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Tuesday, 6 November, 2001, 15:00 GMT
Europe's last leper colony lives on
By Silvia Radan and Alina Hutt in Tichilesti
Romania has changed beyond all recognition in the past decade, but there is one place where life goes on almost exactly as before - Europe's last leper colony at Tichilesti in the Danube delta.
Since 1991 residents have been free to leave the colony's shady grounds, but after spending most of their lives there, few of them have rushed to seize this opportunity.
At Tichilesti, set up more than a century ago, they get food, a place to sleep, clothes and medical attention, so it's hard to make the break.
Besides most of them are elderly and need special care.
Hidden among hills and lime trees, with fresh air and natural spring waters, Tichilesti seem more like a village than a hospital.
There are two churches, Orthodox and Baptist, and a farm, where the colony grows its own corn.
Friends and relatives visit the lepers regularly, but for a newcomer, a trip to Tichilesti doesn't feel like a pleasant day out in the countryside.
Leprosy is a disease which slowly eats the body, leaving limbs withered, and eyes missing.
It is mostly caught during childhood, transmitted by air from one family member to another.
"It is a disease of poverty," says the director of Tichilesti hospital, Dr Rasvan Vasiliu, "caused by a lack of hygiene and poor nutrition.
"In a family with more then one child, leprosy is caught by the child with the poorest immune system."
In the 1980s, the drug dapsone was first used to treat leprosy, and the disease can now be cured within two years.
But the treatment has come too late for those who've been living at Tichilesti most of their lives.
Scarred for life
Although no longer infectious, the residents are scarred for life: hands with knots instead of fingers, no eyes - just two empty holes covered with black glasses - and no eyebrows or any other kind of facial hair.
But, unlike many old people, the lepers of Tichilesti don't complain about their lot. They are welcoming and cheerful, despite having lived through war, hunger, poverty and isolation.
Some were taken away from their parents as children and have lived there ever since.
Vasile Tarita is 70 years old and he's a special member of the Tichilesti community.
For a bit of fun, when last year's elections took place in Romania, he was elected the mayor of Tichilesti Hospital.
Indeed, he does seem to be one of the colony's intellectuals. Because of leprosy he couldn't finish his education, but as long as he had sight he read a lot.
"They point the finger at you and say: 'Look, that's a leper'."
He dreamed of becoming an agricultural specialist.
"I was the son of a peasant. I liked smelling the earth in spring time and I wished I'd grown rich crops, but God wanted something else," he says.
Many of the residents had little idea where they were going when they were sent to Tichilesti.
"I shall always remember that doctor who took one look at me, then wrote something on a piece of paper and gave it to me in an envelope with the Tichilesti address on it," she says.
"I had no idea I would never go back home again."
She struggled to get better, but to no avail.
"The pills were terrible in those days but I kept taking them because I wanted to get fit to return home where I was supposed to take care of my eight brothers. It was a long time before I was told I wasn't going to leave."
Gradually, she started to make a life in Tichilesti.
"It was soon after World War II and the times were hard. There was no kitchen. We were given flour and we had to bake our own bread. Slowly I learnt how to take care of myself."
The lepers at Tichilesti were always treated well by local villagers - it was often the staff who were the least comfortable with the patients.
Medical statistician Steluta Laric has worked there for over 20 years and she admits: "The first time I came here I didn't feel comfortable. The patients used to hold my hand to see my reaction."
She had a one-year-old baby and was afraid of passing the disease on to him.
Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the hospital's reputation and the patients' lives have improved.
What remains the same is the mutual support that the residents give each other.
The fitter ones visit the weaker ones and take them food. Those who still have their sight watch the news on television.
They say they have everything they need apart from pocket money. It they had $1 a month, they say, it would make all the difference.
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