells me.
Misha’s pride and strength, despite his small stature and statistical odds of getting cancer manage to set me at ease. Before he boards the bus bound for Milan, back to Brest to his hometown of Luninec in the Gomel region of Belarus, I squeeze him tight. “до свидания,” I say. “Goodbye.” Then I scan the crowd and slip two bananas into his backpack, zip it up and squeeze him again.
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Michelle McAlister a writer and frequent international volunteer. She's spent the past 20 years reflecting on the landscape of communication, cultures, and creatures. Her stories about travel have appeared in San Diego Reader, InTravel magazine, eMagazine, the Environmental Magazine, The Compass, San Francisco Chronicle, Tango Diva, and have garnered Gold, Bronze and Honorable Mentions in Traveler's Tales SOLAS Travel Writing Awards in 2008 and 2009. Find her online here.