Page last updated at 14:35 GMT, Saturday, 26 December 2009

In the Romanian 'canyons of horror'

Child in Romanian Aids ward in 1990
Nearly 10,000 children in Romanian orphanages were HIV positive

By Bob Wylie
Former BBC Scotland reporter

It was Boxing Day 1989 and I was sitting in my flat watching the early afternoon news.

The leading item was about the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, the hated communist dictators of Romania.

The phone rang - it was my old friend George Galloway, then the MP for Glasgow Hillhead.

"Haw Boab fancy going to Romania?" he bawls down the phone. Six words which would change my life.

The Bucharest we arrived in early in January still had smouldering ruins from the street fighting of the last of the anti-communist revolutions which engulfed Eastern Europe in 1989.

Street scene in Bucharest in front of the House of the People, which is now the Romanian Parliament
Street scene in Bucharest in front of the House of the People

I had witnessed Warsaw and Prague, but Bucharest would be the bloodiest with the darkest of secrets - among them a hitherto unknown epidemic of child Aids.

George Galloway and I first stumbled upon the rumours of dying children with faces like haunted geriatrics a matter of days after we reached Bucharest.

But it was in the Black Sea port of Constanta that we came face-to-face with the epidemic that would stay with us for life.

Nothing could really prepare you for your first visit to the Municipal Hospital in Constanta, and the child Aids ward there.

Here were what I would describe later as "canyons of horror" - children who were grey, sunken skeletons, many with hands outstretched and twitching as they approached death.

The stench was overwhelming. There were 63 children sharing 43 cots that day in the hospital in Constanta.

I know because I counted them in. Counted them out also.

Galloway, by then a veteran of sub-Saharan Africa as well as the famine in Ethiopia, stood in their midst with a solitary tear rolling down his cheek.

"We cannot walk away from this," he said.

And we didn't. In fact, with the assistance of a public appeal in the Guardian newspaper which raised tens of thousands of pounds, we were able to set up a small Scottish charity to link Constanta with the City Hospital in Edinburgh.

Dr Jacqueline Mok came from Edinburgh to Constanta with nurse Christine Rafferty. "Gifts from God" is how the Romanians would describe them.

At that time, Dr Mok was at the epicentre of the child Aids problem in Edinburgh, which was a consequence of heroin abuse.

In the spring of 1990 when she arrived in Constanta she had seen three children die of Aids in Scotland's capital.

By the end of the year, deaths in Constanta alone reached 100-times the Scottish total. Canyons of horror right enough.

The Romanian epidemic was borne of poverty and government rule.

In those times the Romanian government used to give malnourished children in the hospitals micro-transfusions of blood - ostensibly to boost their health.

But the same needles were used again and again. So instead of improving the children's well-being the transfusions infected them with HIV.

Nicu Ceausescu casting vote
Nicu Ceausescu casting his vote in the 1990 Romanian election

In the days when we visited Constanta it was feared that a huge HIV epidemic would engulf Romania.

But although nearly 5,000 died, the Romanian health service contained the outbreak.

At the start there were more than 10,000 children in the orphanages who were HIV positive.

The eventual total for Aids was just over 10,000 - a success story for Romanian medicine which included free HIV tests for all those who wanted them.

During our time in Romania, Galloway and I also met Nicu Ceausescu, the despised son of the dictator, in the hospital wing of Jilava jail, on the south side of Bucharest.

By then he was dying of cirrhosis of the liver.

The entry to the show was obtained through negotiation with Nicu's redoubtable lawyer Paula Jacob. The gate money was the purchase of two sirloin steaks and two cartons of Kent cigarettes for the Dauphin of Romania.

He was 39 when we meet, but thin and drawn, and looked at least 10 years older.

His odd unmatched clothes and red anorak looked more Victor Hugo than Hugo Boss. He chain smoked the Kents throughout the interview.

We quizzed him about his legendary ways with women - including the once delectable Olympian, Nadia Comaneci.

Greatest contribution

He wouldn't be drawn except to say that although she now accuses him of raping her daughter, that she was glad to take what he had to offer in those other times of wine, women, and song.

"What about dying?" asked Galloway.

"This is a return ticket question," Nicu replied. "I have nothing against God and I certainly hope He has nothing against me," he said, before nodding and waving goodbye.

My adventure in Romania which started with George Galloway would go on to embrace our being co-authors of a book on the Romanian revolution, further extensive charity work for me in the Romanian orphanages, and falling in love with Lida Teodorescu, from Brasov, who is now my wife.

I met with Galloway recently to reminisce about our Romanian exploits 20 years after they started.

His view is that his greatest contribution to Romania was making the child Aids epidemic known and, in a small way, doing something about it.

But for me he says it was life changing - it established my reputation as a journalist, gave me a beautiful Romanian bride and a wonderful Romanian family.

"Haw Big Man," he said, referring back to that 1989 Boxing Day, "bet you're glad I made that phone call."

Bob Wylie's documentary Tales from Romania - 20 Years After Ceausescu will be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland on Sunday 27 December at 1000 GMT.

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