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Romania's abandoned HIV babies, 20 years on

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Chris Rogers meets Florentina Boldijar who grew up in an orphanage and was injected with HIV-tainted blood

By Chris Rogers
BBC News, Romania

Florentina is on her way to a Gypsy village near Sighisoara, to meet the mother who abandoned her as a baby 21 years ago.

A charity has helped Florentina track her down, so she could make sense of her difficult past.

"I said to her, 'You know I'm sick?', and she said 'No'; 'You know my problem?', 'No'; 'I have HIV', and then she cried."

Florentina was one of 10,000 Romanian children who contracted HIV in the country's orphanages.

Blood had been injected in to their tiny bodies as a nutritional supplement. Back then, Romania didn't recognise the dangers of Aids, so dirty needles were used.

Abandoned

Seven thousand survived into adulthood thanks to Romania's swift uptake of antiretroviral therapy.

Over the years, many infants from poor Romanian families have ended up in state care.

Florentina's mother, Daniela, abandoned 15 of her own children.

Today Daniela greets her with a hug and a smile, albeit a nervous one.

In her shack on the edge of the village, Daniela shows Florentina a picture of one of her sisters, who was adopted by a German family.

Her face lights up: "Look I have a sister. I wish I could meet her."

Florentina was denied the chance of adoption when she was a baby because she was diagnosed with HIV.

Romanian baby with HIV (file pic)
Many Romanian babies with HIV were abandoned during the 1980s

The first time she was reunited with her mother, she had very mixed feelings.

"I was angry because I didn't know why I had HIV and why she left me. I felt hate in that moment.

"I'm happy now. Maybe I will try to love her like a mum."

The first 15 years of Florentina's life were spent in state care at the Orlat orphanage, in a village just outside the huge city of Sibiu.

She ran away in search of the family she longed for.

"Everybody called me 'Aids'.

"I didn't have friends, I didn't have anything - just loneliness, all my life."

Florentina tied together some bed linen and escaped from one of the orphanage windows.

She was taken in by Jo Jowett, a British charity worker who provides a home for young Romanians living with HIV, and helps them combat the prejudice faced by those infected with the virus.

A 2004 survey found that about a quarter of Romanians would deny a HIV-positive student a place in school.

They have many psychological problems
Jo Jowett

Jo says adapting to normal life is difficult for young HIV patients.

"They're treated with disdain. Everything is working against them the whole time.

"They feel safe here. They can talk openly about the disease.

"They discuss their CD4 counts around the dinner table. But they also have to deal with the effects of an entire childhood in institutions.

"They have many psychological problems."

'Beaten with brooms'

Twenty-one-year-old Alex was one of more than 100 children sent to Orphanage Seven, a HIV unit for both disabled and non-disabled children in the suburb of Vidra.

His was not a happy childhood.

"There was heating, there was food, but the carers would beat us. They would make us kneel on nutshells, they would beat us with brooms. At that time, they'd had no training.

"Sometimes there was not enough medicine; some one would die every three months."

Alex
Alex says he is still worried about those in Orphanage Seven

Alex was due to be adopted by a British woman, Denise, but she developed terminal cancer. Before dying, she helped him leave the institution, placing him in charity care.

"I think about her to this day, every day.

"What she did for me... I was the first to be rescued from this place. I feel very sorry for those who were left behind."

We went back to Orphanage Seven with Alex to see what sort of life he had led there, and to meet his former room-mates.

The director, Ioan Medeleanu, remembered Alex. Before showing us round, he wanted to affirm his commitment to those in his care.

"I love children. I am a person who does his job to the best of his ability. I love the satisfaction I get when I see the children are pleased with the conditions here."

But walking round Orphanage Seven, it became clear that some young disabled adults still living there were being badly neglected.

In a sparse, unfurnished room, four young adults with bare feet and tatty clothing were rocking back and forth. Repetitive behaviour is a sign of institutionalisation.

One of them was chewing on some sticky tape to amuse himself.

Another was rolling on the floor, playing with a piece of plastic.

Upstairs in a pitch dark room, a group of dazed-looking young women were seated in front of a crackly television no one was watching.

One young adult had severe bruising to her eye.

The Romanian government says it is closing down institutions and re-integrating those with HIV into the community.

Alex now faces homelessness, but he is glad he is not one of the 21 people still living in Orphanage Seven.

"I'm worried about my room-mates that are still there. Even the ones that are my age, even the ones that don't have disabilities.

"Because they didn't have the opportunities I was given. They haven't had the chance of a normal life."



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