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A young man whose last visit to Fort William was in 2004 with a party of children from Belarus, as part of a respite care trip from the ravages of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, returned to the area recently – the first of his group to do so.
Now aged 27, Jenya Navumenka, called ‘Eugene’ by his foster hosts, arrived in Fort William this week by train with no idea of how to contact the people who had looked after him on his month-long stay 15 years ago as part of a group funded by the Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline Charity.
However, thanks to Fort William’s small town friendliness, when he mentioned his story to the landlady, she spoke to her neighbour who remembered the children and put him in touch with one of the organisers, Vernon Wilkes, who lives in Strontian.
Next morning, Vernon was on the doorstep to meet Jenya and offered the young man accommodation with him and his wife Patricia, who happened to live next door to his 2004 ‘holiday mother’ Catriona Hunter.
In the early 2000s, Lochaber hosted almost 100 children from Belarus, most of whom came from extremely poor backgrounds and were suffering ill health from the effects of the Chernobyl fallout.
The idea was to give them a chance to spend time in a clean, healthy environment, with good food and access to medical care which they could not get at home.
Jenya, who is now a train driver in his home town of Ossiphovishi, about 100km from Belarus’ capital Minsk, recalls arriving on the plane into a ‘different world’.
Many in his group of 10, from different parts of his region, were malnourished and most had no more than the tattered clothes they wore.
Having no English and little understanding of what was to happen, he was quickly made to feel safe and welcome as they made their way to Fort William. He said: ‘We were a little frightened, but full of wonder at what was around us and the many kind people who were looking after us.’
Since arriving back in Lochaber, he has caught up with many of those who helped look after and entertain him 15 years ago.
Businessman Stewart MacLean and his late wife invited all of the children and their hosts to lunch at their house in Onich.
Stewart met up with Jenya again, taking him to various memorable destinations and, of course, treating him to lunch, this time at the young man’s choice of a seafood restaurant.
On his return to Belarus in 2004, recharged in mind and body and with a suitcase full of new clothes, pencils, paper and even aspirin, tragedy struck as within weeks Jenya’s parents were killed in a road accident, leaving the youngster to live with his grandmother.
However, he made the most of life and at the age of 17 began his career on the railway, fuelled partly by the experience of his time in Fort William.
‘I thank everyone so much, who gave me the chance to come to Fort William,’ he said: ‘I enjoyed everything and have great memories.
‘I did not know how to contact them again but hoped I could find someone who remembered. I am so happy to meet them and really, they have not changed.’
Mr Wilkes added: ‘The phonecall to say he was here came out of the blue and was a great surprise. I couldn’t wait to meet up and hear about his life.
‘Out of all of the children we brought over, none have ever been back and we have often wondered what they were doing.
‘When they first arrived they were all quiet and pale, but that changed quickly as they became children again, without a care in the world, all the time they were here.
‘It is so good to find out that Eugene is healthy and flourishing with a good job. It’s wonderful to know that we made at least some difference to these young lives.’
The last word should perhaps go to the person who hosted him all those years ago – Catriona Hunter – who said she recognised the young man immediately.
‘What a fine young man he has become. It was a lovely surprise to meet him as I have often wondered what had happened to the children and what they were doing now,’ she said.
‘There were five boys in his group and we did everything together. Eugene was always very small and quiet but never any problem.
‘He was so good, in fact they all were, and I am so glad to know what we did made a difference to their lives.’
Making a return visit to Fort William, former Chernobyl charity child Jenya Navumenka met up with businessman Stewart MacLean who hosted the Belarus group in 2004. Photograph: Iain Ferguson.
NO F28 CHERNOBYL CHILD RETURNS 02