Today I have been unable to shift images from last night’s BBC Four documentary ‘Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children’ from my head. It was one of those programmes that leaves you reeling. I remember watching a similar programme about Romanian orphanages (maybe fifteen years ago) and it filled me with fury that, years later, such brutality still goes on in Europe. (Of course it is horrific that it goes on anywhere, but Bulgaria is an EU country, which appears to mean nothing for the poor children in the hideous institution).
What struck me was that there were material objects in this place that looked reasonably clean, the walls were painted, there were TVs and cuddly toys. But what there wasn’t was any sense of care – at all. There was no affection - children were handled like objects, there was no eye contact, no laughter, no play, no warmth. Food was shovelled in to children’s mouths faster than they could chew or swallow it. A blind child stood motionless, like a statue, until someone took his hand. Deaf children were just left wandering about a boring building with nothing to do, for hours and hours. Children were left sitting on potties. And any child with mobility problems was pretty much confined to bed, where many were neglected and starved, slowly, to death. A piteously thin, bed-ridden girl with an untreated broken leg was washed and dressed by staff who turned a blind eye to her obvious agony. There were several children who were as skeletal as a child from a holocaust death camp. No clear explanation was ever given for this. The staff said things like ‘its her disease’. No-one seemed to be able to say what this disease was – maybe brittle bone disease, or maybe just the effect of a lifetime of malnutrition? There was obvious physical abuse of the children and completely inappropriate personal care – a man herded naked teenage girls to the shower.
If the behaviour shown on the film was what those people do when someone is watching, then I dread to think what goes on most of the time.
So, no surprise, I suppose, that the EU is nothing but a way for ‘economies to thrive’ while any notion of real human rights remains a distant dream for the weakest and most vulnerable.
I looked at some links from the web site of the programme and it seems that there are people working with children in Bulgaria who are promoting care of a far higher standard. But, the letter from the Bulgarian government shows a total avoidance of reality. It seems that the change needed is a deep cultural one. I have no idea, given that this is the case, what I can usefully do about this. The kids don’t need a bus load of clothes and toys, they need carers who have some concept of them as human. This applies to the ‘health professionals’ as much as to the unqualified carers.
Early in the documentary we saw a child who had his thumb permanently in his mouth. He was alone in a cot, except for when he was washed and dressed –and presumably fed, though not much by the look of him. His thumb was wrecked, gnawed terribly. Later we saw the same child – his thumb amputated.
The director of the institute gave a brief interview at the end - apparently, her 'staff let her down’. And she’d just that day bought some new umbrellas to go round the swimming pool in the summer…