Children of Ceausescu
Photographs by Kent Klich
Essay by Herta Muller
More than a decade after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the overthrow and execution of brutal Romanian dictator Nicholae Ceausescu, the worst AIDS epidemic among children in the world bears out its infamous legacy in Romania, still one of the poorest and most fractured societies in Eastern Europe. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, tens of thousands of children in government hospitals and orphanages were systematically infected by unsterilized needles and HIV-tainted blood transfusions given to them instead of food. Over this last decade, thousands have died, but almost 10,000 children with AIDS remain. The tragedy continues.
During Ceausescu’s reign, birthrates outpaced impoverished families’ ability to care for their own children, and unwanted and abandoned children swelled orphanage populations to bursting. Fresh milk, vitamins, and food were scarce, so institutions were told to treat the malnourished and anemic children with a fast-fix “pick-me-up” consisting of transfusions of unscreened plasma. Compounding the issue, caseworkers often re-used vaccination needles on children, frequently using one needle on as many as ten children. The result: widespread AIDS throughout the child population. The health authorities knew about the situation, as well as the harrowing conditions within orphanages, where children lay screaming, unwashed, filthy, packed into death wards, but were too frightened to speak out.
When the scandal broke, help poured in from all over the world. Blood testing improved; hospitals got disposable syringes; nurses were retrained. But the damage to the children was irreversible, and many began to die.
Beginning in 1994 and for the next five years, Magnum photographer Kent Klich traveled to Romania to document the appalling aftermath of Ceausescu’s horror. Klich, who began his career as a psychologist working with adolescents with a history of social problems, traveled throughout Romania to visit the orphanages and hospitals struggling with the burden of this legacy. In Children of Ceausescu, Klich gives us visceral images and brief life stories of the boys and girls who suffer still from the state’s mass experiment. Compassionate yet unflinching, these photographs give us a glimpse of the daily lives of these children, both terrible and mundane. They run and jump in puddles, they laugh out loud and draw pictures of flowers and birds, but they also know disease and death intimately, and the realities of their infection are overpowering.