In the cemetery of Nicorești in east Romania’s Galați county, hidden behind the bell tower, is a mass grave for children.

These kids used to live in the local hospital-home in the 1980s and 1990s. The institute housed children classified as irrecuperable, because they suffered mental and physical disabilities. They stayed in dormitories on the top floor of the building, which could not be seen by most visitors. In life, as in death, they were kept away from the community in which they lived. In this plot, there are two memorial plaques placed by the foreign volunteers who came after the Revolution to work at the hospital-home. There are 92 names written here. Of these, 78 were younger than ten years old.

Photo: Andrei Becheru

The children who still had parents who visited, were buried with funeral organized by the parents. But for those who were all alone, the institution buried them in the ground without ceremony.

“The funeral mass was for those who had parents. They were put into a cart and taken to church. They had a big, beautiful coffin. They had a stone cross. Only three or four got that. The rest got a presswood box”

, says the former ambulance driver of the Nicorești hospital.

The driver used to build the coffins himself. The smallest was 90 cm long. He would make them a little bigger than the height of the children, but they didn’t have to be the exact size. A 90-cm coffin could hold a child younger than two years old.

“I would come back from a driving job and the doctor would tell me: ‘make a coffin’. I was out of materials. So I found a presswood board and made a little coffin and sent the child to the grave. What could I do? The coffins were hard to make when their legs were twisted.”

The ambulance driver doesn’t want his name in this article, so we refer to him as “Uncle”, as this is what the children in the hospital-home used to call him.

Uncle doesn’t remember how many coffins he made. But there were many. So many that when they dug a grave, they would come across other bodies of children. So they put the new coffins on top of the old ones, covered them with dirt and left the place like that until they brought the next coffin. Two thin wooden crosses marked this mass grave.

The hospital-home in Nicorești accommodated children ‘with issues’. This is what Ioana Bălan, a 70-year old woman from Mălureni village, Nicorești commune, knew about the institution. Mother of five boys, four of them healthy, Ioana also had a child ‘with issues’.

She gave birth to Ciprian in 1986. When he sat on a pile of pillows, the boy would fall and not be able to get up again. Ioana took the boy to doctors all over the country to find out what was wrong.

“I went to all the doctors I could,” she says. 

She receives us in a tidy bright room. It’s the end of October. There are a few purple roses from the family garden in a vase. Ioana has deep wrinkles and warm blue eyes. She moves with difficulty because she has recently had spine surgery. Ciprian sits next to her in a wheelchair, with equally blue, smiling eyes. He recently turned 35.

Photo: Andrei Becheru

One of the trips made by Ioana and Ciprian was to the hospital in Nicorești. In 1992, a physiotherapist had arrived there from Bucharest. She was paid in dollars. Ioana’s husband insisted on taking the boy for physiotherapy, but she hesitated.

“I didn’t really want to because I knew he had issues and there were many sick children there who had issues. There were children who had problems in their head, they behaved strangely, they pulled their hair, they fought, they slammed things,” Ioana remembers.

Eventually she accepted. In the fall of 1992, they prepared the horse-drawn wagon, packed Ciprian’s belongings, and went to the hospital-home, where they left the six-year-old boy. As instructed by an acquaintance, Ioana made a written request in which she specified that she didn’t want to leave him there for good, only for treatment. “If you don’t specify, they may not give him back to you,” told the acquaintance to Ioana back then.

As the cart moved away from the hospital, Ioana could hear Ciprian. 

“He was screaming so loud that I could hear him over the sound of horseshoes on the road. The horses were trotting, but I could still hear him.”

Ciprian remained for physiotherapy in an institution where children were taken to die.

“So Many Died in My Care”

“So Many Died in My Care”

“Our hospital was for extermination,” Tinca Vulpe briefly describes her experience at Nicorești hospital-home, where Ciprian arrived in 1992. 

They would bring them, we would keep them, but then they would be exterminated, they would die. Especially those who were paralyzed in bed. What could you do? There was nothing you could do. I was waiting for them to just… So many died in my care, poor children. I held a candle for them as they passed away. My God. I was so sorry for them. But what can we do? Look, I put food on the table, working here allowed me to get a pension after retirement”

, says the 78 year-old woman.

Photo: Andrei Becheru

Tinca Vulpe worked as a nurse at the hospital in Nicorești from 1968. The hospital, built in 1892 by a local philanthropist, had a maternity ward, a paediatrics department and a radiology department. Tinca was assigned from the beginning upstairs, to the paediatric neuropsychiatry department, which was turned into a hospital-home after 1970.

These institutions were the ones that held the “irrecuperably deficient”, the label assigned to children with severe disabilities in a 1970 law that sought to address the consequences of the anti-abortion legislation passed by the communist state.

The damned of Nicorești were children with disabilities that their parents were ashamed of or couldn’t or didn’t know how to take care of them. The state encouraged the parents to leave the children in its care. In the case of some of these children, the disability was the result of unsuccessful homemade abortions to which women had resorted out of desperation.

When child abandonment reached alarming levels in the last years of the Ceaușescu era, children with no disabilities also ended up in hospital-homes because there wasn’t room for them in other child “protection” institutions.

“They Cut Me Like A Fish”

“They Cut Me Like A Fish”

After leaving her child in the hospital, Ioana could no longer eat, drink, rest or do anything else. Her only thought was of Ciprian. She was also attached to him because his birth had been “a very serious problem,” as the woman puts it. The foetus had been positioned with his buttocks towards the birth canal, instead of his head. Such situations require a C section. The doctor refused.

“I was on my knees and begging him, ‘save me, please, Doctor, I have four other children at home, and I don’t want anything to happen to me, I don’t want them to be left without a mother’. And he said: ‘Don’t worry, the problem will sort itself out’ ,” Ioana says.

Eventually a nurse climbed on top of her and pressed her belly.

“They cut me like a fish. They cut me alive, they sewed me alive. I didn’t say a word. I gritted my teeth.”

Until she sent him to the hospital-home in Nicorești for physiotherapy, Ioana had never been separated from the boy.

A day or two after taking him to the hospital, and afraid that something might happen to him, the woman sent her eldest son to check on Ciprian.

“Mommy, if you want to see Ciprian again, to still have him, go and get him because he might die there,” her son told her. “His lips are dry, he is thirsty, hungry, he’s in a terrible state, if you don’t go, you may not get him back whole.”

A World That Ends
at the Ceiling

A World That Ends at the Ceiling

Before the Revolution, at the hospital in Nicorești there were 12 nurses, two head nurses and a doctor for over 100 children, recalls nurse Tinca Vulpe. She was 25 when she started working there.

Photo: Andrei Becheru

Before the Revolution, at the hospital in Nicorești there were 12 nurses, two head nurses and a doctor for over 100 children, recalls nurse Tinca Vulpe. She was 25 when she started working there.

The work schedule was 12 or eight hours, depending on the period. There were two nurses on duty each night. One to four wards. There were wards for small children and wards for older children. There were 12-15 children in a ward. In the small children’s wards, they sometimes put two children in a bed.

The division was not only according to age, but also according to their condition:  the ones lying still (lații) and those who could manage (cei care se descurcau). Lying was the term used for those who couldn’t get up. Their world did not extend beyond the ceiling of the ward.

“There was nothing you could do for them. They just lay on their backs and stared, poor them, at the ceiling. That’s how they were. And they cried. They cried when they got wet… as soon as they got wet, that was it, they started to cry. We didn’t have proper underwear. And that underwear… the underwear would get dirty, and we’d have to change them. Sometimes they stayed wet, poor them. Some had rashes”

, remembers Tinca.

Because they were just lying on their backs, the lying developed different kinds of wounds.

Children in that situation only received food, fed to them with a bottle or a teaspoon, and were changed three times a day. In order to stay calm, they also received medication, according cu Tinca:

“I also gave them pills, such as phenobarbital for when they got into fights, and diazepam. I gave it to them because some of them didn’t sleep all night. They were in pain. I gave them pills so they wouldn’t… bother the others, so they would let them sleep”

Beans, Potatoes, Rice
and Sleeping Pills

Beans, Potatoes, Rice and Sleeping Pills

Those Who Could Manage received food and were put to work, such as carrying wood, helping the nurses clean and change the children who were immobilized in bed.

Viorica, employed as a nurse at the hospital-home after the Revolution, recently turned 72. She remembers that the older girls in the home were made to scrape the dirt off the floor with a dustpan or a hoe.

Photo: Andrei Becheru

Older children also received sleeping pills. The drugs were put into the food of those who did not want to take them. Those who were restless received them to calm down – at six o’clock in the morning and six o’clock in the evening.

Sometimes the nurses tied and beat the children. Tinca says that the nurses tied the children with a bandage at the head nurses’ instructions to avoid the little ones injuring themselves or others. Viorica remembers that after the Revolution the children were tied with gauze. Photos from the late 1990s, taken by foreign volunteers, show that some children were actually chained.

Archival photo

“You sometimes had to smack those who acted out,” says Tinca, “because if you didn’t, they wouldn’t leave you alone. They would follow you around, do all sorts of things, mess up the beds, mess everything up.”

In the hospital-home in Nicorești, the food was scarce and of poor quality. The children received only beans, potatoes, and rice. They were never full, especially the older ones. They always wanted more, but there wasn’t any.

They were crippled, the poor children, Tinca remembers.

“Some Died, Others Came,
More Died and More Came”

“Some Died, Others Came, More Died and More Came”

The meal that the children received from the hospital-home was to keep them alive, not to make them healthy, says Uncle, the ambulance driver from the hospital in Nicorești.

Uncle started working at the hospital-home in the same year as Tinca, 1968. In the decades he worked there, he saw children who were so thin, they looked like ghosts. The only medication they received were sleeping pills.

Not only was the food execrable, but so were the conditions. There was no heat, no showers, no hygiene products.

I lost my sense of smell. The toilets would get clogged. It smelled awful. Of urine, dirt, shit. When you entered a ward, you could feel the sting of urine. We wiped, we washed with disinfectant, and then they would urinate on the floor again. The older ones would walk around in their underwear, get pee all over the floor. I had to come and wash again” – Tinca, former nurse

Viorica too remembers the smell, which was always there, no matter how much you cleaned, because the floor boards were soaked in urine and faeces.

There was only one stove in each of the high-ceiling wards and it couldn’t cope. In the absence of showers, the nurses washed the children in the same rooms where they slept. The water was heated by the nurses on the cooking stove and carried in buckets and they washed the children only on specific dates, although they needed to be washed daily.

Photo: Andrei Becheru

The irrecuperables died quickly, especially those bedridden. They did not live for more than five or six years. 

Some died, others came, more died and more came,” Tinca describes the process.

“The little ones were dying by the dozens,” adds Uncle. “We brought the coffin and down we went to the church. I wouldn’t say daily, but they died often.” As long as they lived, no one caressed the children in the hospital-homes. Nobody talked to them. Nobody gave them lessons.

Today Uncle is convinced that this drove some children crazy. Children told him which nurses were beating them, and what mischiefs they had done. They came to his workshop. Uncle taught one of the children to draw lines, and to count to ten. He was 14 years old. When people came from the town of Galați to select which children to enrol in school, Uncle pushed his protégé forward. That’s how the boy escaped from Nicorești. Uncle does not know what the boy is doing now, but at one point he was a bus driver in Brașov.

But for most of the children in the hospital-home in Nicorești, there was no time for play, no time for walks, and no time for affection.

Behind Locked Doors

Behind Locked Doors

The nearly 130-year-old building in which the hospital-home in Nicorești functioned is today a ruin with broken windows and a locked door. It is guarded by a local woman, an employee of a private security company. To access the building, you have to pass through an abandoned courtyard, down a narrow alley. At the entrance to the compound, there’s the still operational commune’s GP office.

Photo: Andrei Becheru

It’s impossible to enter the former hospital-home without the approval of Galati County Council, the current owner of the building. We secured the approval after several days of insistent calls to Galați.

It’s a sunny day at the end of October when we arrive in Nicorești to see what is left of the protection offered by the communist regime and, for a few years in the 1990s, by the post-communist regime. The guard of the ruined building takes down the padlock on the door and invites us in.

Light sifts through the air on the first floor of the building, where 25 years ago the irrecuperables of Nicorești lived and died.

Photo: Andrei Becheru

A register found by our journalists in the abandoned building of the old hospital-home, with reports from 1998-1999, shows the widespread practice of keeping the children quiet by administering medication day and night.

“The patients were quiet during the night. The treatment was administered according to medical prescriptions”

, are the sentences repeated on almost every page.

Children were given strong psychiatric drugs. For example, on 23 August 1999, four patients received one vial each of “plegomazin” because they displayed “psychomotor agitation.”

According to the leaflet, plegomazin is an antipsychotic administered for the treatment of agitation in acute and chronic psychoses, in diseases such as schizophrenia or in children with severe behavioral disorders, accompanied by agitation and aggressiveness.

On 5 October 1999, the register records that a child showed “psychomotor agitation” following the altercation with another patient, but that “he calmed down without injections.”

“Nurse, What Kind of Country is This
in Which I Have to Steal My Own Child?”

“Nurse, What Kind of Country is This in Which I Have to Steal My Own Child?”

After hearing about the state her son Ciprian was in, hungry, thirsty and neglected, Ioana Bălan went straight to the hospital-home.

She asked the nurse if anyone had cared for the boy, such as if he had been given a massage, or treatment. The nurses told him he didn’t even eat any food: ‘We couldn’t give him any, because he could choke, and we were afraid something might happen to him and then we would get in trouble.’

Ioana then went to the physiotherapist from Bucharest and asked her the same questions. She replied: ‘We haven’t started physiotherapy yet, but right now, in your presence, we’re going to get the boy and start therapy.’

Ioana pretended to leave, but from a distance, hidden behind a wall, she watched the scene. The physiotherapist tried to get him to do some exercises, but Ciprian didn’t have the strength to stay in a sitting position for long. The woman yelled at him: ‘Stay like this, damn it!’

When she heard this, Ioana says she tiptoed down the hospital hallways to make sure no one heard her. Once she was out in the street, “desperately crying and running” she went to the town hall. From there she called her husband.

She told him to bring the cart urgently to Nicorești hospital, to take her and Ciprian. The husband tried to reassure her, by saying “nothing will happen to him”, but Ioana’s determination and despair couldn’t be assuaged. “Now, immediately!” she said. 

“If you don’t come, I’m not coming back home. Bring the cart at once!”

She then returned to the hospital, where the nurses advised her to take Ciprian home if she wanted the boy to live: “Aunty, if you leave him here you might take him back dead. Take him home. Are you tired of him?” 

Ioana replied: “How can I be tired of him? If I was tired of him, I would have put him in a home.”

The nurse responded: “Take him home then.”

But the Head Nurse told Ioana that she couldn’t let Ciprian go. She needed the doctor’s signature, and the doctor was not in the hospital

“I can’t give him to you because I’ll be penalized, but you can steal him.”

“Nurse, what kind of country is this in which I have to steal my own child?”

Ioana said she wasn’t going to leave without Ciprian. Her insistence paid off and she was given permission to take her son out of the hospital. She dressed him and put him in the cart, between her and her husband, supporting him with her arm. “Him, bless him, when the horses started, he turned his head and was shouting: ‘Go faster, go faster, go faster’. ‘Why, baby?’ I asked. He was afraid that the people from the hospital would come after him.”

“Leave him here
until you begin to forget him”

“Leave him here until you begin to forget him”

The memories from Nicorești are equally vivid for Ciprian.

“It was terrifying,” he utters the words with difficulty. For strangers, it is hard to understand what he is saying. Not for Ioana, who listens carefully and repeats, like an interpreter, everything her boy says.

Ciprian says he never wants to return there, even though the hospital has been closed for almost 20 years. But his short stay left a strong mark. 

Photo: Andrei Becheru

Over the years, Ioana followed the instructions of the doctors to which she took Ciprian. The only time she didn’t listen was when a doctor advised her to leave Ciprian in a hospital. It was the end of the ’80s, and the child was less than four years old.

“He asked me to leave him there for recovery. I started crying.  He said ‘how many more have you got home?’
‘I have four more children.’
‘Older or younger?’
‘They are all older.’
‘Leave him here for recovery and come back from time to time to see him, until you begin to forget. Maybe we’ll manage to help him a bit.’”

“I started crying when he said: until I forget him.”

During communism, as well as after the Revolution, doctors often advised parents to leave children with disabilities in child protection institutions. It was believed they would be better cared for there, and parents were relieved of the burden of having a disabled child.

But Ioana could not leave Ciprian in a hospital. “I said: ‘Doctor, whatever happens, I want him home. This is my cross to bear, and I’ll be happy with however little progress,’” says the woman. The doctor told her that she would regret it, and that she was denying him a chance to recover.

Ioana still wonders if it would have been better to leave Ciprian in a hospital-home. She still apologizes to him for that. But she just couldn’t do it, she explains herself, as if the fact that she couldn’t leave him in an institution was a weakness.

Ioana’s “weakness” caused her son to only spend a few days in the hospital-home in Nicorești, where hundreds of children died between 1970 and 1990.

Only 92 of them have their names inlaid on the two memorial plaques in the commune cemetery. But the damned of Nicorești were much more numerous.

The World Beyond the Ceiling

The World Beyond the Ceiling

Viorica and Tinca, the two nurses who worked at the hospital, look at the photo albums made by foreigners who volunteered in the 1990s, after the Revolution. Leaning over the albums, the women remember every child.

Tinca: This is Maricica. There she is! My little girl, from my ward. I turn the page and we come across a picture of a girl covered in blood.
Tinca: Look at her.
Viorica: This one was always smeared.
Tinca: Look at the state of her. She would scratch, and her whole body became a wound.

After the fall of the communist regime, images from orphanages and child protection homes in Romania made the news around the world, shocking the public and leading to outrage and sympathy from abroad. Only in their home country, the irrecuperables had been abandoned and forgotten in state institutions.

Images similar to the ones Viorica and Tinca are looking at now inspired foreigners to volunteer at these homes. Americans and Irish came to Nicorești.

The foreigners started replacing the sleeping pills with vitamins. The Irish volunteers were the first to caress the children from the Nicorești hospital-home, says Viorica. They were also the ones who took the lying out on walks, remembers the nurse. Until that moment, they had only ever seen the ceiling of their ward.

They brought soap, shampoo, and disinfectant. They drew on the walls of the dining room, organized physiotherapy sessions and play lessons.

They even brought food, clothes, blankets, and underwear. But not all of them made it to the children. They were also divided between employees. The aid was arriving in a poor community, which needed clothes and food. A community that didn’t understand why the foreigners wanted to help the irrecuperables when they could have helped those who had a chance in life.

Everything that the foreigners brought had to have Hospital written on it, so that the items wouldn’t be stolen.

Archival photo

“The Only System Was
Personal Survival”

“The Only System Was Personal Survival”

Conor Hughes came to Nicorești in 1998, as a volunteer affiliated with the Irish. He says he faced suspicion and animosity from employees, but his mission was to work with them. They were forced to work in horrible conditions, and make do with close to nothing, he says.

The first memory he has of Nicorești is regarding the chaos there: “There was no real system in place,” he says now. “The only system was personal survival.”

It was the late 1990s. The communist regime had been over for eight years, but the approach to child protection had not changed. The death camp continued to exist. The one in Nicorești functioned until 2002, when it was closed.

Conor quickly realized that things could not change from within. Foreign volunteers came and went. When they were there, the children were washed, kept clean and well dressed. The moment they left, things went back to how they were before.

That’s why the Irish decided to build houses to take in the people from the Nicorești hospital. At this time Bridget House appeared. Today it accommodates 15 adults, all former residents of the hospital-home. They were taken in after the hospital-home closed in 2002.

Bridget House is run by a local, Ionel Melinte. He also coordinates the activity of The Good Samaritan Association, which includes a day centre for children in the community. The association’s activity is still entirely funded by foreigners.

Surviving with A Wheelchair
in a Cobblestone Village

Surviving with A Wheelchair in a Cobblestone Village

Four years ago, Ciprian went to Bucharest and took a test to find out if his disability is genetic. The doctor told him that it was very likely that his locomotor problem was connected to the circumstances of his birth. That’s when his brain ran out of oxygen. The umbilical cord had been wrapped around his neck twice.

“He clicks on the mouse with his big toe. He hasn’t spent a day in school, but he still learned. He didn’t go to school, because there wasn’t one  [for him],” says Ioana about her son.

“He sends letters to girls too,” she says laughing.

 “Isn’t that normal?” intervenes Ciprian.

At the age of 35, he survived a system that saw him as irrecuperable. He still tries to survive another system, one that treats him as if he were invisible.

In December of last year, he sent a petition to the local town hall, asking to have the stretch of road between his house and the main road paved, so that he could move around the village in his wheelchair.

“I asked the mayor. How big of a deal is it to pave this stretch, from where the asphalt ends to this place here? At least this bit.”

The stretch that Ioana is talking about is 100 meters of cobbles. Ciprian’s wheelchair stumbles on every stone. It’s impossible to cross, so the family has to carry him to the flat asphalt.

Mayor Ionel Boghiu declares himself helpless. “Think about it,” he tells us. “I have 90 km of roads in the commune. I can’t pave it all.”

But he says that the road under discussion is “a cobbled road, a normal one. It’s a good road, there’s nothing to…” In fact, continues the mayor, he sees Ciprian “all day in his wheelchair moving up and down the main road.”

Buried with the Children

Buried with the Children

Sandie and Bruce Tanner arrived in Nicorești in 1990, six months after seeing a documentary entitled Shame of a Nation. They never left. They stayed and continued to help for years children and adults with disabilities in the commune. Sandie died in October 2021 in Nicorești. She is buried on the grounds of the same cemetery as the irrecuperables from the hospital-home.

When Sandie Tanner came, remembers Uncle, things changed. The children received more substantial meals, they began to put some meat on their bones. A few began to get up and walk: 

“To those with twisted legs, Sandie brought some boots, and some prostheses. She made their legs almost normal. There were some little girls whose legs she straightened, and they could walk alone. She straightened the children.

This woman was sent by God. She straightened their legs”

In Nicorești, Galați County, Romania, this was the equivalent of a miracle.

There could be no other explanation.


About the authors


Authors

  • Jurnalistă la Libertatea. A scris anterior pentru publicația Scena9 și platforma Romania Insider. Alte colaborări au inclus Balkan Insight, Politico sau Decât o Revistă.

  • Jurnalistă la Dela0.ro și membră a colectivului Să fie lumină. A debutat în presa TV, dar din 2014 lucrează în media alternativă.