Iasi/Convoy Aid Romania
In late January 1993 Fraser Wright travelled to Iasi, Romania. It was organised by Convoy Aid Romania (based in Middlesbrough) and he was there for 5 months.
Whilst there he helped distribute aid and worked within the orphanages and sections in the city of Iasi, in the far north east of the country. He was also asked by Rod Jones (the director or Convoy Aid) to document all the children that the organisation helped, in and around Iasi; all that had connections with Rod’s charity. He produced the pictures, which were used for reference and as records of the work Convoy Aid did.
This work represents a very small selection of the images that he took whilst working for the charity and although now twenty-four years on, they represent a prominent situation that has since become part of Eastern Europe’s darker history.
With Romania now part of the EU, it seems apt that we can reflect on what still blights the social situation in the country and leaves many wanting to migrate abroad.
A number of these digital reproductions have been scanned from water-damaged negatives and silver based prints.
When he came to power in 1966, Ceaușescu had grand plans for Romania. The country had industrialised late, after the second world war, and its birthrate was low. Ceaușescu borrowed the 1930s Stalinist dogma that population growth would fuel economic growth and fused this idea with the conservatism of his rural childhood. In the first year of his rule, his government issued Decree 770, which outlawed abortion for women under 40 with fewer than four children. “The foetus is the property of the entire society,” Ceaușescu announced. “Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity.”
The birth rate soon doubled, but then the rate of increase slowed as Romanian women resorted to homemade illegal abortions, often with catastrophic results. In 1977 all childless persons, regardless of sex or martial status, were made to pay an additional monthly tax. In the 1980s condoms and the pill, although prohibitively expensive, began to become available in Romania – so they were banned altogether. Motherhood became a state duty. The system was ruthlessly enforced by the secret police, the securitate. Doctors who performed abortions were imprisoned, women were examined every three months in their workplaces for signs of pregnancy. If they were found to be pregnant and didn’t subsequently give birth, they could face prosecution. Fertility had become an instrument of state control.
This policy, coupled with Romania’s poverty, meant that more and more unwanted children were abandoned to state care. No one knows how many. Estimates for the number of children in orphanages in 1989 start at 100,000 and go up from there. Since the second world war, there had been a system of state institutions for children. But after 1982, when Ceaușescu redirected most of the budget to paying off the national debt, the economy tanked and conditions in the orphanages suffered. Electricity and heat were often intermittent, there were not enough staff, there was not enough food. Physical needs were assessed, emotional needs were ignored. Doctors and professionals were denied access to foreign periodicals and research, nurses were woefully undertrained (many orphans contracted HIV because hypodermic needles were seldom sterilised) and developmental delays were routinely diagnosed as mental disability. Institutional abuse flourished unchecked. While some caretakers did their best, others stole food from the orphanage kitchens and drugged their charges into docility.
When the revolution was over, the world’s press discovered Ceaușescu’s archipelago of orphanages and the appalling images went around the world: disabled children with bone-stick limbs tied to their beds, cross-eyed toddlers who couldn’t walk, malnourished babies left unattended in cribs with metal bars, little corpses stacked in basements. The pictures shocked Romanians as much as they did the rest of the world; institutionalised children were generally kept away from the general population.
(The Guardian 2014)
If you talk to Rod Jones about the state of Romania now, he doesn’t see it as being much better. Convoy Aid is one of the few charities that are still active in the country.
Back in the early nineties Romania was inundated with international charities, as Rod puts it, “they often go where money can be generated through crisis appeals”. Therefore when the money runs out and the next crisis happens they move on, leaving holes to be filled, by a state that is still un-prepared, economically and logistically.
Romania has moved on to an extent, being part of the European Union has helped, but it developed slowly and was also hit badly by the financial crisis of 2008. It is still one of the poorest countries in Europe.
The economic shift has clearly resulted in financial inequality; some people have gained massively, but many have not. The sentiment is similar to other ex-communist states, as many in the rural areas say they preferred the relative stability of the communist regime.
Iasi is the largest city in eastern Romania and the seat of Iasi county. Located in the Moldavia region, Iași has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Romanian social, cultural, academic and artistic life. The city was the capital of the Principality of Moldavia from 1564 to 1859, then of the United Principalities from 1859 to 1862, and the capital of Romania from 1916 to 1918.
Known as The Cultural Capital of Romania, Iași is a symbol in Romanian history. The historian Nicolae Lorga said "There should be no Romanian who does not know of it”. Still referred to as The Moldavian Capital, Iași is the main economic and business centre of the Moldavian region of Romania
As of 2011, the city proper has a population of 290,422 (making it the fourth most populous in Romania), whereas more than 500,000 people live within its urban area. Home to the oldest Romanian university and to the first engineering school, Iași is one of the most important education and research centres of the country, and accommodates over 60,000 students in 5 public universities. The social and cultural life revolves around the Vasile Alecsandri National Theatre (the oldest in Romania), the Moldova State Philharmonic, the Opera House, the Tătărași Athenaeum, a famous Botanical Garden (the oldest and largest in Romania), the Central University Library (the oldest in Romania), the high quality cultural centres and festivals, an array of museums, memorial houses, religious and historical monuments.
In 2012, Iași was selected as one of the European Cities of sport. The city is also a candidate to become, in 2021, the European Capital of Culture.
I arrived in the city in Late January and it was -20°c, when I left in early June it was +30°c. From contrasts in climate, to contrast in architecture, culture and so on to social care. You could see that Iasi had a distinguished and historic past, yet the physical remnants (Romania’s largest orthodox cathedral, other churches, monasteries, the Palace of culture etc) were mixed with the endless and monotonous (communist era) apartment blocks and other concrete cast municipal buildings. That resulted in it all looking strangely grey and dusty, throughout the winter and into summer. In the post Ceausescu era the amount of western advertising had also increased and this was becoming more noticeable on the streets of the city, which at the time seemed quite ironic.
On the whole, it did have a distinct and continental character, and it was a pleasant place to be, whether in the centre or in the countryside surrounding it. The Olympic sized swimming pool next to the Palace of culture was great, even though it was half-full of rainwater. As a recent graduate it felt pretty normal, especially up at the university, where students could party in nightclubs etc, so it was obviously a good place to be and not just for the quality of education.
But that was the students and like other places, there are always various demographics, different social and economic groups, those who have and those who don’t. Unfortunately in Romania and Iasi there are more of the latter, and that tainted the situation, with many, but especially the young suffering because of it.
When I got there someone told me that many parents found it hard to support themselves (never mind their families) and because of this, the only option was to give up their children. When you have no real social security and a dilapidated care system, then the situation with children who have been left in that system becomes chronic, as it was, in Iasi and the rest of the country.
CONVOY AID ROMANIA
Within Iasi, Convoy Aid distributed donated gifts and clothing to a number of ‘Sections’. These were orphanages of sorts, which had been originally set up with facilities for children with varying needs, illnesses and of different ages; there were a number in the city. In addition to Sections, 1,2,3, and 4, the organisation also worked with other institutions and hospitals in and around the city. Some of these locations are listed below.
The volunteers who worked for Convoy Aid came from all over the UK, not just the North East. In the early to mid nineties a number travelled from the Richmond area.
It obviously had an effect on all of those who went to Iasi and experienced the situation. Some continued to work in the Romania, others developed links with other charities and forged careers in the care system in the UK.
It was all thanks to Rod’s charity.
One of the ‘sections’, a hospital for sick newborns, babies and young children. Volunteers from international organisations included Convoy Aid assisted within the centre. The children here often suffered from ailments such as chicken pox, others had more serious conditions including being HIV positive.
Places like Dystrophics became notorious for the unofficial adoptions that began, soon after the situation came to the attention of those outside Romania.
This was an old Royal Palace, near the village of Popesti, north of Iasi- (please note the accompanying images) and after it’s decline into disrepair it became an orphanage. It held a mix of children with various needs, including mental illness and some children with physical disabilities. It had little furniture, only beds and cots and with poor sanitation and a boiler that had to be repaired every time with visited. One of the children there was the daughter of Iasi’s chief of police; Why was she there? Unfortunately she was born with a malformation of both legs. Tragically, that was enough for her to be there.
With the orphanage closed, a member of the Romanian royal family then bought the building. It has since been turned into a private shooting lodge.
This was a psychiatric institution to the East of Iasi. Children and adolescents were often moved form place to place depending on their mental state, so often you would see children in more than one institution. Individuals at Socola were often deemed violent or disturbed in some way.
Jason Brown, who volunteered with convoy aid, painted several murals (as a creative type I tried to help) in the institution, to add to the outdated and idealistic ones that already existed.
The institution is still open.
This was in a town to the north of Iasi. It was a well-known school and orphanage visited by a number of organisations from the UK. The children here were older and many were on the verge of leaving the ‘care’ of the state. Because of the conditions and relative depravation they had endured, the future for many would not be that positive.
The location is no longer an orphanage, but a centre for children and adults with disabilities, of which there are many. Some suggest that this is due to the many that were affected by attempted abortions over several decades.