Scant months after the downfall of Romania’s notorious Communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, in December 1989, I stood at the entrance to the Victor Babes Hospital in the capital city of Bucharest. On a magazine assignment to document the transfer of much-needed medical aid to this stricken country, I was about to witness perhaps the most shocking legacy of Ceausescu’s 25 years of misrule.
“We have been waiting for you,” said Augustin Petrescu, a young man in a soiled white lab coat and Russian-style fur hat. “Do you speak English?” he inquired anxiously. “Come in before they see you. I want you to take pictures and show the horror of what we have been living with.”
Inside, Petrescu led me to a dank basement room with dark, peeling paint. The moment we pushed through its heavy metal door, I was overcome by the stench of death. For Petrescu was the hospital’s mortician, and this was his morgue. From an unrefrigerated concrete bunker, my host pulled out several stretchers with five, six or seven dead babies and children on each.
Some of these children had been dead for two years or more and were badly decomposed. Others had died more recently, and their open eyes, huge and haunting, seemed filled with accusation. The utter depravity of it shook me. I could barely hold my camera, let alone compose and focus pictures. Yet those images I managed to record changed my life. They led to the formation of an organization called Romanian Children’s Relief.
“I and my assistants,” Petrescu told me that day, “we feel we will die of AIDS now, anyhow, and we can’t be in collusion with a government that is this criminal.”
Indeed, a full-blown AIDS epidemic, spawned by infected blood supplies and by the archaic practice of giving blood transfusions to sickly newborns, often with used needles, had spread throughout Romania’s orphanages and pediatric hospitals, affecting tens of thousands of abandoned children. Until the revolution, no one in the outside world knew about these so-called AIDS babies. Even inside Romania, few knew about them.
It is now clear that Ceausescu’s social and political policies had been at best misguided and at worst barbaric. While he built lavish palaces for himself, he exported the bulk of the country’s natural resources for cash. He put utilities under government control then let the nation’s infrastructure fall into disrepair. His putative goal, the rapid industrialization of Romania, called for eliminating peasant villages—the heart and soul of Romanian culture—and relocating the farming populations to inner-city tenement high-rises. To ensure a large work force, the tyrant (himself a peasant) required every Romanian woman to bear five children; proof of pregnancy was required to keep a job. Families were forced to reproduce beyond their capacity to care for their children. By the thousands, the unwanted babies were dumped on the very state that had by fiat brought them into existence.
Ceausescu’s ministry of health expected citizens to live on a diet of 1,100 calories a day. With food and medicine in short supply, disease became rampant even as the Romanian caregiving structure foundered. The regime had shut down schools of nursing, psychology and social services in favor of training in such hard sciences as chemistry and physics.
Although at the time of my initial visit I had no idea of the myriad horrors wrought by Ceausescu, the sorry state of health care was blatantly obvious to me the day I toured that children’s hospital in Bucharest. A typical room for patients contained 10 to 12 individual rusty cribs lined up along a paint-chipped gray wall. On entering each room, I would hear the cries and whimpers and see the piercingly sad eyes of infants in various stages of illness, all malnourished and neglected. Everywhere was the putrid aroma of feces, rotten eggs and ammonia. Poorly equipped and trained attendants, all heavily masked and gowned, ministered to the children in a ratio of about 1-to-25.
I had witnessed the dead. Now I was seeing the living dead, and I coped with the unimaginable misery using the only defense mechanism I had, my camera.
I returned to the hospital the next day. Petrescu had prepared the corpse of Gabriel Lixandrus, an 18-month-old girl who had died of AIDS, for burial. My journalist instinct prodded me to follow Gabriel’s uncle as he drove the dead child to the village of Bravu, a bleak collection of rundown cottages and muddy, impassable streets, 40 miles outside of Bucharest.
In Gabriel’s home, I watched as parents and relatives gathered around her open coffin, set on a small table and surrounded by candles. Family members placed cookies and worn, soiled money, a bottle of water, local wine and flowers into the coffin. I put in two dollars, which I later realized was worth more than all the rest of the money and goods combined.
The coffin later was placed on a horse-drawn wagon and transported to the village’s small church, an elaborately decorated Romanian Orthodox structure. Normally in Bravu, a funeral would bring out the whole village and a procession of hundreds of people. Gabriel had died of AIDS. Only her family and a handful of close neighbors walked the mile to the church.
Laid out inside the church, her face lit by candlelight, her hands folded across the chest, Gabriel looked like a Della Robbia angel. I was surprised how little the AIDS virus had ravaged her body.
She was buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of the village. The service at the graveside was simple. More wine and cakes were placed on the coffin, and a live chicken was passed over the grave before the casket was closed and the gravediggers completed their work.
My account of Gabriel’s funeral in Bravu and my photographs of the children’s hospital in Bucharest were published in The Boston Globe on Sunday, March 25, 1990. Within a week, my phone began ringing. My wife, Joan, and I logged more than 75 calls from New Englanders who had seen the story and wanted to help the lost children of Romania.
I was deeply touched, yet I had no idea how to channel the charitable impulses of so many people. At first I directed them to an international relief organization, which was ready to accept any donations they might want to make. But our band of first-responders wanted action that would bring aid directly to the children depicted in my photographs.
Joan and I decided to invite the people who had contacted us to our house to discuss the situation. More than 50 individuals from all walks of life crowded into our kitchen and talked about what could be done to help the children and staff at the hospital in Bucharest. We concluded that we would form a group to collect medical supplies and children’s toys to ship to Romania for the children at the hospital and a nearby orphanage that I had visited on my first trip. At the end of the meeting we were a relief organization, at least in name.
The early years of Romanian Children’s Relief (RCR) were chaotic but productive. With the help of church and civic groups, we collected hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of materials, from teddy bears and nurses’ smocks to computers and incubators. Joan and I conducted tag sales in our front yard to raise the funds needed to ship the materials abroad. I wangled magazine assignments in Bucharest and Prague so I could oversee the distribution of the aid materials once they reached Romania.
We discovered that information was one of the most potent agents for change that we could provide Romanian caregivers. A Boston nurse with experience in treating AIDS patients developed an instructional package for dealing with the disease at the institutional level. A New Hampshire neonatal pediatrician created a manual for resuscitation and incubation procedures for the maternity wards in Romanian hospitals. A pharmacist set up protocols for Romanian doctors and nurses to follow in regulating drug dosages for patients.
Sometimes our naivete got the better of us. When a local physician offered to give us the samples of antibiotics he routinely received from drug companies, we had the brilliant idea to solicit samples from other doctors, only to discover, in time, that this practice was quite illegal.
I would travel to Romania two or three times a year, more often, really, than was in the best interest of making a living and raising a family back in the States. For the sake of RCR it was important, however, for I soon discovered that our supply channels were laced with corruption. The medical supplies we worked so hard to collect sometimes disappeared. The crowning blow came when I met a hospital director, only to discover she had appropriated dozens of teddy bears from a relief shipment to decorate her office.
I was reminded of the observation by photojournalist E.O. Hoppe: “The Devil in Romania leads a strenuous and tireless life."
The time had come to rethink RCR. We established an official board of directors and an executive director. More important, we shifted our mission. As the saying goes, teach a man to fish instead of giving him a fish to eat. Instead of delivering consumable medical supplies and children’s toys and clothes, we decided to become a source of knowledge and expertise for the physical, mental and emotional development of institutionalized children.
Training young Romanians in modern concepts of child development, and with the generous support of several Rotary clubs, we opened the country’s first child life program in the newly organized Institute for Maternal and Child Care in Bucharest. In 1996 we established Fundatia Inocenti, our sister relief organization in Romania. Over the next several years, many other programs came into being, including a foster care support program, a child development and early intervention program, a mother’s support group and the first early literacy program in the country (which my wife, a professional educator, designed for us).
In my travels in Romania, I began to collect happier images than the ones that had unleashed my unexpected voyage into the Byzantine world of humanitarian relief. I loved photographing the beautiful countryside of mountains, valleys, villages and fields, an invaluable patrimony that had largely escaped the worst effects of the Communist era. Once I was marooned for an hour in a sea of sheep on a country road leading to an important market town, and I happily clicked away. Another time I was royally feted in an ancient mountaintop monastery and felt privileged to capture its radiantly spiritual interiors on film.
Above all, I enjoyed taking pictures of our staff working with children in hospitals, clinics and schools. I am especially proud of a series of family portraits I made in the homes where dozens of our foster children had been given a new lease on life. One after another, the portraits underscore the values—honesty, hard work and helpfulness—of the extended family lifestyle that has been the greatest strength of Romania’s rural farm culture. And if the family pig is in the shot, so much the better.
RCR has grown from one staff position and a budget of $11,000 in 1993 to a staff of 26 and a budget of $200,000 in 2006. The number of kids we serve has grown from 30 to more than 500. Volunteering their time in support of our efforts, both here and in Romania, are American doctors, physiologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, special needs educators and reading specialists representing various U.S. universities and hospitals.
I could never have predicted such an outcome from the publication of a few black-and-white photographs in 1990. One of our supporters, an elderly woman, has sent RCR a check for $40 every month for the past 17 years. Multiply her gesture by a factor of thousands. There’s no way I can adequately express my admiration and respect for such selfless generosity.
People sometimes ask me, “Why Romania? Why not help the kids here in America?” My only reply is that a chance opportunity came along to make a difference, and we took it. We heeded the call of an orphanage director in Bucharest at the time her country was waking from its long nightmare, when she asked, “Who will take and love Ceausescu’s children?"
Since 1990, Romanian Children’s Relief/Fundatia Inocenti has contributed more than $2 million in staff support, training, medical and education supplies to its Romanian partner hospitals and social services agencies. For information go to RCR.org. RCR.org.
The picture here of children in a Romania hospital in 1989 was taken by Mike Carroll.