Half a million kids survived Romania's 'slaughterhouses of souls.’ Will they ever heal?

Romanian orphans

A group of children from a Romanian orphanage give New Year greetings to dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife on Dec. 30, 1977.

BUCHAREST, Romania — Daniel Rucareanu remembers clearly when his best friend at the orphanage, Florin, slapped him.

The night supervisor in the boys’ communist Romanian orphanage caught the fifth graders fighting in their dorm room. As punishment he ordered them to hit each other. Daniel was first. He hesitated and, in the end, barely touched Florin. But Florin didn’t hold back when it was his turn.

“My best friend hit me with so much hate that I got scared,” Rucareanu recalled.

The supervisors cultivated violence to humiliate and control the children, he said. The older kids hit the smaller ones. The educators beat everybody. The staff preferred to hit them in the face and head.

The beatings left psychological scars. Even now, it’s sometimes hard for Rucareanu to look people in the eye.

“We were wiped out as human beings — silenced, humiliated,” he explained. “Our personalities were dissolved.”

“Those places were the slaughterhouses of souls,” he added. “How did all those people heal?”

Daniel Rucareanu, president of the association Federeii, was raised in two communist orphanages. His organization is asking the Romanian authorities to apologize for the cruelties suffered by hundreds of thousands of children.

Twenty-five years after the Romanian Revolution in 1989 that sloughed off communism, Rucareanu, 38, and other children raised in orphanages created an association called Federeii — a Romanian epithet used for orphans that stems from a local term for a garbage dump.

The group is pushing Romanian authorities to admit to, and apologize for, the hunger, cold, beatings, sexual abuse and lack of care suffered by an estimated 500,000 children in the country’s dismal orphanages before the end of the Cold War.

Immediately after the fall of communism, the images of starving, naked and sick children found in overcrowded Romanian orphanages shocked the world. GlobalPost revisited some of these stories, speaking with orphans, caregivers, authorities and the foreign journalists who covered the story decades ago.

***

“I lived some horrible moments,” Codruta Burda remembers. 

In 1989, Codruta Burda was an educator in Sancrai in central Romania. She cared for around 25 orphans who were then 3 to 4 years old. Some were evaluated as mentally disabled, though that diagnosis was often incorrect.

“But because they were not stimulated, they couldn’t walk, they couldn’t talk. You had to feed them,” Burda said.

Her orphanage was in a crumbling 19th-century castle that smelled of chlorine and urine. Each morning, about 90 preschool children, some of them disabled, fought over pieces of bread smeared with cheese. They ate stew for lunch and soup in the evening.

A group is pushing authorities to admit to, and apologize for, the hunger, cold, beatings and sexual abuse suffered by an estimated 500,000 children.

Orphanage workers took from the children’s rations.

“The cleaning women didn’t place the children at the table until they took their portions,” said Burda. “As the pieces of cheese were numbered for the children, they would split them in two, so they could take for themselves.”

The children slept in two big dorms with 45 in each. Children who soiled their beds were bathed along with their bed sheets, sometimes with cold water. They endured terrible cold in the winter. Nobody had enough clothing or shoes.

Corporal punishments were common in Sancrai.

“I saw beatings every day,” Burda said. “I cannot even remember how many beatings I've seen.”

She recalled a fight with one of her colleagues who used to beat a girl with heart problems.

“I was telling her, ‘If you keep beating her, she will die in your arms,’” she recalled. “My colleague’s reaction was, ‘She’s your favorite, that’s why you’re protecting her. I told her, ‘Yes, she’s my favorite. Don’t touch her. I don’t want her to die.’”

Orphanage employees who didn’t hit children were considered weak. So corporal punishment was encouraged.

“Even I had to slap the older ones who would have crises sometimes,” she said. “They couldn’t calm down otherwise. Those kids didn’t know any other way to be instructed.”

Worse than the beatings was the neglect, she added. When someone came to see them, they would climb all over the visitor and not let him or her go.

“That wasn’t because of the beatings,” Burda said. “But because no one loved them and they felt that no one loved them.”

Olimpia Macovei, a pediatrician, became an orphanage inspector in northeastern Romania in 1985. She witnessed the ward system deteriorating as communism floundered. Some believed it was a punishment to work in the orphanages, she recalls. The staff oversaw 30 to 40 children to care for.

Still, Macovei told workers to show the children affection.

“I used to tell them: ‘If the baby is hungry, he cries. If he’s cold, he cries. If you pinch him for an injection, he cries,’” Macovei said. “‘In all these cases, take him in your arms and he will stop crying. The need for protection, when he cannot even hold his spine or his head, is stronger than pain or hunger.’ That’s what those kids needed.”

***

Homeless Romanian teenagers photographed in 2002 near a train station in Bucharest. At the time humanitarian groups said hundreds of children who escaped from orphanages or broken homes were living on the streets of Bucharest, surviving by begging, stealing or prostituting themselves.

An estimated 100,000 Romanian children were in orphanages at the end of 1989, when communism ended. The high number is linked to the pro-family policies pursued by former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In 1966, the regime banned abortions and contraceptives to keep the population from shrinking after World War II.

From 1967 to 1971, Romania’s population increased by more than 6 percent.

  Ceausescu ordered that women should be subject to regular gynecological exams at work to detect pregnancy before a possible abortion.

Starting in 1985, Ceausescu ordered that women should be subject to regular gynecological exams at work to detect pregnancy before a possible abortion, according to a 1990 Helsinki Watch report titled “Romania’s Orphans: a Legacy of Repression.” 

In 1989, the year the regime collapsed, the population reached a record 23.1 million.

Children born in the last 20 years of communism were nicknamed “decretei,” meaning “children of the decree.” Many were unwanted, especially when the Romanian economy was contracting in the 1970s and 1980s amid Ceausescu’s inept management.

In reaction, communist propaganda presented the orphanage as a viable alternative to the classic family. In 1970, a law billed as protecting minors made institutionalization easier. Orphanages were called “children’s houses.”

Not all the children’s houses were bad, says Felicia Popa Chiratcu, who first worked in the system in 1988 in Barlad, near what was then the border of the Soviet republic of Moldova.

“At that time, my children were the age of those in the orphanage,” Chiratcu said. “I told my colleagues and my husband that, if something happened to me, I wanted my children to be sent to the orphanage because the place was clean, there was heat and very good food”.

Many of the children she oversaw are now adults who visit or write her, she said.

Once institutionalized, children were distributed to a network of centers under various government departments. Children less than 3 years old were put in Health Ministry nurseries. From there, healthy children went to orphanages until they were 6 years old. After that, they went to facilities under the Education Ministry until they reached 18.

Still, orphans often weren’t told when they were being moved from one institution to another, said Visinel Balan, 28, secretary general of the Federeii association. Nobody had belongings or a chance to say goodbye to anybody.

Visinel Balan, at around 14, in the orphanage in Comanesti. He frequently ran away from there and took shelter in a train station or a monastery.

“We were moved like boxes,” said Balan, a former official in the youth and sports ministry who founded another nonprofit, Drawing Your Own Future, which helps orphans in the somewhat improved system today. “The difference was that we were screaming, but it wasn’t a big difference. We were boxes with voices.”

Everybody knew when an inspection was coming, said people who lived in the institutions. The children wore special clothes, ate special meals and were prepared to demonstrate they knew their lessons. The orphanages were supposed to create so-called “new men” for the communist state.

“These ‘new men’ didn’t have any problems,” said Rucareanu, who also works as an education expert in the Romanian government. “They were smart, they had healthy faces, new clothes. The regime didn’t have any problems.”

Under the system, children diagnosed as “irrecuperable” were considered “unproductive” and assigned to the Labor Ministry, the Helsinki Watch report said. They received little medical attention even though they often were disabled. Sometimes kind-hearted staff at the orphanages for younger children would adjust their records to prevent them from going to the Labor Ministry’s facilities. But many were left to die without care or an opportunity to advance in school, according to the report.

***

Rucareanu looks younger than his age, but when he’s smiling or when he recalls his childhood, wrinkles surround his eyes and appear on his forehead. His smile is sad. His long thin arms hang by his side, like a good soldier. But he is short and skinny, typical signs of malnutrition of those who lived in a communist Romanian orphanage.

He doesn’t know his father, whom he believes left his mother because he was born. His mother was then with another man who used to beat him.

At age 6, Rucareanu started running away from his home in Ploiesti, 38 miles north of Bucharest. He was a dark-haired kid who survived from begging and odd jobs for vendors at the local market. The police would bring him back home again and again.

On one of his escapades in the summer of 1985, Rucareanu found overnight shelter on the stairs of an apartment building, and he started doing his homework there. A woman who lived in the building took him in. There, Rucareanu met the woman’s uncle, Nicolae Avram, an old man who would play a large role in his life.

That summer, his first-grade teacher visited Rucareanu’s house to check and see if Rucareanu’s parents were caring for him — a schoolteacher’s duty at the time. She concluded that his home life was awful and initiated the institutionalization procedure.

He was sent to the orphanage in Ploiesti near Bucharest. On his first day, some of the older children there beat him.

“I was coming from a place where violence was daily, and I arrived in a place where I didn’t know who would use violence against me,” he said. “From that day, I promised myself that I would never be like them. I would study and I would leave.” 

The last years of communism were ugly and gray. The orphanage walls were bare, no drawings, no shelves of toys. The dorms had around 35 beds. The playgrounds were concrete squares. The children were fed sour boiled cabbage daily. Staff stole the children’s food. Medical treatments were careless — Rucareanu remembers five kids dying in Ploiesti due to mistakes or negligence.

Rucareanu’s only connection to the outside world was the Avram family. They didn’t have any children and would take him for holidays and weekends.

“They showed me that there is another kind of life out there,” Rucareanu said. “I think there are hundreds of such people who changed lives. They acted as agents of good.”

In 1988, Rucareanu was transferred to an orphanage in Busteni, a mountain resort. It was a former hotel and a casino, but its high white walls made it resemble a fortress. Old postcards give the ex-resort a majestic look, but for Daniel it was a prison with 400 children-inmates.

“All the activities in a child’s life happened in the same building,” he said. “You would sleep there, eat there, learn there, wash there.”

An old postcard of a hotel casino in Busteni, in the Carpathians. During World War II it was transformed into orphanage 9 Mai.

***

British journalist Bob Graham, who wrote for The Daily Mail in the late 1980s, was one of the first foreigners to visit a Romanian orphanage.

In January 1990, two weeks after Ceausescu’s assassination, Graham was in Bucharest and came upon an orphanage.

“There were two things I remember most vividly of all, they will stay with me forever: the smell of urine and the silence of so many children,” he said.

“Usually when you enter a room packed with cots filled with children, the expectation is of noise, chatter or crying, sometimes even a whimper. There was none, even though the children were awake. They lay in their cots, sometimes two to each cot, sometime three, their eyes staring. Silently. It was eerie, almost sinister. The smell, with which I became familiar in the months and years visiting the institutions throughout Romania, was rank.”

Staff ignored the children in their rusting metal cots. There were no toys or books around, and the walls were empty of paintings and murals, he recalled.

“They were inhuman,” he said. “Stalls where children, babies, were treated like farm animals. No, I am wrong — at least the animals felt brave enough to make a noise.”

Even after the revolution, the Romanian authorities continued to deny the existence of the orphanages. “Anyone in authority denied, denied and denied even more. It was appalling,” Graham said.

But foreign journalists like Graham forced officials to acknowledge the tragedy unfolding under their noses.

Western newspapers and television programs showcased a so-called “recovery and rehabilitation center for the disabled” in Cighid on the Hungarian border that resembled a concentration camp. The child’s gulag, as it and other orphanages became known, housed around 100 children rocking back and forth alone in the dark. Most were naked, nothing but skin and bones, their legs crossed. Half died each year, usually before the age of 3, making space for others to occupy their beds.

The reports led Western governments and other groups to send aid to Romania.

After Graham’s exposes of the problem, The Daily Mail raised around $2.5 million in six weeks for the children. But the old ways were hard to change.

“The aid packages went through the front door and out the back door,” Graham remembers.

He later wrote a story about how the employees sold donated goods on local markets or kept them for themselves.

Rucareanu has similar memories: food, medicine and other aid coming and leaving the orphanage in Busteni. The director beat him once, when Rucareanu accused him of stealing the goods. He and the other children would respond by threatening to go to the press to expose the orphanage workers.

Still, the children received some of the supplies, even if it meant boys were girls’ clothes or garments that were too big or small.

In Sancrai, supplies for the children went from one extreme to the other, remembers Burda. Among the donations flooding in were plenty of sweets, and the 3-year-old orphans were entitled to 100 grams of chocolate after lunch. “I used to split it among them and put the rest in the closet. There was a stack of chocolate, so much I was afraid that someone would come and open the closet and think that I want to steal it,” she said.

A Romanian boy in his bed at St. Paul shelter for abandoned children built by an Austrian charity foundation in Bucharest. Foreign families have adopted tens of thousands of Romanians since 1989, when harrowing TV footage of babies chained to beds in decrepit orphanages shocked the world.

They were getting oranges and bananas and kiwi, fruits that even some staff members didn’t know much about. The cleaning ladies thought the kiwi fruits were potatoes and didn’t realize they had to peel them, Burda said.

Huge health problems were also discovered in the early 1990s.

Andy Guth, a young pediatrician, started working at the orphanage in Onesti, whose capacity was 400 children, during the Revolution.

“When the tests on children began, we discovered that we had 55 children with HIV and that there were approximately 180 children with hepatitis B,” he said.

Under communism, reusing syringes was common practice in such institutions.

***

Barbara Bascom, an American pediatrician and child-development expert, and her husband, Jim, moved to Romania in April 1990 as part of a wave of Western volunteers that followed the aid shipments. Bascom became a consultant to the Health Ministry. She started a program to conduct therapy for the children and staff training in eight orphanages, with a focus on children under the age of 7.

In January 1991, People magazine published a long article about Bascom’s work in Romania titled “Hope for the hopeless.”

The story included a photo of a smiling Bascom holding a two-and-a-half-year-old girl named Adriana. The little girl had curly hair, and her face was radiant as she waved a malformed left hand that is missing a few fingers.

Taro Yamasaki, now 70, was the photographer who snapped the photo.

“I thought it would be a great picture for the magazine,” he said. “I thought constantly that could be the lead picture for the story. The editors wanted to show the very bad conditions in the orphanage, but on the other hand they wanted to show that these children could have a great life if somebody adopted them. They wanted a positive picture, and I knew that would be one, because of Adriana’s expression. So I took quite a few pictures of Barbara holding Adriana. It became the lead picture.”  

“When we saw the picture, that was it,” said Margaret Dorr, who had been thinking about adopting a Romanian child with her husband, Rick.

Michael Jackson visited one of Bucharest's orphanages in September 1996 during the late pop star's "HIStory World Tour."

The Indiana couple decided they wanted Adriana and immediately after seeing her photo in People magazine starting calling around the world to find her. They contacted the writer, who lived in Paris, who put them in touch with Bascom. They’d heard that adoptions were becoming trickier because of corruption, including officials selling babies to would-be parents, so the Dorrs hurried.

Adriana lived in Orphanage No. 1 in Bucharest. But because authorities know the identity and whereabouts of her parents, the Dorrs needed to secure their permission to take Adriana home. Luckily, Adriana’s mother agreed to oblige.

“According to the birth mother, her husband hadn't wanted a child and had beaten her when she refused to get an abortion,” People reported in August 1991. “When Adriana was born handicapped, the father threatened to starve the child, so her mother turned her over to the orphanage.”

In May, Margaret Dorr traveled to Bucharest. Unlike other potential parents she met there, she knew which baby she wanted. Authorities initially told her that a Canadian couple had already taken Adriana, but the Canadian Embassy said that couple had left with a little boy. The entire process was in chaos.

A Romanian friend took the People magazine Dorr had carried with her, and approached the committee with a plea for her case. “I was left crying in the waiting room while they were passing the magazine around, looking at the pictures,” Dorr said. Finally, they gave Dorr the documents she needed to get into the orphanage and see Adriana for the first time.

There, an employee put Adriana in her arms. The children called all women “Mama,” and Adriana called Dorr “Mama” as well. Dorr continued to visit her and play with her on the swings out on the playground, and toss a ball for her to chase up and down the aisle inside her wing of the orphanage. And after knocking down more bureaucratic hurdles — including plenty of bribes — she finally took custody of the little girl. 

“For every one thing that we needed there was a bribe to be paid in cigarettes or other toiletry items,” Dorr said. “We were told to come with a suitcase full, and that I did. Even when it came to getting our court papers processed, cigarettes were given in exchange for ‘the favor.’” 

In Indiana, the Dorrs family and friends threw their new family member a big homecoming party. At 3 years old, she was still behaving like an orphan — sitting in anyone’s lap and rocking herself to sleep at night.

Adriana is 27 now. She attended Purdue University, where she was on the equestrian team, has a family of her own and enjoys photography. She works as a control operator for a local TV station in the Midwest.

She’s never been to Romania. She doesn’t speak much of the language beyond “la culcare,” which means “go to sleep.” Her adoptive father told her that these would be the only words staff in the orphanage spoke to the children. But she knows these words from him.

When she was 18, Adriana’s adoptive mother told her that she had two sisters in Europe. The Dorrs, in fact, had been exchanging letters with her younger sister, Elena, for years. Elena came to the US once to visit.

“I guess I was wondering: Why was I the only one given away?” Adriana said.

It was clear her disability led her father and mother to send her to the orphanage.

***

Lots of adopted children are trying to establish connections with their parents or siblings in Romania. In January 2015, Ileana Cunniffe Baiescu — a 37-year-old Romanian homemaker who lives in Ireland — started a Facebook group called “The never forgotten Romanian children.” Page users were usually adopted in Western countries.

“I am searching for my birth parents. My name is Mihaela Westlind, and the birth name is Mihaela Toma. I was born in Bucharest, 1988. My twin sister and I were placed in separate orphanages but were adopted together,” reads one post.

Around 37 people have reunited with their siblings through the page as of this fall. For one it took a few seconds, for another one it took three months. One recent post is a 15-second recording of a first Skype call between two sisters. The split screen shows crying and laughing: Ioana in USA and Ana in Romania meeting after years of distance.

“They want to know who gave them life and if they are good,” Cunniffe Baiescu said. “What impresses me the most is the way in which the families receive them — with open arms. More than 20 years have passed, many parents ask for forgiveness, they tell them why it happened. Most of these children don’t need such explanations, they are only interested in meeting them and in having a good relationship with them.”

Even so, like decades ago, the Romanian authorities are not much help.

“They don’t provide information, they consider it confidential,” said Baiescu. “It’s almost impossible to find people with their help.”

***

In February 2010, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for his country’s role in a “misguided” child migration program that deported around 150,000 poor British children, some orphans, to Commonwealth countries between the 1920s and 1960s. It was cheaper to care for these children in their new countries.

Many of the children were sent, usually without the consent of parents, to “the harshest of conditions, neglect and abuse in the often cold and brutal institutions which received them. These children were robbed of their childhood, the most precious years of their life,” Brown said. “We are truly sorry.”

Rucareanu wants Romanian leaders to follow Brown’s example.

He wants an official commission to investigate the communist-era orphanages, and abuses that occurred there. “An investigation would restore the dignity of this group, which until now has felt completely ignored,” he said.

Romanian lawmakers have called him an idealist, he said.

Rucareanu would start his personal inquiry with Mitica, who lived in the orphanage in Busteni. Mitica was in his 20s, too old to be in the orphanage, but he stayed anyway and served as an assistant to the director or helped shovel coal into the building’s furnace.

Mitica abused children, Rucareanu said.

One early morning in 1988, a night supervisor discovered that Mitica had locked himself in a room with a handful of smaller children. Aware that Mitica was likely molesting them, the night supervisors yelled and screamed for the young man to open the door. Everyone woke up.

Police came, but nothing happened. In addition to bullying and harming children, Mitica used to sing for weddings and baptisms — often for local officials, including police. He was never punished.

Rucareanu once found Mitica on Facebook. He was working as a bartender, and had a family. Rucareanu feels like he should do something, but hasn’t.

Until the government sets up a truth and reconciliation process, people like Rucareanu will grapple with their demons in private, said Mirela Oprea, secretary general at the regional advocacy organization ChildPact.

“These horrors were done with public money and with great bitterness and lack of sensitivity for children,” said Oprea, who encouraged Rucareanu and the others create Federeii.

Federeii Vice President Costel Cascaval recalls that from age 6, he lived for 12 years in the orphanage in Targu Ocna, one of the largest and most violent in the country. Cascaval is now an actor. A relative recently told him that he turned out well despite his upbringing. He disagreed.

“I wouldn’t have experienced so many things at such a young age,” he said. “I would have celebrated Christmas or New Year’s. Maybe I would have had a bed, a blanket, some clean clothing. Maybe I wouldn’t have been terrorized, maybe I wouldn’t have had to stand upright at 6 years old and be afraid. I would have had that peace that every kid needs at that age and feel a bit protected.”

Burda believes too much time has passed for a proper investigation to work. “In my opinion, it will be difficult to reach a result that would say: ‘This one used to beat the other one.’ But a mass moral reparation is possible,” she said.

Officials didn’t respond to inquiries about whether or not they were seriously considering a commission or reparations. The Romanian Senate responded by saying a third of the chamber would need to vote in a favor of a proposal to create a commission if and when it came up.

Balan, the Federeii secretary general, is considering running for parliament to make the proposal.

Visinel Balan is one of the hundreds of thousands of children raised in communist orphanages. Now 28, he wants to become a politician.

***

Your correspondent recently met some children that are now currently in orphanages. We watched music videos and ate pizza. They checked their Facebook accounts from my smartphone. They talked about beatings and thefts from their food as routine. One of them predicted an orphanage employee would beat him the next day after school — after that employee learned he had fought with another kid.

“Each of us does some stupid things sometimes, but we shouldn’t be beaten this hard,” said the boy. “I could understand a slap or two.”

One of the children, who asked not to be identified, will be 18 soon. He doesn’t know what he’ll do when he leaves but he’s optimistic. Meanwhile, Balan is working on a study about how Romanian orphanages prepare children for real life.

“Young people have no idea that there are laws to protect them,” he said. “They don’t know they have the right to stay two more years after reaching the age of 18. They don’t know they can stay up to when they are 26 if they continue studying.”

Around 2000, spurred in part by the process of joining the European Union, Romania enacted changes in the orphanages. County councils took control of the institutions in hopes that local officials would be more responsive than distant bureaucrats. Foster families have also been introduced.

Regardless, at the end of 2014, there were more than 58,000 children in state care in Romania. Most were in foster homes or living with relatives but under the supervision of officials, according to the National Authority for Child’s Rights Protection and Adoption, a public agency. It’s not ideal still, says Burda.

“Not a single day passes without me thinking about what I went through.”

“The reform of the system was never finished,” Burda said. “The system was only partially decentralized. The community’s responsibility for these children didn’t materialize.”

Authority President Gabriela Coman admitted that it hasn’t been easy to improve the orphanages.

“Some of them are satisfied with how they are treated and with the services they receive,” she said, referring to the orphans. “Others believe that things can be improved. Measuring children's satisfaction with the services they receive within the child protection system is one of the objectives we set for the future.”

Disabled children remain underserved. Between 2011 and 2014, almost 1,500 children and young people with mental disabilities died in Romania, according to the Center for Legal Resources in Bucharest.

Rucareanu intends to put the names of the children who died while in state care on a wall that he and other Federeii members plan to put up as a temporary memorial early next year. The exhibition will also contain photos and objects from the orphanages, a sort of group autobiography.

He believes that this system will never be fixed without publicity.

“When Romania joined the EU, it agreed to dissolve the institutions and completely respect the rights of children,” he said. “It never respected its commitments: There are still around 100 big centers with over 100 children. Their rights were never fully respected, and their chances to be socially integrated are very low.”

***

For a long time, Rucareanu didn’t talk openly about growing up in an orphanage. Until two years ago, he mentioned it only to his closest friends. They didn't usually ask about the details.

He is now married and has two boys — 10 and 5 years old. When asked if he believes he has gotten a new start, he smiles sadly.

“Not a single day passes without me thinking about what I went through,” he said. “I believe that pain is an instrument of knowledge, as cynical as it may sound, it helped me become more balanced. It’s so easy to hurt people, to replicate the evil that others have caused you. The source of my power was the first day in the orphanage, when I was beaten. I told myself that I don’t want to be like them, I want to be a good man.”

“There are so many bad things passing through my mind, and I’m trying to remove them, to control them, and sometimes I can’t do it and I’m thinking about them, at night before sleep,” he added. “The whole thing is to do no harm. Even if you experienced it, aim to do no harm.”