Child abuse on the streets of Bucharest

The Daily Mail, July 14 1997

There is a gypsy woman in Bucharest who spends several hours each night standing on the pavement of a residential street called Stirbei Voda, about five minutes drive from the city centre, selling a little something to the passers-by.

The gypsy woman does well. Most nights, she earns around 300,000 lei, which is more than most Romanians earn in a month. Nearly all of her customers are foreigners – British businessmen, for example – who are easily rich enough to pay.

The little something which she is selling is called Nella. She is 14 years old, small and slightly podgy. She has brown hair which she has done her best to brush into a sophisticated style and a little smear of turquoise make-up dabbed inexpertly over each of her eyes.

As long as my translator and I pay the gypsy her cash, Nella is allowed to talk, so now she sits in a smoky bar near by, staring down into her lap and fiddling with the skin on her thumb while she tells her story. It is a story that unlocks several scandals.

She says she comes from a town called Giurgiu about 40 miles south of Bucharest on the banks of the Danube. Her father worked in the oil fields there but he drank his wages and often, when he was drunk, he battered her. He did this from the earliest years of her life and since no one ever tried to defend her or to punish him, she decided to run. She says she was only six when she hid in the toilet of a passenger train and escaped to Bucharest.

For a year, she survived on the streets of the city, partly by begging coins from old women (she says they were the only people she dared to ask) and partly by sheltering in the home of a woman who noticed this lost child and offered her help. Nella thinks she might have been happy if she had been able to stay with this woman but after about a year, the woman was forced to leave Bucharest and took Nella to a children’s home.

There she lived for four years. No one tried to find out where she came from. No one offered to help her with her problems. When she was eleven, she ran away and found a distant relative of her mother’s in Bucharest, but she knew she could not stay there for long in case her bullying father found her. A woman in the same street said her sister might look after her. Nella grasped at this straw and found herself in the care of the gypsy woman.

For a few months, it was all right. The gypsy woman cared for her and cooked for her but then one day, shortly after Nella’s twelfth birthday, the woman told her that she wanted to sell her for sex. Nella refused to do it. The gypsy insisted. She threatened to put Nella back on the street: if she wanted to stay, she would have to obey. So Nella submitted and a few days later, she was sold to an Italian businessman for £15. A few weeks later she was sold again and then again until she was being sold once or twice each night. She doesn’t go to school, she doesn’t play with other children, she lives in a world of condoms and cigarette smoke. Nella says it doesn’t matter, because she doesn’t care.

The point of Nella’s story is not just that she was beaten out of her home by her own father; nor that she lived rough on the streets of a European capital city when she was only six years old; nor even that she is being hired out now like some kind of human toy. The real point is that, as she has bounced from one kind of trouble to another, noone with any official power has ever tried to help her. In this, she shares the fate of tens of thousands of Romanian children. And that is the real scandal.

Seven years ago, as Romanians celebrated the fall of the Communist dictator Ceausescu, the West looked on in disbelief when the doors of his institutions were opened to reveal nearly one hundred thousand children in a state of the most dire neglect. They were emaciated, unwashed, badly clothed and maddened with boredom, rocking neurotically backwards and forwards in cots that had become prisons.

The West poured aid into the children’s homes. More than nine thousand charities arrived in the country bringing convoys of trucks loaded with toys and blankets and medical supplies. British charities led the way. The BBC children’s programme Blue Peter alone raised £6.4 million. The European Union and the World Bank sent millions more.

But seven years later, despite all of the money and all of the good will, in spite of the selfless efforts of a tide of British volunteers, the reality is that the troubled children of Romania continue to suffer. Traveling in Romania, I found evidence that:

* millions of pounds of aid has been wasted – misspent and sometimes stolen;

* tens of thousands of children in state homes continue to live in squalour and neglect;

* thousands of children have left the homes and ended up on the streets of Bucharest in a vortex of crime and sexual exploitation.

Most of these children are not orphans. They have been abandoned by their parents, originally because Ceausescu banned abortion and contraception but more recently because poverty in Romania has become so bad that some families simply cannot afford to support their children, particularly if they are handicapped.

Some families gave up their children to be adopted by Western families after Ceasescu’s fall, but the Romanian government stopped this. There are no welfare services. For seven years, most families in trouble have had no alternative but to take their children to one of the 600 state homes. There are now thousands more children in these places than there were seven years ago and, in most of them, conditions are still hellish.

A large part of the problem is that Romania is living in the long shadow of the old Communist dictatorship, a complicated mess of bureaucracy and corruption. Until six months ago, when a new government was elected, the fate of the country’s orphans was being pulled between five different government ministries. The new Secretary of State for Child Protection, Cristian Tabacaru, makes no attempt to hide the bungling which this produced.

“It was impossible to make a strategy,” he told me. “Each ministry wanted its own institutions to get the money. They established a national committee which they all sat on, but it did not function, because the representatives of the different ministries fought with each other and because none of them had any power in their ministries to take decisions.”

Millions of pounds sank in this bureaucratic swamp. Tabacaru, who was appointed only six months ago, says that the government ear-marked at least five million ECUs (about £4.2 million) of European Counterpart Funds for child protection, but he has managed to find only about a fifth of it. The rest has simply disappeared. “Nobody will tell me how this money was spent. They say they didn’t use it. Then we are looking in the budget and we cannot find it. It is not there.”

A further 12 million ECUs (about £8.4 million) was pledged for the children from the European Phare fund – money from Brussels to rebuild former Communist regimes. But almost all of this has been spent on ‘technical assistance’ – drawing up programmes, setting up experiments, conducting studies. Charities complain that only 300,000 ECUs was passed on to them to be spent directly on humanitarian aid for the children.

Ion Predescu, executive director of PNC, the largest children’s aid project in the country, told me: “Most of that money has never been seen. They should have given it to the local councils, but the ministries would not let go of it.” Tabacaru says the money was misspent from the moment the programme was planned. “This is also about politics beause the government did not show enough interest to the problem of the children. The money was not well administered.”

A further $150 million from the World Bank went the same way. Under the terms of their deal with the bank, the Romanian health ministry were allowed to spend the money on a wide range of health projects including ‘childcare and adolescents’. Charities say that none of it – not one dollar – reached the children’s homes.

The Western charities who poured into Romania suffered also. Numerous charities report that impoverished staff at the homes stole the clothes and medicine and toys that were being trucked to the children. Some officials started small businesses, peddling stolen aid. In Oradea, in western Romania, the White Cross Mission from Truro in Cornwall, left $4,000 with a local priest to pay for the building of an extension to a house. Two years later, the extension does not exist, and the $4,000 has disappeared, apparently into a private business which the priest is running on the side.

Nick Fenton, director of Childhope UK, told me: “There is corruption and maladministration of funds. It’s not necessarily the fault of the Romanians. If you have been in a black hole for 40 years and suddenly there are all these nice people coming in like Father Christmas distributing cash and goodies and then disappearing, you just spend it the best way you know. Where there have been partnerships and control and training, there has been some success. But well-meaning people have dumped fairly large chunks of money and gone off elsewhere.”

Nella and her friends on the streets of Bucharest are the most visible sign of this chaos – some three thousand children who have spilled out of the homes in search of a better life. The main station, the Gara de Nord, has become a magnet for hundreds of street urchins who spend their winters down in the steaming sewers twenty feet below the street and their summers on the city streets. To talk to them is to enter a secret world of need and crime and sexual abuse.

At first, there is only one, a small boy with an impish face and a purple bobble hat. His face is caked in grime. His chest, which is visible through the gashes in his over-sized jacket, is the same. In his right fist, he is carrying a dirty white plastic bag and, every couple of minutes, he lifts it to his mouth and sucks on the opening. Glue. On the promise of a packet of cigarettes he agrees to talk.

He says his name is Adi. He is 12 years old, although he is as small and thin as a six-year-old. He has no idea where he was born or who his parents were but he knows he has lived here for five years, since he ran away from a children’s home in Bucharest to escape the beatings. He spends his days in the Metro begging from passengers on the trains or here, in the station, looking for scraps in the waste bins.

As he talks, half a dozen other young boys come up and when I hand Adi his packet of cigarettes, the biggest of them takes them for himself. They all start to offer to sell their own stories on the same terms. The big lad, whose name is Gheorghe, goes first. It is soon clear that he is in charge, that the small ones beg and steal on his behalf. And that is not all.

Gheorghe explains as a matter of fact how this French guy called Michel came to the station and bought some clothes for some of the boys. Gheorghe made friends with Michel, who bought him a radio and said he could earn some good money if he helped him with something. So Gheorghe agreed to round up a couple of the younger boys and go with them in Michel’s camper van. They drove out of town towards the airport, found a quiet street and then Gheorghe kept watch while Michel climbed into the back with the two boys and used them for sex. For this, he paid 50,000 lei – about £5. Gheorghe took it all.

Michel came back quite often in his camper van and bought more little presents for the boys and made the same deal with Gheorghe. Others did the same.There was an American called Chuck, a 45-year-old businessman from Oklahoma, who not only offered them food and drink but also set up an agency to help them and took them back to his flat so they had somewhere to sleep. Two months ago, Chuck was arrested and charged with sexually abusing two of them, who were aged 12 and 10. The police say they found video tapes of Chuck with four boys.

There were some Germans, too, who were interested in the girls who live on the streets. Earlier this month, police in Germany broke up a paedophile ring who had been trying to sell a large collection of videos showing the sexual abuse of children. One of the men, a cook who had been living with his wife and child in a small town just outside Vienna in Austria, told the police that the videos had been made in Romania. They had found the young girls in the main railway station, he said. They were aged between nine and twelve and, as far as he knew, they had picked up, filmed and abused at least 29 of them.

It is a dangerous life. There was a girl called Maria who was living with them but one New Year’s Eve she was gang-raped and she died. Some of them are HIV positive; others have tuberculosis. All of them are hungry.

By now, there are about a dozen street children, all elbowing their way to the front, trying to tell their stories, begging for cigarettes, sucking on their glue bags and all talking at once – about policemen who hassle them and people who beat them and how they have syphilis and nothing to eat. And, through all this blizzard of pain, all of them, over and over again say the same single thing about themselves: they used to live in children’s homes but life was so bad that they ran away.

In Romania today, everyone admits that most of the children’s homes are still bad. There are some which have been lucky – who received plenty of Western aid and who managed to reform themselves. Others received aid and then relapsed when the charity ended. Some received no aid at all.

From his vantage point at the head of the country’s largest charity for children, Ion Predescu estimates that at least two thirds of the children’s homes are still incapable of caring for their occupants. Nick Fenton from Childhope UK agrees: “A lot of the poorest and most revolting conditions appear to have been cleared up, at least in Bucharest. Outside Bucharest, conditions are often still bad.”

The homes are overcrowded. Charity workers report up to 40 children crammed into a single room, often not leaving for months at a time. They are understaffed. Cristian Andrei, who runs Romania’s service for children with AIDS, told me that it was common for one carer to be left with 30, 40 or even 50 children. “Sometimes the carer is really the janitor, because there are no specialised staff,” he said.

They cannot afford a healthy diet. Officially, they receive only 5,300 lei a day for food for each child – about 50 pence. Many receive less. The Vidra Hospital just outside Bucharest says it has only 2,700 lei a day for food for each of the 90 abandoned children in its care. Western volunteers say children under three are often left in their cots all day and fed on nothing but reconstituted milk and water. “Then they assess them as retarded and put them in an institution for life,” one told me.

In 1995, the director of the home in Focsani spent too much on food and was forced to make up the difference from his own pocket. In 1996, he persuaded a sponsor to help him pay for the food with the result that he managed to save a little money. The government then penalised him for failing to spend his allotted funds.

The homes are often short of drugs. The Lupu hospital in Bucharest reported that for several days at a time it was running out of the chemicals it needs to perform HIV tests. It has also run out of AZT with which to treat the AIDS children. Outside Bucharest, hospitals lack even the most basic medicine. Some cannot even check that donated blood is free of AIDS and other diseases.

Although most of the young children on the streets of Bucharest have run away from the conditions in these homes, there are hundreds of others who have been dumped on the streets at the age of 18 when the institutions will no longer cater for them.

I met two sisters, Maria and Daniella, aged 21 and 23, both well-dressed and confident, apparently enjoying the fruits of Romania’s economic freedom. As they talked, it became clear that their affluent appearance masked two bitter secrets.

The first was a childhood of despair which had begun with their drunken father beating their mother until finally the marriage collapsed and their mother, unable to support her young children, abandoned Maria and Daniella and her two other toddlers to the state. They had grown up together in a home in the south of Bucharest with their hair cropped, fighting for survival in the same conditions which were to shock the world.

The two of them remembered the officials who were running the home stealing the meat that the children were supposed to eat and taking the clothes that their mother sometimes brought for them. They remembered endless slappings and beatings, the fat and potatoes they were given for meals and how, sometimes, they would slip out on to the streets to beg for food. There was always the sound of children crying, they said, and the sight of the handicapped children rocking endlessly in their cots.

“I couldn’t believe that it had happened to us,” Daniella said. “I couldn’t believe parents would throw away their children like rubbish. I hate those people who ran the homes. I know how many bad things they did for us. I think they have no hearts. They work just to take their money. I dreamed about finding my parents so they could give me love and teach me good things and protect me and help me.”

It was when they came to talk about their lives after they left the orphanages that the other bitter secret emerged. Both of them have now become prostitutes. And they say that almost all of the other girls who they know from the children’s home have done the same. “There is nothing else for us,” Maria said.

Ion Predescu has seen the same pattern. “I would say at least 80% of the girls from the Bucharest homes end up as prostitutes. Some of them leave the homes with no ID card – so they cannot get work. Most of them leave with no address to go to – so they cannot get work. And they have learned no skills in there. The homes teach them how to make electrical transformers. But these transformers have not been used in the outside world for 20 years. It is a useless skill.”

Now there are signs that life may become even harder. Of the nine thousand charities who once came to help the children of Romania, Predescu believes fewer then twenty are still there. The aid has moved away to Zaire and Rwanda and Bosnia. The new government is making deep cuts in public spending: the budget for the children’s homes is likely to fall even lower and the Ministry of Health is axing nearly 30,000 staff, some of whom have been working in the homes.

Everyone says that there is one glimmer of hope for the children. The new government is trying. Cristian Tabacaru finally has the power which the old confusion of ministries lacked. He has ideas. He has scrapped the old Communist law which compelled families in trouble to give their children to institutions. He wants to take the children back to their families, to provide them with support, to let the local councils develop their own social services. But on his first day in office, the Minister of Finance told him: “Congratulations on your new job. Unfortunately, there is no budget for your programme.”

Outside the Gara de Nord, a rat runs along the pavement carrying a crust of bread as big as its head. It turns off the pavement, hops through some cast-iron railings and disappears into a group of half a dozen small slumbering bodies on a patch of grass.

By the taxi rank opposite the Hotel Continental, a young pimp offers to sell me Gina for £10. She is young and pretty and she says she must be careful. She was arrested by the police the other day. No, they didn’t fine her. They took her to a room with a long table and some filing cabinets and took it in turns to rape her.

A few minutes drive away, on Stirbei Voda, a gypsy woman smiles at the passers by.