From Belarus with Love
For over a year, I enjoyed frequenting a casino in Athlone called the Lighthouse and while I hadn't wagered on becoming addicted to gambling I certainly saw enough foggy nights shipwrecked on the shores of the Lighthouse and put it down to an incredible introduction to placing late night bets.
Glamourised in Bond books and films, the only villain I found was myself but I will never forget my first night in a casino which took place behind the walls of the Iron Curtain of all places.
The Iron Curtain was pulled hard across Eastern European countries in 1989 but even by 2003, these curtains still hid some light and along with two friends, we found ourselves having to make our way home from a casino after curfew in which we hoped to avoid any trouble along the way, as we made our way back to our hotel which was opposite a military barracks that was keeping tabs on us.
In the city of Minsk in Belarus, my two friends and I separated from the rest of our group to check in on the casino near the Minsk Opera House where we had just enjoyed watching Swan Lake.
Beautiful Belarusian women were serving drinks and my two friends explained both Roulette and Blackjack to me.
Quicker than you can order a Vodka Martini, I found myself buying €30 worth of chips as my friends bought €20 and €5 worth of chips each. A little less than some curry chips, I lost €30 while one friend turned €5 into €70 and the other friend broke even.
Up €70 we were a little nervous about leaving the place with our pockets full and I'm sure €70 in a country with a $1 an hour minimum wage is an absolute fortune.
In true spy novel style, one of my friends had spotted the KGB tailing us for a few days before either changing team or getting bored with our group. We were all student leaders on a fact-finding mission to examine where money had been spent on orphanages and what needed to be spent and fundraised for, in the future.
I say KGB even though the KGB had been renamed by then but the agents formally known as KGB takes too long to say.
Paranoid that we had robbed the casino of a lot of money we slowly crept back to the hotel, knowing we couldn't afford to spent a night in a gulag as we were flying home the next morning. We tried to avoid every white Lada we saw along the way thinking that it might be the KGB but every car we saw was a white Lada.
After a week-long stay, our mission had ended. We had seen orphanages, mass graves, Lenin's house in Belarus, the ballet, an abandoned ghost town in the Purple Zone and a radiation testing centre to test our own radiation levels.
Shaken but not stirred, I will never forget the moment I boarded an overnight Russian train to travel to the contaminated Purple Zone. A train hostess in a military uniform handed us our bed sheets as we boarded the train and Moby's remix of the James Bond tune came on over the intercom.
I don't think Belarusians understand appropriate music as I heard some horribly inappropriate elevator songs but having seen far too many Bond films, I knew I only had a few minutes to destroy the train with a T54 tank like Pierce Brosnan or fight someone with a hooked arm like Sir Roger Moore or bed a Russian beauty like Sean Connery. The music and my flights of fancy ended but it would not be the last time on the trip that inappropriate music from movies would trigger a reaction from me.
In the Purple Zone, we met the mayor of a ghost town which was evacuated after the Nuclear incident in Chernobyl and also visited an orphanage in the region. Back in 1986 things were very grim in the aftermath of the April 26th Nuclear accident and we were told horror stories of parents who committed suicide so that their children could have a better life in the orphanages.
Always brings a tear to my eye thinking of parents making that hopeless and fatal decision.
Knowing how bad things were for the Belarusian people, we were all shocked by the horror stories and we met the principal of a school who told us that one of their students spoke good English and would show us around the school as the student had been fortunate enough to have spend some Summers in Cork with an Irish family.
Greeting the group with a Cork accident, "alright ya langers" we followed our guide around, relieved of the horror stories by the fact that Irish charity groups had helped so much with both fundraising and hospitality for the Children of Chernobyl of which Belarus received about 60% of the nuclear fallout.
We weren't betting on Cork accents in Belarus and I hadn't bet on finishing our mission with a trip to Casino Royale either.
Ireland Versus Belarus
It is easy to criticise another country's policies but I'm sure Ireland was as secretive when it came to disabilities in the past and Belarus is probably no different than any other country in the 70s and 80s. Children with disabilities have been locked up in the past and many thousands were effected by the fall out.
Ireland is nuclear free but we fear problems with Sellafield in England, (I've protested there during the Greenpeace flotilla against the use of MOX fuel.) as Ireland could be as affected as Belarus when their neighbour Ukraine had an accident.
It can all depend on the wind which carries the radiation which might explain why Ireland is so charitable towards Belarus. Let's hope the luck of the Irish holds when it comes to Sellafield.
Our flight was leaving Minsk airport on September 11th 2003 and people were apprehensive about flying on that date especially since Minsk had increased the number of flights from Bagdad to Minsk to about 4 a day. Belarus was rumoured to be Saddam's plan B as he had invested millions in the public library in Minsk. We were off to Shannon which is a hub for flights heading to America and there was a real sense back then that another terrorist attack could come on September 11th.
There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction found and Iraq was never successfully linked to the attack on 911 despite attempts by the CIA and Bush Administration to link the two events.
Behind enemy lines my friends were very happy to make it back to the hotel and catch our September 11th flights the next day. Preparing to board the plane I looked at the plane and told my friends that it was a Tupolov TU154M which does not have a great safety record.
One way or another, I am sure all those Tupolov TU154Ms have since been grounded.
TAKING A RISK: This Polish Military TU 154M pictured above crashed in heavy fog on April 10, 2010, killing all occupants, including the Polish President. Picture by Aleksandr Markin.
Maybe I could have sparred them that detail about the safety record of our plane but boarding the airplane you could see some broken seats showing an aircraft that had seen better days. Sitting in a sturdy seat, I relaxed a bit only to hear the Godfather theme tune played over the intercom as the door closed. Shaken but not stirred, that music is terrifying.
Playing Russian Roulette can be a bit addictive when you have an incredible KGB spy adventure on your first night.