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At age 10, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya spent summers in rural Ireland with other children avoiding the radiation that had devastated their homeland. One of her hosts, who now lives in Halifax, says that was the first hint of the inner strength that has now made her an important symbol to Belarusians

A child's gas mask and shoe lie at a kindergarten in the abandoned city of Prypiat, near the former Chernobyl nuclear plant, in 2011. The plant's explosion in 1986 spread deadly radioactive fallout across Ukraine and Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union.Gleb Garanich/Reuters/Reuters

Long before Svetlana Tikhanovskaya became the face of the pro-democracy uprising in her native Belarus, she was the informal leader of a group of children trying to overcome the horrors of growing up in the shadow of Chernobyl.

She was three years old when Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded in 1986. The facility was located in what was then Soviet-ruled Ukraine, but the majority of the fallout landed in neighbouring Belarus, causing spikes in cancer rates and thyroid problems.

Seven years later, she was among a group of Belarussian children who were brought by a charity to rural Ireland to give them a summer away from the radiation.

Though just 10, Sveta – as she was called in Ireland – was the best English speaker among the kids and quickly emerged as spokeswoman and translator for the group, known locally as the “Chernobyl children.”

“An awful lot of the younger kids – including children who were seven or eight who were feeling homesick and trying to explain their feelings – they would come to our house where Sveta was, and she would act as their translator and show them compassion,” said David Deane, whose family first hosted Ms. Tikhanovskaya at their home in County Tipperary in 1993 and who has remained in touch with her during her campaign to oust the authoritarian ruler of post-Soviet Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as a child during one of the many summers she lived with the Deane family in Roscrea, Ireland.Henry Deane via The New York Times/The New York Times News Service

Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s emergence as the leader of the Chernobyl children was the first hint of the inner fortitude that has made her – even in exile – a symbol of her country’s resistance to Mr. Lukashenko’s regime.

Her presence became so crucial to helping the other children feel comfortable in Ireland that the charity – Chernobyl Lifeline, founded by Dr. Deane’s father – brought her back to Tipperary every summer for the next decade. When she was older, she also worked in a factory there to make extra money to take back home to Belarus.

“She’s always had strength. She’s never had an easy life. She’s had challenge after challenge after challenge,” Dr. Deane said. “She’s always had gravitas – even as a 14-year-old, a 15-year-old. She had seen more, lived through more.”

Dr. Deane now lives in Halifax, where he teaches at the Atlantic School of Theology.

In an interview last week with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Tikhanovskaya, now 37, said she was grateful for the messages of support she had received from Dr. Deane and his father, Harry, who reminded her that people in Canada and Ireland were paying attention to what was happening in her country. In the interview, during which she called on Canada and other Western countries to continue to support Belarus’s push for democracy, she described her time in Ireland as “the best moments in my life.”

At top, protesters with old Belarusian flags, a symbol of the opposition, rally in Minsk on Sept. 6. Some demonstrators, like the ones at bottom, brought their children.Photos: The Associated Press, TUT.BY/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Most Belarussians believe that Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who only entered politics when her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was jailed in June over his opposition to the regime, defeated Mr. Lukashenko in an Aug. 9 presidential election. The government’s improbable claim that Mr. Lukashenko won more than 80 per cent of the vote has sparked a month of massive street demonstrations.

The protests have been met by increasingly harsh measures by the regime, which has the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ms. Tikhanovskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania on Aug. 11, citing concerns for the safety of her two children. More than 7,000 people have been jailed after taking part in anti-government protests, and at least four anti-Lukashenko activists have been found dead since the demonstrations began.

A major focus of the crackdown has been the leadership of a “co-ordination council” – to help manage a peaceful transfer of power – that Ms. Tikhanovskaya created last month after claiming she was the real winner of the Aug. 9 vote. On Monday, council member Maria Kolesnikova, one of three women who campaigned together as “the trio,” disappeared into detention after resisting an effort to deport her to Ukraine. Russia’s official RIA Novosti news service reported Wednesday that she had been charged with “making calls to seize power.”

On Tuesday, Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, the last member of the council’s seven-person presidium not in jail or in exile, called journalists and diplomats to her house after masked men attempted to break in. Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Ann Linde later tweeted a picture of Ms. Alexievich – who won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature – surrounded by eight European diplomats.

Dr. Deane said he had last exchanged Telegram messages with Ms. Tikhanovskaya just before the Aug. 9 vote. He said her chief concern was avoiding violence. “She doesn’t want people to get hurt or killed. She doesn’t want her own children to get hurt or killed.”

Her former hosts said they never expected to see her get involved in politics – Dr. Deane, who is 10 years her senior, said the teenager he knew avoided political questions when he tried to talk to her about life in the Soviet Union. But they were not surprised to see how other Belarussians had gravitated toward her.

“What you have in Belarus is so many different perspectives. You have Western-leaning people, Russian-leaning people, you have Belarussian nationalists. It is only someone like Sveta who could cohere all these different voices,” Dr. Deane said. “She represents the embodiment of the common good. She is genuinely not looking for power or advancement for herself.”

Dr. Deane said even though County Tipperary was hardly a rich place, it opened its arms to the Chernobyl children. “These people who lived in the [social housing] council estates would bring these little kids in from Belarus and treat them and spoil them. The shops in town would give them free candy, and the cinemas would let them in for free. It was a wonderful environment.”

There was nothing overtly political about the visits, but Dr. Deane believes Sveta and other children couldn’t help but look around at the freedom and relative affluence of rural Ireland and wonder why they couldn’t have the same in Belarus. The Ireland they saw was also led by women: Mary Robinson, who was elected the country’s first female president in 1990, and Mary McAleese, who succeeded her in 1997.

Dr. Deane said he came to regard Sveta as a little sister. As a result, he is worried that the girl he knew – whom he describes as “free of guile” – could be threatened or manipulated by Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Putin.

But he still believes Ms. Tikhanovskaya is a better leader than many others on the world stage today. “In an age of Trump and Orban and Bolsonaro, she is someone who genuinely wants to lead only to bring about good for the whole. That’s a uniquely inspiring thing,” he said. “She thinks that she’s not a leader because she doesn’t fit the mould – but the mould is toxic. We should adopt her mould.”

Ms. Tikhanovskaya speaks in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

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