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The Kids Are Not All Right


Letter From Romania

THE KIDS ARE NOT ALL RIGHT

Mitica Gavriliuc sinks into his leather armchair, checks the antique gold pocket watch that he picked up on a recent vacation in London, and lights a Marlboro. "I'll give you half an hour," he says, exhaling contentedly. "I'm feeling generous this evening."

Gavriliuc is a busy man. Thanks to him, Botosani--a sprawling provincial town of crumbling high-rises and decrepit factories--now has a private medical clinic. Staffed by moonlighting specialists from the municipal hospital, the clinic and everything in it is new--computers, carpets, scanners, even the rubber plants and vending machines. In fact, it seems like a typical postcommunist success story: a new-era entrepreneur capitalizing on the deficiencies of the old. "Poor diet, pollution, unemployment," he says, ticking off the ailments that plague Botosani's 30,000 people, "mean bronchial problems and skin disease and stress-related problems. We should do well."

What Gavriliuc does not say is how he acquired the clinic. The three-story building was bought seven years ago by a British charity to house its volunteers who were working at state institutions for the elderly, handicapped, and mentally ill. Running the clinic is only one of Gavriliuc's jobs--he also runs an orphanage. Some of the British charity's volunteers were working at Gavriliuc's orphanage. At the time the clinic building was purchased to house volunteers, foreigners could not own property in Romania. So the building was purchased in Gavriliuc's name, explained Rupert Wolfe Murray, founder of Scottish European Aid (SEA), the Edinburgh organization that put up the cash. A credit slip from the bank, dated Sept. 25, 1991, shows that Wolfe Murray paid for the building. A court authorized the conversion of the hostel to a commercial building in February, 1997. The conversion papers are in Gavriliuc's name. "I think it's clear what happened," says Wolfe Murray. "I don't need to spell it out."DRAFTY OLD LODGE. Asked whether he had taken over the building for his own use, Gavriliuc at first expressed bewilderment. But when the documents were waved under his nose, he shrugged. "You're right. I suppose, morally, it isn't mine." He yawns, gazing around with a proprietorial air: "But on paper it is."

The orphanage that Gavriliuc runs is called the Ionoseni Asylum for Parentless Incurables. He has run it for nearly a decade. Housed at the end of a rutted cart-track in a drafty 19th century hunting lodge deep in dense forests, it suited the former regime's out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude toward the handicapped. Unannounced visitors aren't welcome. "You can't just barge in," protests the gateman, unshaven and red-eyed. "People have to be prepared for what they see."

They certainly do. Like the malnourished 5-year-old boy still in diapers who huddles in a closet, jamming a grubby thumb into the empty socket of his right eye. Or the epileptic teen left strapped to a bed to control her convulsions. She appears to have spent the night drenched in her own menstrual blood. Or the rows of children who sit obediently in darkened rooms under the bored gaze of peasant women hired from a nearby village. They spend the empty hours jerking back and forth from the waist as if riding a herd of invisible rocking horses.

The situation at the orphanage was not always like this. After the summary execution of dictator Nicolai Ceausescu on Christmas Day, 1989, Western relief agencies came calling at the Ionoseni Asylum. Irish monks installed a heavy-duty laundry. A London man who constructs tennis courts built a playground. Glasgow health workers converted a ruined cottage into a rehabilitation center. Therapists, nurses, doctors piled in to pass on their skills to local staff. The Duchess of York and the British Ambassador even came to shake Gavriliuc's hand. "I had to laugh," recalls Wolfe Murray. "I'd just confiscated all the keys to the storerooms because medicines and clothes kept turning up on the local flea market.""SURPLUS KIDS." But the volunteers inevitably pulled out. "They couldn't keep holding the Romanians' hands forever," says Michael Warren, headmaster of a British school for disabled children, who made frequent advisory trips. "It was a case of: `Right, we've shown you all we know. Now you're on your own."'

Left to their own devices, Gavriliuc's staff quickly unlearned their lessons. Water pipes burst, and toilets overflowed with human waste. Weeds soon covered the playground. The laundry ground to a halt. "It wasn't that Mitica didn't care about these kids' welfare, but they just weren't his first priority," recalls physiotherapist Di Hiscock, the last resident Westerner to leave Ionoseni. "He was too busy buying up stuff for his clinic."

Asked about the deteriorating conditions at Ionoseni, Gavriliuc said that "increasing commitments" limit the amount of time he can spend there. Ionoseni receives less than $1 a day per orphan. "It's difficult to care about anyone when you don't have any money," he adds.

Gavriliuc's business dealings provoke little surprise among those familiar with the murky world of Romania's "nonprofit" sector. U.N. and European Union officials report that 65% of the country's institutions for the handicapped have sunk back into communist-era squalor. But veteran relief workers say their efforts have also been hampered by a societywide culture of ruthless self-interest that is a legacy of the former regime. "Forty-five years of Marxism-Leninism killed off their compassion," remarks Jane Hepper, a British nutritionist who has made working trips to Romania since 1993. "Under Ceausescu, all forms of birth control were banned, so it's not surprising people off-loaded their surplus kids."

Today, little has changed: The birth rate is almost as high as ever. And the daily struggle to survive in Eastern Europe's poorest backwater leaves little time for useless encumbrances such as tiny babies. "Most of the lads and lasses at Ionoseni aren't orphans, and many have nothing seriously wrong with them," says Warren. "Their parents just couldn't be bothered." Ionoseni officials agree. These days, Warren points out, new additions to the 100-strong roll aren't even accorded the dignity of a name: On paper and to their faces, they are called simply necunoscut--unknown.

Back in Gavriliuc's health clinic, the interview nears its end. Gavriliuc rolls his eyes and casts up his arms helplessly. He admits the clinic is his only on paper but refuses to return it to the British charity that paid for it. "Sure, I could give this place back, but what for? There aren't any volunteers here anymore. At least now I'm doing some good."

Locking up the clinic for the night, Gavriliuc nearly trips over a cat lying by the roadside. Its back has been broken by a passing vehicle. Its eyes are a mass of maggots and insects. No one has bothered to put it out of its misery. "Careful," Gavriliuc remarks, stepping gingerly around the tormented animal. "It'll give you fleas." With that, he jumps into his car and disappears into the night with a cheerful honk of the horn.BY JAMES DRAKEReturn to top


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