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Children behind the walls

Lumos voices

Children behind the walls

On the 9th of November, 1989, the Berlin Wall was breached. We, the children of the cold war, watched in awe, as thousands from behind the Wall climbed to the top and began to hack and tear at the once seemingly impregnable edifice – their physical and symbolic prison of nearly thirty years – and proved, as countless others had before them, that no state is permanent, no political system lasts for ever and all empires eventually fall. In the end, the Wall was nothing but concrete. It took only a few weeks to destroy – a few weeks and thirty years.

Over the following weeks and months, from the vantage of the western edge of Europe, we watched as one dictatorship after another collapsed. The newspapers were filled with names we dimly recognised, of countries that in our geography text books had disappeared into a block of red, behind the ‘Iron Curtain’: in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, regimes fell peacefully like dominoes, as peoples whose voices had been silenced for many decades came out on the streets in their hundreds of thousands to demand change. The term ‘Velvet Revolution’ was coined and people everywhere who genuinely believe in democracy felt a surge of hope: that a Europe divided for forty-five years might finally heal itself, that the path from dictatorship to democracy could be trodden without the spillage of blood.

By December, civil unrest had spread to Romania and a city in Transylvania that none of us had ever heard of, and few of us could pronounce, became the signifier of a darker chapter. In Timisoara, hundreds of protesters were shot on the steps of the Opera House. Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s megalomaniacal dictator, was not giving up so easily. Protests spread to Bucharest and it is estimated that more than a thousand lives were lost. But in the end, the Ceausescus fled, were captured and executed. This was old style revolution, not a whiff of velvet.

As journalists poured into Romania over the ensuing weeks, images began to appear on our TV screens that were, quite simply, unbelievable. Approximately 200,000 children were locked in Romania’s system of institutions. We saw rows upon rows of silent babies. Children whose emaciation resembled victims of the Ethiopian famine. Children tied up; others rocking back and forth in silent horror. Shaved heads, generic clothing, making it impossible to tell girls from boys, or to understand this mass of human misery as the individual bundles of personality and potential we normally understand children to be. We could not really see children. The scenes were almost indescribable. I remember, like many, being shocked by these images, finding it difficult to believe and to reconcile with the world I knew. At that point, I had no idea how frequently I would come face to face with children in similar circumstances over the next twenty-five years.

A less well covered aspect of the story was that Romania was only one of many countries in the region where such terrible problems existed. And over the next 15 years much was done to ‘improve’ institutions. A massive outpouring of charity from well-meaning individuals and groups, as well as the larger grants, donations and loans from the EU, governments’ overseas aid programmes and the World Bank, poured into installing heating and sanitation, renovating buildings, painting walls, improving material conditions, bringing medicine and food, countless volunteers coming in to relieve staff of their burden and to play with the children.

And this is an understandable and logical response. I imagined this was the right thing to do until I started to work in my first ‘orphanage’ in Romania in 1993. It quickly became clear to me that the efforts to improve the institutions might have made a difference in terms of helping children survive, but did little to improve their quality of life. I began to see what would later be proved with brain imaging: that removing children from their families and raising them in this highly artificial and regimented environment did them untold damage.

And I began to realise that few people seemed to be asking the right questions. Although we called them orphanages, the children were not orphans. Where were their parents? Improving institutions was extraordinarily expensive and so was running them on a daily basis. How could it be possible to throw so much money at a problem without any real discernable benefit? My work, together with the institution’s psychologists and social worker, was to prevent children from being separated from their mothers. We found that a small amount of input to support a vulnerable mother at that crucial point when her child was born, was enough in most cases to make sure the child would stay with their family. We had a separate unit for mothers and babies to live together inside the institution. These babies were not receiving any better nutrition than those in the institution, but their development was so strikingly different. These were healthy, normal, happy babies. By spending money to support the family for the first few months, we avoided having to pay for an entire childhood in an institution, let alone the cost to society of an adult who cannot cope outside an institution.

Romania has achieved a great deal since then, has established social services across the country and reduced the numbers of children in institutions dramatically. But across the European region, there are still a million children in institutions and in recent years Lumos is still finding children, behind the walls, dying of starvation, tied to their beds, neglected and abused. I can’t help but wonder, when the hundreds of thousands of Central and Eastern Europeans braved the wrath of dictatorships to fight for democracy, was this the democracy they envisaged? Is this the healed Europe we all imagined, twenty-five years ago when the Wall came down?

Things are changing in Europe. Many donors, notably the European Commission, have recognised the need to shift resources from institutions to community based services. Most countries in the region have deinstitutionalisation action plans in place. It is my hope and belief that when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, institutions for children in Europe will already be a distant memory. And the end of institutionalisation globally will be within our grasp.

Please watch our new video 'Behind the Walls' exposing the myth that orphanages are full of orphans. Reminding us of the desolation of life in institutions and orphanages.