On the top of a hill, at the end of a bad country road, six kilometres away from the next village, without any pharmacies or shops nearby, live almost 80 families and their over 200 children in dwellings improvised out of wood, clay and plastic.
Viorel has blue, deep, intelligent eyes and he seems the wisest young man in Hetea, a village in Covasna County. He is 18 and his wife, Crina, is 20. The boy is surrounded by a pile of dry branches which he’s cleaning and tying together in clusters with a string – tomorrow, he and Crina will go sell brooms in the neighbouring villages. They have a 5-month old daughter, Raluca, and a son, Bogdan, aged 2 years and 4 months, who’s running in front of the house, among our legs. The baby’s bottom is scalded and she keeps crying: as all the parents in Hetea, the young couple have no money for diapers, so they use rags which they wash, but during day they leave their children bare-butted.
The four members of the family live in a one-room house, of no more than 20 square metres, with two beds, a table, an oven and a few shelves of clothes. The walls are adorned with colourful embroideries and carpets. The dwelling was built by Viorel out of wood, clay and other plastic, nylon and carton materials picked up from the garbage. They live on their children’s benefits and on selling brooms and the mushrooms they pick in the forest during summer. Crina and Viorel are among the richest families in Hetea: they have a cart and a horse and, unlike their neighbours, they “manage”.
THE VILLAGE OF RECYCLED MATERIALS
Hetea is a village in Covasna county, 26 kilometres away from Brașov and 10 kilometres from Sfântu Gheorghe. The village is isolated on a hill; to reach it one must walk for 3 kilometres on a country road. If it rains or snows, the only way to get here is by 4-wheel drive car or a horse-drawn wagon. About 80 Roma families live in the village, but they can’t speak Romani and haven’t kept their traditions (their number is hard to estimate, as part of them don’t have documents). If asked, they can’t tell when they settled here, but their neighbours in Araci say that Roma families started to arrive in Hetea 50-60 years ago. As their numbers increased, the neighbouring Romanians left, and they remained isolated on the hill.
The village consists of about 80 dwellings which can hardly be called houses: they are built out of wood, clay, plastic, bags and any other materials that can be stolen or found in the garbage. The houses are covered with street ad banners and nylon bags, and most of them have a single, scarcely furnished room of 15-20 square metres: a table, one or two beds and an old wardrobe. Here live families with five, six, ten or more children. They have no fridges, gas cookers or TV sets (only the slightly richer Sandu family has a TV set and two rooms). The stoves are built out of clay and bricks, and the electricity is “drawn” from one to the other by means of improvised systems. Almost nobody owns the land on which they built their houses, so they can be evicted at any time.
The women and the children carry water for drinking, cooking and washing from the only spring in the middle of the village, where they water the cattle. All the houses are impregnated with a fetid smell of poorly dried clothes, urine and sweat. They have no septic tanks in the backyard, so if you step in a piece of shit you can’t tell for sure if it’s from a dog or a human.
The houses are covered with street ad banners and nylon bags, and most of them have a single, scarcely furnished room of 15-20 square metres.
Hetea has a primary school where children go, but most abandon school when they reach 5th grade. Most of them can’t read and write when they move on to the following cycle and they can’t catch up with the other pupils. Besides, the school in Araci is six kilometres away and the pupils find it difficult to go to school that far.
Despite all this, the village is full of children of all ages who chase us giggling. They are so many that it seems to us that we’ve come across a village inhabited only by children, especially since it’s difficult to distinguish parents from their sons and daughters: girls give birth to their first baby between 12 and 16, and fathers are no older than them.
The association OvidiuRo is implementing in Hetea the program Every child goes to kindergarten, aimed at motivating parents to send their children to kindergarten. They receive a monthly social ticket worth 50 Lei (12 Euro) if their son or daughter proves daily attendance. The aim of the program is decreasing the education gap between children and preventing school abandonment.
Crina and Viorel
Neither Crina nor Viorel can read and write, though they went to primary school in Hetea. “The teachers would send us out to play while they were having coffee and sandwiches; and when we returned to the classroom, they’d send us back to break,” Viorel recalls. When he started attending 5th grade in Araci, he was forced to give up school as he no longer could make up for all the knowledge he hadn’t acquired in the previous four years. “I had brains for school, I was clever, I could have learned,” he says.
It’s six o’clock in the morning and it’s cold, so Crina wraps herself in a men’s oversized jacket, with a broken zip. She wears slippers and a long skirt, without stockings underneath. She loads the brooms into the cart and leaves the children with her parents who live next to them. She’s breastfed her daughter, but had no food for the boy. When Bogdan, their boy of 2 years and 4 months, gets a bagful of corn-puff snacks, he crams them into his mouth several at a time.
We drive for about 20 kilometres to Lunca Câlnicului, in Brașov County; reaching this place by wagon on country roads takes over one hour. It’s Sunday, and the Romanians are at home today. Viorel puts five brooms on his shoulder and leaves Crina to wait for him in the wagon. He has no luck at the first houses, people drive him away. After a few attempts, nonetheless, he receives a bag with a few eggs in exchange for one broom. “Eggs are good too, we’ll scramble them,” says Viorel. “We trade the brooms for food, for anything.” In a few hours, the man gathers a bagful of potatoes, some onions and carrots, a loaf of bread and a few apples. People give them different products out of pity rather than for the brooms.
“‘You do have some, but you don’t wanna give me’ say all the Gypsies who come here to beg. But I don’t have anything either, I myself can hardly make ends meet.”
We stop by the cart. We gets ourselves 2 beers and ask Viorel if he wants one too. “Better some food for my wife, we didn’t eat anything.” We find some yogurt, bread, cheese and salty cookies at the shop. We all gulp hungrily. Crina is still shivering with cold.
To get money, Viorel sometimes goes to get wood from the forest in Aita Mare, farther away from Sfântu Gheorghe, about 50 kilometres from Hetea. It takes an entire day to get there, so he makes a fire and spends the night in the forest. But he is afraid, because it’s far and the police might ask him from where he took the wood. Meanwhile, Crina cannot sleep until Viorel gets back home.
In Prejmer village, part of Lunca Câlnicului town, there is a funeral. Crina and Viorel stop the wagon by the gate of the deceased. They get some bags with food, but don’t want to leave and ask people if they don’t have any clothes they don’t need. “A Gypsy’s still a Gypsy, even on Easter day,” Mihai answers them disgustedly. “‘You do have some, but you don’t wanna give me’ say all the Gypsies who come here to beg,” says the man. “But I don’t have anything either, I myself can hardly make ends meet.”
At the Doctor's
The waiting room of the medical practice in Araci gives off the same smell of urine and badly dried clothes as all the houses in Hetea. There is a queue, made up only of women with children, most of them from Hetea. Iurie Agachii, the family doctor from Vâlcele, locks the door every time a patient comes in and another gets out – every five minutes, someone violently tries the door. Once, the doctor refused to examine a patient who had kicked the door open.
Doctor Iurie Agachii is a 50-year old massive man with short, strong hands. He graduated from the Faculty of Medicine in Chișinău and worked for 10 years in the emergency service of the same city. He came to Romania in 2001, hoping for a better life here. He couldn’t afford the rent in Sfântu Gheorghe so he moved to Araci, where he received accommodation in the same building where the practice is. He is the only family physician of the four villages that make up the town – Vâlcele, Hetea, Araci and Ariușd – and he has over 5,000 patients. He has recently moved to Brașov and commutes daily to work: the patients wouldn’t let him rest, they used to constantly come during the night or in weekends to ask for a reference, a prescription or an examination.
The practice in Araci is located in the building of the old school. Doctor Iurie Agachii carries out the medical examinations in a former classroom, on a rusty iron bed, with the sponge coming out of the leather, covered with stained linen. His desk is improvised out of two school desks put together; unused medical equipment lies on the table. The window cases are worn, and the walls probably haven’t been painted since the old school was still working.
Women and children queue and cough in the corridor. There are so many children that it seems like the doctor will never get to see them all, even if he carries out examinations uninterruptedly for two days and two nights on end. About 40 mothers with their children come to him daily, but the record was hit one winter, when the number of the patients reached 115.
Most of the families in Hetea don’t have medical insurance, so they have to pay the full price for the prescriptions.
Doctor Iurie Agachii examines a baby with influenza and skin rashes. He prescribes free medication to the child and tells the mother to return for a second examination, but he is well aware of the fact that, once the baby gets slightly better, the woman will not come back. Mothers come to him only when they find the situation to be very serious. In order to convince them to have their babies vaccinated, the doctor threatens the mothers he will no longer give them powder milk (the women have the right to a certain monthly quantity of it).
Most of the families in Hetea don’t have medical insurance, so they have to pay the full price for the prescriptions. Doctor Iurie Agachii appeals to every possible trick to help them, and the OvidiuRo Association has a partnership with GSK to get them medication.
For three hours on end, young mothers with babies or 2, 3, 4-year old children keep coming in. A mother who so far has given birth to 9 babies weighs only 54 kilos. A 16-year old girl with two children is no surprise to anyone – the doctor has seen girls of only 11 or 12 who became mothers. Zoica, who’s only 15, has no identification card, and her baby has no birth certificate. As she doesn’t exist on papers, she can’t receive any prescription for her baby. The doctor scratches his head and eventually he writes her a free prescription in the name of another woman, who hasn’t come to any examination this month. If the Health Insurance House finds out about this, the doctor might be sanctioned.
A Romanian, annoyed at having to wait so much, intermingles among the Roma mothers. A woman from Araci is angry because she has to stand in line among the Roma mothers and she bursts out in front of the physician. “Unlike them, I pay taxes to the State,” she says. Apart from this, the woman complains, “I can’t raise anything in my yard because of them: they steal hens, potatoes, they steal everything.”
The Romanian state encouraged the parents of the young inhabitants of Hetea to live on their children’s benefits, believes Iurie Agachii. He blames the associations which brought aids to Hetea and made the locals grow dependent: “They believe they can live on their children’s benefits, but this is not enough to make a living.” A few years ago, some representatives of the Dutch Pentecostal Church tried to help the community in Hetea, recalls Iurie Agachii. They built them toilets and put roofs on their houses; they bought them cattle and home goods. “The local people in Hetea sold everything the Dutch brought them: water closets, roof sheets, leather shoes, vacuum-packed salami, everything,” he says. “They stole even the power transformer and sold it as scrap, then they went to prison for it.” After they sold a pastor’s pig, the Dutch got angry and went to other communities.
Doctor Iurie Agachii believes that the only solution to truly helping the people in Hetea is teaching them to overcome their limits. Explaining to them, for instance, why keeping the pig inside the house with them is not at all hygienic. “I was doing a medical examination in Hetea, when I felt a push from behind. I thought there was a child playing. When I turned around, I saw a pig: I had sat on its place.”
The Romanian state encouraged the parents to live on their children’s benefits, believes Iurie Agachii. He blames the associations which brought aids to Hetea and made the locals grow dependent.
The physician goes to Hetea twice a week to examine those who can’t come to Araci. “Let’s hope they aren’t getting the social aid today, otherwise they’ll come straight from the pub,” he says. After a 17-year old boy crossed his path and “reacted very violently”, Iurie Agachii became afraid of going alone to the village. He is accompanied by Gabi, a Roma woman from Vâlcele, who works for OvidiuRo as a social mediator.
The medical examinations are carried out in Sandu’s house, the biggest and best arranged in the village. The doctor succeeds in putting some order in the terrible hue-and-cry of children, women and peeping chicken only after kicking out half of them. The first patient is Rodica’s baby. She is a 30-year old woman who has nine children and is now pregnant with the tenth. The boy was born without a part of his brain; consequently, his life expectancy is shorter. I find it hard to look at the baby, who’s ruckling as he doesn’t know how to cry, jetting his saliva onto the doctor. “They told me at the maternity to leave him there, but how could I have left him? It’s mine,” Rodica says.
Time idles by for people in the village. Nobody has any work to do. A cortege of children-mothers, children-fathers and children’s children is following us while we walk from a house to another. We are surrounded by dozens of women breastfeeding their babies, holding their children in their arms, with prominent bellies; they will give birth every month, every week, every year (the physician mentioned the case of a woman who has 17 children).
The only role of women in Hetea is maternity. Most of the girls marry at 13-14, the average age when they give birth to their first baby. Couples don’t get married: when a boy likes a girl, he sleeps with her and the teenager becomes his wife.
Several NGOs which came to Hetea tried to give contraceptives to women. Some accepted, though they hid them from their husbands, who were against it. But Iurie Agachii says that the pills can prove dangerous to them. “As they are illiterate, many don’t know the days of the week and can’t read a clock either. They can’t take a pill daily at the same hour. Women came to me because they had taken pills although they were pregnant, and a mother swallowed them all in one day.” Men refuse to use condoms, so that isn’t a solution either.
The women here love their numerous children and try to look after them and feed them. Their sons and daughters, though they have no clothes and their stomachs are empty, are not aware of their living conditions: they play and laugh like any other ordinary children. But before growing up, they will give birth to other children.
Photographer Cosmin Bumbuț and journalist Elena Stancu travel by caravan, trying to grasp the colours of the communities they come across on their way, in Romania and abroad. In order to afford the privilege of long-term documentation on a subject, they need your support. You can subscribe to postcards or buy limited-edition prints here.
Translated by Magda Achim. Translation edited by Anca Bărbulescu and Anca Fronescu.