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'everyone smiles' Exiled Belarus opposition chief says she fell in love with Ireland when she came as a 'Chernobyl child'

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya says trips to Ireland as a youngster were an eye-opener for her

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Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has many fond memories of her time in Tipperary. Photo: John Thys/Reuters

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has many fond memories of her time in Tipperary. Photo: John Thys/Reuters

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has many fond memories of her time in Tipperary. Photo: John Thys/Reuters

Coming to Ireland for the first time in the 1990s made Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya realise that things weren’t normal in her home country.

Aged 12, she tried ketchup and crisps for the first time when she came to Roscrea in Tipperary, as one of the Chernobyl children who were taken in by Irish families for respite during the summer months.

“The gap between life in Belarus and Ireland was very, very deep,” she said speaking via video link from Vilnius in Lithuania.

“For the first time in my life, I saw all those big malls and tried ketchup.

“We lived behind the Iron Curtain and we didn’t have crisps.”

Ms Tsikhanouskaya (37) jumped to international attention after her husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski was arrested. He was a vocal critic of Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, and was an opposing candidate in August’s presidential election.

Sviatlana then took it upon herself to begin campaigning and ran in his place. While it appeared that she would win, Mr Lukashenko claimed victory – and mass protests broke out in Belarus, claiming election fraud.

Many Belarusians do not accept the results of the election.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya learned of a different life aged 12, when she first travelled to Roscrea, where she spent many summers as a child, teenager and young adult.

“It was so exotic for me and people who were always smiling, we didn’t smile in Belarus at the time and we didn’t say thank you in the shop. It absolutely was a different culture and I was astonished with this,” she remembered.

“And when I came [back] to Belarus after this and I told everybody ‘Thank you’ ‘Thank you’ ‘Thank you’, everybody looked at me very strange. It was that first step to understanding that there are other cultures, there are other attitudes to people.”

The day after the election, Ms Tsikhanouskaya was forced to leave Belarus and is currently based in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

The unlikely politician, previously a housewife and English teacher, has been leading the revolution against the man she calls “Europe’s last dictator”.

However, her ties to Ireland remain very strong and she remains in contact with her Tipperary host family Henry and Marian Deane to this day.

Yesterday, a Belarusian flag signed by her was delivered to the family home. On it, a message from Ms Tsikhanouskaya reads: “To Ireland, which I love forever. To the best family, the Deanes of Roscrea.”

Henry Deane (72) set up a charity called Chernobyl Lifeline in the early 1990s which brought children, including Ms Tsikhanouskaya, to Ireland to stay with a host family – including that of former Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

“She’s a very close member of the family and makes us very proud,” said Mr Deane. “She was always very attentive to the younger children, looked after them and helped them. She stood out from our perspective, she was kind, gentle and thought of others and I suppose that’s what led her to today.”

He added: “Svieta (Sviatlana) came here and like all the children, they admired the Irish system, that we could criticise our government and speak openly and weren’t afraid to speak. The children were always afraid to speak.

“Svieta could speak more openly because she understood more English,” he said.

Belarusian people who do not recognise Mr Lukashenko as the leader have organised demonstrations every Sunday since the election, usually with more than 100,000 people flooding the streets of Minsk.

Over 27,000 people have been arrested and many of the protests have ended violently, with more than 2,000 complaints of torture.

A People’s Embassy of Belarus has been set up in 16 countries, including Ireland, to show solidarity and support with Belarus. “We have relatives, friends there and we fully support them,” said Alexander Repeka, from the People’s Embassy of Belarus in Ireland.

“There’s a long road ahead but people don’t recognise this government. We need to show solidarity.”

When asked about her favourite memory of Ireland, Ms Tsikhanouskaya said it was a “feeling of constant happiness”.

“Families usually did everything for these children who came from Chernobyl to make their life happier, so I remember the constant feeling of happiness in Ireland.

“A piece of my heart belongs to Ireland, to Roscrea,” she said.

“My heart wants to be in Ireland. I hope I can visit Ireland as soon as possible and in real life.”

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