Caring without compassion Romania: Lack of government aid and a ruthlessness created by 45 years of Marxist-Leninist rule hamstring efforts to care for the infirm and the unfortunate.

Sun Journal

August 17, 1998|By James Drake | James Drake,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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

And so he should be. Thanks to him, the town of Botosani -- a standard Romanian provincial sprawl of crumbling high-rises and decrepit heavy industry -- now has a private medical clinic, staffed by specialist doctors moonlighting from the municipal hospital. Everything is new: the computers, the carpets, the scanners, even the rubber plants and vending machines that line the air-conditioned reception area. It seems a typical post-communist success story: a new-era entrepreneur capitalizing on the deficiencies of the old.

"Poor diet, pollution, unemployment," he begins, ticking off the ailments that increasingly plague Botosani's 30,000 citizens, " mean bronchial problems and skin disease and stress-related problems. We should do well."

Absent from Gavriliuc's sales pitch is any mention of his day job -- he is the director of a local children's home -- or how he came by the clinic in the first place.

The three-story building was acquired seven years ago by a British foundation as accommodation for its volunteers working at the orphanage and the area's other institutions for the elderly, disabled and mentally ill.

"We bought it in Mitica's name because at the time, foreigners weren't allowed to own property," says Rupert Wolfe Murray, chairman of Scottish European Aid, the Edinburgh organization that put up the cash. "But we didn't buy it for him. There's a difference."

The credit slip from the bank, dated Sept. 25, 1991, clearly shows that Wolfe Murray paid the money. But the paper from the regional court, authorizing the conversion of the hostel to a health clinic, and dated February 1997, is registered in Gavriliuc's name.

Confronted with the suggestion of impropriety, Gavriliuc at first feigns bewilderment. When the documents are waved under his nose, he shrugs complacently.

"You're right: I suppose morally, it isn't mine," he says, gazing around at the surrounding luxury with an unmistakably proprietarial air. "But on paper it is."

On paper, too, Gavriliuc runs the "Ionoseni Asylum for Parentless Incurables," though he admits "other commitments" prevent him from making the 30-mile round trip from Botosani too often these days.

Housed at the end of a rutted cart track in a drafty 19th century hunting lodge, a nobleman's folly of Disneyesque turrets and battlements deep in the dense forests that line the border with Ukraine, it well suited the old order's "out of sight, out of mind" approach to those who didn't make the physical grade.

Even today, it seems, unannounced visitors are not welcome.

"Hey! You can't just barge in," protests the gateman, unshaven and red-eyed with drink at 9 in the morning. "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 under the stairs, jamming a grubby thumb into the empty socket of his right eye in an apparent attempt to stimulate the nerve endings. Or the epileptic teen-ager -- strapped to a bed to control her convulsions.

Or the rows of children who sit obediently in room after darkened room under the bored gaze of peasant women hired as day-care workers from the nearby village. Forbidden to move, they spend the empty hours manically jerking back and forth from the waist as if riding a herd of invisible rocking horses -- a common self-comforting reflex, according to psychiatrists, in those suffering severe sensory deprivation.

For a while, things were different. After the summary execution of dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu on Christmas Day 1989, Western relief agencies were quick to come calling.

Irish monks installed a heavy-duty laundry. A London man who makes tennis courts for a living spent a month building an adventure playground. Health workers from Glasgow converted a ruined cottage on the grounds into a rehabilitation center. Physiotherapists, nurses, doctors piled in, all eager to pass on their skills to local staff. The Duchess of York and the British ambassador came to shake Gavriliuc by the hand.

Eventually and inevitably, the volunteers began to pull out, either to pick up their old lives or to move on to other high-profile hot spots like Bosnia and Chechnya.

Gavriliuc's staff quickly unlearned their lessons. The water pipes have burst, the squat lavatories once again overflow with human waste, the laundry has grumbled to a halt.

"It wasn't that Mitica didn't care about the kids' welfare. I think he did. But they just weren't his first priority," recalls physiotherapist Di Hiscock, who quit Ionoseni for a new job in Kenya in 1996, the last resident Westerner to leave Ionoseni. "He was too busy with his clinic."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.