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Wednesday, 24 April, 2002, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
At the Copaceni middle school in the agricultural, wine-growing heart of northern Moldova, 14-year-old Nina pulls from her pocket, a neatly-folded, well-thumbed piece of torn-out exercise book, and begins to read.
It's a poem about her mother, and about how much Nina misses her.
Nina speaks of the bitter life, longing and loneliness of a child without a mother. She reads with a firm voice, and it's clear that she reads this poem to herself often.
But as she continues, my translator and I both have tears in our eyes.
Nina's mother - and also her father - and also the mothers and fathers of a good quarter of the pupils at the Copaceni school - are among nearly 1m Moldovans who've gone abroad in the last few years to seek work. In a nation of little over 4m, that's an extraordinary haemorrhaging of the country's best and brightest.
Those job-seekers have left thousands of children behind. If they're lucky, the children find care in the hands of friends and relatives.
If they're less lucky, they are taken in by state orphanages.
An orphaned country
Moldova is Europe's poorest country. Sandwiched between its former fellow Soviet republic of Ukraine to the east, and its linguistic and ethnic sister-nation Romania to the west, Moldova is, like so many of its children, something of an orphan.
It's a state washed successively east and west by the tides of European history and so small and so poorly-endowed that, as now configured, it's barely viable as an independent country.
The average salary here has shrunk to barely £100 a year, and Moldova has the most dubious of international reputations - for organised crime, smuggling, drugs and gun-running, and for providing what some say is up to one half of Europe's sex workers.
But ordinary Moldovans have a nobility and curiously dogged optimism which, on my first visit back here in nearly 30 years, I simply hadn't expected.
Galina lives in a small wooden cottage five minutes' dusty walk from the Copaceni middle school. She's a friend of little Nina's family, and now looks after five children -three of her own as well as Nina and her sister Ana. Nina's mother works in Italy as a house maid.
Their father works there on a construction site. Galina's own husband is in Portugal.
"Of course we hope for the best," Galina tells me, as she plies us with powerful home-made red wine. Galina doesn't drink herself today.
Like many Moldovans, in the weeks before Easter she avoids alcohol and meat.
"We survive on the money they all send back," she says, "and of course I would go too if it wasn't for the children."
In their frustration at how their country has been mismanaged and impoverished since independence, Moldovans have tried every kind of government - of the centre-right, of the centre-left, and, now, old-style Marxist-Leninists elected last year on pledges to bring back the best of the old Soviet ways.
Regrets are left
Many Moldovans, including the hundreds who've been staging daily anti-Communist demonstrations in the capital Chishinau, now regret that electoral choice. They've forced the government to reverse its plans to reintroduce the compulsory use and teaching of Russian as the nation's joint first language alongside Romanian.
The demonstrators wave flags of the European Union and call for Moldova's reunification with Romania - whose language is also Moldova's own.
"We are Romanians and we should be with our ancestors," said young Moldovan student Yekaterina. "Our nation makes up 65% in this country, and the Russians maybe 15%. So it's not right that they get what they want."
Ten years ago there was a brief civil war here, and passions run high. Yekaterina's comments are angrily contradicted by Lyuba, a Russian student determined to see Moldova move much closer to Moscow than to Romania.
"These demonstrations," she says, barely able to contain her fury, "are just making us hate the Moldovans. We're Moldovan too, we were born and grew up here. There's no future with Romania. Russia - that's much stronger and that's where our future lies. "
Strength in their pride
And that's the contradiction. I found in Moldova passions and poverty - but also dignity, and a determination that the future should be different from the present.
For all its current misery, Soviet rule bequeathed Moldova both culture and education. Olga Ciolacu is a product of that system, a hugely popular singer, passionate about her Moldovan identity and fielding a laugh that could kill at a hundred paces.
"I was offered jobs abroad," she told me as we talked in my rather threadbare hotel in Chishinau. "I could have gone to Paris, to London, to New York. I understand those who've gone to find work abroad, and it's good in a way that they're sending money back. But my home is here. And this is where I want to stay."
Of course, Olga can afford to stay. She earns well and is well-connected. But when she spoke of her pride, she touched a chord that resonated through my stay in this dusty, forgotten sun-lit corner of old Europe.
Moldova: Thursday 25 April 2002 on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 GMT
Reporter: Mark Brayne
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