Thieves get rich while orphans suffer in Romania

The Daily Mail, July 15 1997

Mitica Gavriliuc is feeling good. He is sitting on a large and comfortable brown leather sofa, smoking a Monte Carlo cigarette and putting the finishing touches to a gigantic jigsaw puzzle of a deer on a mountainside. His dark glasses have golden rims. From time to time, his wife, Dana, who wears a gold ring and several gold necklaces, fetches him another cup of coffee.

Mitica is feeling especially good because he is about to open his new private medical clinic. Sitting here in its reception area, with its collection of rubber plants and grand leather armchairs, he speaks with pleasure of the 18 different specialist doctors who will work here and the new high tech machinery which he is installing. Everything here is new – the computers, the carpets, the doors, even the plaster on the walls. If all goes well, this clinic will make Mitica a rich man.

Where did he find the money to set up such a place out here in the Romanian countryside? Mitica says that is his private business. “We didn’t steal it,” says Dana. Maybe. Maybe not. Mitica does not mention that at this moment he is being taken to court by the founder of a British charity who says he has stolen a whole house from them.

Thirty miles away, in a peaceful village not far from the Ukrainian border, there is an old chateau which was once a hunting lodge for aristocrats. For the last twenty years it has been the Ionaseni children’s home and hospital. It houses 108 boys and girls, most of whom have been abandoned by their parents. Its director is Mitica Gavriliuc.

On the top floor of the home, a small boy lies under a thin brown blanket on a cast-iron bed. His name is Catalin Vacareanu. He is nine years old, he is blind, his legs are twisted, his feet are clubbed and he is so thin that he looks like a chick that has fallen out of its nest. Today, Catalin is dying. To be precise, he is starving. He keeps throwing up his food and there is no one here who really tries to help him. There is a doctor, but she is hardly ever here.

Almost constantly, Catalin grinds his teeth, perhaps because he is in pain from his empty stomach. From time to time, he pushes his thumb into the dead socket of his right eye, apparently stimulating the nerves. Otherwise, he simply lies and stares blankly at the wall with air rattling slowly in and out of his lungs. There is no one to comfort him, no one to change his clothes or wash him or read to him or sing to him.

It is the same for Paul Anitei, aged 12, who is lying at the other end of Catalin’s bed and who is also dying, although more slowly than Catalin. And for Ion Cojocaru, aged 29, a cheerful, intelligent man, whose body has been spastic and twisted from birth and who lies now on the other side of the room with his wrists roped to his bed head. No one here tries any other way to stop his spasms. No one here has the time to try. No one seems to care.

A few years ago, the Ionaseni children’s home was a success story, rescued from the notorious deprivation of the old Communist days by the hard work of scores of British volunteers and the generosity of countless British men and women who had sent more than half a million pounds to help the children.

A Scottish travel writer called Rupert Wolfe Murray led the way, abandoning his career to rescue the children. He set up Scottish European Aid and triggered publicity which provoked a spontaneous surge of help. A London fruit wholesaler, Andy Tilly, and a Bexhill haulier, Mike Horley, organised convoys of trucks to carry aid. A Sunderland man, Tony Lonsdale, who builds tennis courts came out to build the children a playground. Nurses, therapists, teachers and assorted well-wishers followed to work with the Romanians. The children who had once sat tied to their cots, rocking with boredom, were given a new chance. The Duchess of York and the British Ambassador came to shake Mitica by the hand.

Now the success story is over. The flow of aid has dried up as the West has turned its attention to newer crises. Two years ago, the volunteers started to pull out and handed Ionaseni back to Romanian staff. Soon there were complaints that staff were stealing from the home, that money was being used for administration instead of for the children, that the cash was drying up, that the children were being neglected, that Mitica was too busy with his new private clinic to care – and that the house which Rupert Wolfe Murray had bought for the volunteers was suddenly in the hands of the ambitious director.

The last surviving British volunteer, Di Hiscock, aged 44, a physiotherapist from Dorset, watched as Ionaseni slid back to the bad old ways. “It’s a disaster,” she told me. “There has been a steady decline for the last two years, since the Western volunteers started to pull out. They haven’t been able to meet the most basic needs of the children. It is terribly sad to see all that hard work going to waste.”

It is a story that is repeated around Romania where Western charities report that as the aid caravan has moved on, some two thirds of the children’s homes have slid back into conditions of deprivation and despair.

On a visit to Ionaseni, I found room after room where children were sitting in an obedient line with nothing but boredom for company. Some of them rocked backwards and forwards, some of them rubbed their hands and studied their fingers, some of them simply scratched until they bled. No one did anything for them. Some had sores on their skin where wounds had become infected for want of basic hygiene.

I walked into a completely dark room and found three terribly handicapped figures sitting in wheelchairs, abandoned to their thoughts in the blackness. One of them, a girl called Lacrimoara tried to speak. “Father,” she said. “Mother. Bread.” Then the door closed on her. And I heard about Doina Giugula.

Doina was six when she came to Ionaseni in 1995 just as the volunteers were leaving. She was a child who had never had a chance – physically handicapped at birth, abandoned in the maternity ward by her mother, brought up in a babies home where they fed her nothing but milk and water. When she arrived at Ionaseni, she had not learned to walk or talk – not because she was not able but because no one had ever tried to teach her. Di Hiscock saw what happened next.

“She was very emotionally disturbed so she groaned and screamed a lot. She didn’t talk. She was starting to walk but she had no reason to learn. She was in physical pain. I’m afraid she suffered from neglect here. She was cold because she was left wet because they don’t change the children enough. They don’t have the staff to provide care. They seem to have no desire to help a child who is handicapped. So she gave up. She refused to feed, she deteriorated, she became grossly anaemic, and at the beginning of this year she picked up a chest infection.”

Three weeks ago, Doina Giugula died of malnutrition. She was eight years old. Her body was taken to a cupboard in the basement of the children’s home, where it lay unattended for four days until it was taken up the hill to the village cemetery and buried with an anonymous wooden cross in the ground. Soon, Catalin will join her.

Di Hiscock says Doina need not have suffered so much. “I do think that if she had got proper medical care, she would have suffered less. She suffered greatly in the last four months. We had lots of rows about treating her. The truth is that I am very pleased that she died, because it put an end to her suffering.”

An hour’s drive away stands Podriga, a home for handicapped adults to which most of the children of Ionaseni graduate when they are 18. This, too, has been the target of intense work by British volunteers and their Romanian partners. Now, it is like a scene from hell.

The gateman is red-eyed with drink, his shirt hangs open to expose his belly and, without bothering to check who I am, he staggers forward to let me in. A man runs jibbering in front of the house, naked apart from a soiled vest. A woman in a yellow skirt paces backwards and forwards on the main terrace. All around, there are men and women slumped asleep on the ground while others pick their way between them, groaning and grabbing at the air. A naked young woman with cropped blonde hair crouches against a wall as if she is trying to hide in the bricks.

No one is in charge. The director, who is a GP, is drunk. The assistant director is out. The accountant shows me around. Downstairs, the basement floor is awash with human waste and water. Upstairs, there are men and women slumped asleep on bed frames, or picking crabs out of their body hair or simply staring into a void. An old man with grey stubble hair shuffles along behind me with his trousers undone, looking for help. No one seems to care.

The British volunteers here raised £30,000 to lay in seven kilometers of water piping, with the advice of the North Surrey waterboard. They built a rehabilitation block and tried to start a farm as therapy for the patients and a source of income. Trained volunteers poured into Podriga to work alongside Romanian staff passing on skills. But now, the water pipes have burst and no one tries to mend them; there are not enough staff to run the rehab block; and the farm has been abandoned.

Alison Butcher, a nurse tutor, who has been making working trips here since 1991, told me: “A lot of the trouble comes from the Communist past, 45 years of learning not to think for yourself. The corruption is extreme. Podriga’s problem has always been that the people at the top are not interested. The problem is not lack of money. It’s lack of will. They don’t really consider the residents of Podriga as human beings.”

When an old lady died in Podriga two years ago, the priest simply failed to turn up to bury her, and Alison Butcher had to conduct the funeral herself. Some have never even been given names. On paper and to their faces, they are called simply Necunoscut – Unknown Man. They are fed on hard bread or thin gruel from a bucket. The budget allows for better food but it is stolen by staff and villagers, including police officers. They are given no cutlery and are forced to eat like animals. Some suffer malnutrition. In the overcrowded rooms, there is an epidemic of tuberculosis.

“They control the patients by fear,” Alison Butcher told me. “They can deprive them of food or give them inappropriate drugs.” Staff told me that they knew of sexual abuse, bullying and ill treatment – not just by patients but also by staff and even by villagers coming in.

On the way out, I meet a middle-aged man who has been locked away for more than 20 years. He seems perfectly sane but no one will let him out. On his jacket, he carries one last sign of the presence of the British volunteers, a dirty white badge which says ‘Silverstone, the home of British motor racing’.

On the sofa in his clinic, Mitica Gavriliuc has finished his jig-saw puzzle. He cannot talk about the budget for the home. Although he is the director, he says he does not know it. Nor can he talk about how much aid money he has received. And he cannot see why anyone is interested in this house which Scottish European Aid say they bought in 1991.

They say they bought it and restored it so that volunteers could stay there. Now they say he has stolen it – that they bought it in his name because foreigners were not then allowed to own property in Romanian and that six years later all three copies of the agreement which he signed with them have mysteriously disappeared and that he has secretly gone and registered it in his own name.

Dana, his wife, cuts in. She wants to know what makes me think that Mitica has registered the house in his own name. I show her the registration paper from the regional court, dated February 1997, clearly marked with his name. “Well, why shouldn’t he register it?” she asks. Because it belongs to Scottish European Aid. “Does it?” she asks with an air of innocence. I show her the credit slip from the local bank, dated September 25 1991, which clearly shows that Rupert Wolfe Murrary paid for the house.

Now Dana is angry. “We don’t want this house. We have enough property of our own. Our parents are rich enough. Why would you think that Mitica would steal the house?” Because he waited until Wolfe Murray and the other volunteers had all left the scene before he went off and registered it in his own name and he did so without telling anyone. “No,” says Dana. “He was too busy to do it before.” Too busy? For five and a half years? “Yes,” says Dana.

Mitica takes off his dark glasses and shrugs. “Morally perhaps it is not mine,” he admits. Then he leans back on the sofa with his paws on his belly and he looks around at his clinic. “But on paper it is.”

He is still happy. But perhaps not for long. Wolfe Murray has started to sue him in the Romanian courts. “I’m not going to give up,” Wolfe Murray told me. “He is corrupt and useless. It makes me very sad and disappointed that people like this end up with so many resources while the good people in Romania end up with nothing.”