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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 July 2005, 08:27 GMT 09:27 UK
Life in Ceausescu's institutions
By Kate McGeown
BBC News

It is now more than 15 years since the world found out about the thousands of children locked away in Romania's state institutions. In the second of a series on these children, former volunteer Kate McGeown looks at the dreadful conditions they faced.

Kate McGeown at the institution in Siret in 1996
Kate McGeown worked as a volunteer at an institution in Siret

When I first walked into the large grey building at the heart of the Romanian town of Siret, my immediate instinct was to walk straight back out again.

Half-naked children leapt from every direction, clawing at my clothes, and there was an overpowering smell of urine and sweat that made me want to retch.

I first visited Siret's Spitalul de Copii Neuropsihici (children's psychiatric hospital) in 1996, to work as a volunteer.

But the situation was much worse when British schoolteacher Monica McDaid saw it for the first time in 1990 - just a few months after Ceausescu's downfall.

"What I saw was beyond belief," she said. "It was horrendous."

Babies lay three or four to a bed, given no attention by the few staff on duty. There were virtually no medicines or washing facilities, and both physical and sexual abuse were rife.

My heart was broken for these children and I think I would have adopted all of them if allowed
Beverly Kelly, Gastonia, North Carolina, US

"One thing I particularly remember was the basement. There were kids there who hadn't seen natural light for years," Ms McDaid said.

"I remember when they were brought out for the first time. Most of them were clinging to the wall, putting their hands up to shield their eyes from the light."

The plight of these children led Ms McDaid to give up her teaching job to help the children of Siret. Now, more than 15 years on, she is still there, as president of the charity O Noua Viata (A New Life).

Sava, one of the girls she has helped to re-house, said of the Siret institution: "It was horrible in that place. The staff used to hit us and the food was inedible. I never want to go back to a place like that."

"My life there was just eating and sleeping - just existing," added 28-year-old Mihai, who now lives independently in the town.

'Extra' children

Doina Harasemiuc also experienced conditions in Siret firsthand, because she visited the institution regularly in her work as a pharmacist.

1965: Ceausescu becomes head of Communist Party
1967: Forbids abortion and contraception, leading to huge rise in birth rates
1970s-80s: Number of children in state care rises, reaching more than 100,000
1980s: Ceausescu tries to repay foreign debt, leading to shortages at home
Dec 1989: Anti-government protests mount. Ceausescu flees but is captured and shot on Christmas Day

"It wasn't too bad to start with. The bad times started after 1982, when Ceausescu began to pay off foreign debt. Then it got much worse," she said.

"But it wasn't just bad for children in institutions. People in the town had to wait five or six hours to get cooking gas, butter and soap."

Florin Iepan, who has recently produced a film called Children of the Decree, said the seeds of the problem were sown in 1967, with Ceausescu's prohibition of birth control.

Both abortion and contraception were banned for women under 40 - and couples were actively encouraged to have as many children as possible to power Romania's economy.

"Ceausescu wanted to increase the population by over 50% in a single decade," Mr Iepan said.

The result was that women resorted to highly dangerous back-street abortions, or ended up with more children than they could feed - especially when the effect of the foreign debt repayments kicked in.

It was these "extra" children who mostly populated the state institutions.

'Struggle for survival'

Institutions for disabled children often had the worst conditions, and were hidden away in remote areas of the country. A large institution in Cighid, in the northern county of Bihor, had an especially bad reputation.

"In one year, the mortality rate was over 50%," Mr Iepan said.

The staff used to give us injections to calm us down
Vasile, 21

Not all children in institutions like Cighid or Siret were disabled. Some were reportedly sent there because they had a birthmark, a sibling who was disabled, or just because there happened to be space at the time.

Many of those who grew up in Siret look back with horror at their experiences.

"I had to have a lot of medicine in the institution, even when I wasn't sick," said 21-year-old Vasile.

"The staff used to give us injections to calm us down. I don't know what it was, but it made us sleep for a long time."

Even in other institutions not meant for disabled children, conditions were harsh.

Throughout the country there was a common theme of intermittent water and electricity supplies, lack of care and affection and brutal punishments.

"Life was a continual struggle for survival," said Ioan, who spent many years in an institution in the town of Tirgu Ocna.

"I remember one member of staff saying to me: 'You're just a source of income for us.'"

Each of these young adults deals with the memory of their childhood in a different way. Some rise above it, while others remain defeated by it. Still others are in denial.

On my latest trip to Siret, I recognised one young man from my previous visits. He always used to be there at the gate, waiting to greet people who arrived.

I asked if he would talk about his experience of growing up in the institution. "I would love to help you," he said, "but I wasn't there."

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