The Children of the Hills
On the weekend of April 22nd, PressOne accompanied a convoy led by the Bucharest Off-Road Adventure club. They were bringing several tons of humanitarian aid to Șopotu Nou, a mountain commune in Caraș-Severin County, home to around 300 souls.
For most urban dwellers it’s difficult to imagine what life is like for the people in this remote corner of civilization in the Banat Mountains.
Most of them live on subsistence farming. If the corn or potato crops fail they’re left with barely and anything else they can manage to scrape together to eat. Let alone if calamity strikes and one of their animals should die. Their main source of income comes from agricultural subsidies for impoverished areas.
We wanted to hear the children’s stories. We wanted to know the dreams of these kids who are forgotten, like thousands of others, in the villages between Romania’s hills and valleys.
Loredana is twelve. We found her on a small rise in front of her house with her little sister in her arms. She’s one of seven siblings, of which the youngest are four-year old twin boys. Their father is 65, their mother is 42.
She’s only ever been as far as Bozovici, another commune about 20 kilometers away. Her favorite subject in school is Romanian, but she doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.
“Is there any boy that you like?”
“No, because I don’t have Facebook. Or a phone”
Ionuț, Loredana’s 10 year old brother brags about going as far as Timișoara. He had hand surgery when he was younger and stayed overnight at the hospital.
He likes school because he gets to learn “in a nice room”, but he likes cartoons more. The parents recently signed up for a cable package which they pay for with the children’s monthly allocations. It’s the family’s only stream of income.
Of all the siblings, Cristi is the wildest of the bunch. Since he’s not used to seeing strangers in the area, the 7 year old had been hiding under the bed. It wasn’t easy to convince him to come out and give us a smile.
Piciul, the convoy leader, gets him to calm down by showing him some of the gifts.
“Look, we brought you a Superman backpack and a Balotelli jersey. Do you know who Balotelli is?”
“ A footballer.”
“And here you’ve got a pencil case with crayons, markers, pens, erasers, and tons of stuff in here. Do you like it?”
“There’s some candy, too. Here’s a chocolate bunny. And what do you think this is?”
“Not quite, it’s a chiclet.”
We had a girl’s backpack ready for 16 year old Mihaela, but when we got to her house, she met us wearing a headscarf.
“Why are you wearing a headscarf? You have such lovely hair...” commented one of the women in the convoy.
“She’s married,” answered another one of the volunteers who knew the local tradition.
“She is, and has a three-month old,” her father-in-law intervened before Mihaela could answer.
Mihaela has only completed four grades of school. She can’t say why she’s given up on school, but nods in the affirmative when asked if she’s happy to be a mother. She nods again to indicate that she loves her husband. They met a year ago when he came to Sichevița, her parents’ village.
Like many other villagers, she’s wearing peasant’s sandals, opinci. The villagers make their own, but instead of using dressed leather, as in the olden days, they use the rubber from discarded tires.
“This is the poor man’s sandal. See here, mine are different from each other.” Mihaela’s father-in-law says as he shows us the pair on his feet.
Sofica is in seventh grade and lives at home with her older brother and grandmother, Vieta. Her mother left home with a ‘sweetheart’ five weeks ago, Vieta tells us.
“What’s your biggest dream?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.”
“Do you want to stay near grandma and have your own family?”
“How do you like to spend your time?”
“With my family.”
“Just helping out with stuff.”
In the village of Răchita, we stopped in front of the primary school. An elderly man tells us there are four pupils here and there will be another three come autumn. A bit higher up, Loredana, an 18 year old who’s moved to Reșița is hanging out with a couple of childhood friends, Mirela and Firuța.
Loredana moved to the city to attend a better high-school. She’ll be taking her baccalaureate exam in the summer but isn’t too worried about it.
“If you study from the beginning, there’s nothing tough about the end.”
She says that classes in the city are more challenging, partly because students have access to more information, but also because the teachers are better prepared. It’s also quiet and easier to study.
“It’s different in the city because there’s a lot less work than around here. In a way it’s a better life, but still, you’d rather be here.”
“Why? What do you miss while you’re there?”
“My parents’ affection.”
Loredana is ambitious and hopes to attend teacher’s college, maybe even in Bucharest. Her dream is to teach.
“I like kids a lot and I’m also very patient with them.”
Further down in the valley we met Andreea, a vivacious 13 year old. She also wants to go to high school and university. She’s determined to get an education and escape from the never-ending farm work.
“Do you have time to study with all the chores you do?”
“Yes, but I’m mostly taking care of the cows and pigs, there are 15 in total.”
“That’s why you want to move to the city?”
“Yes, to rid them from my life.”
But Andreea’s biggest dream is to be a singer. She admits that she follows Romania’s Got Talent very closely. She then proceeds to sing for us.
Fănică remained wordless when we asked him his age. He looked over to his father, a shepherd. “He’s 15, in the 8th grade.” The man answered in his stead. Fănică then repeated after him.
But he’s small, and he appears to be half his age.
“What’s your favorite subject at school?”
“Mostly reading…and mechanical stuff.”
“Like what, tractors?”
Fănică has 6 other siblings. They were in the hills, with the sheep, and looked at us blankly as we passed. They couldn’t tell us their names and showed no reaction when they saw the chocolate bars.
While the children of Șopotu Nou are missing out on a chance for a better future, their overburdened parents are also busy looking after their own parents –and can’t do anything about their ills and aches.
We ran into Maria on the way to Valea Răchitei. Although she’s over 50, she speaks with the sincerity of a child. Her daughters are married and live in other villages.
She lives with her son who is 34 and disabled since birth. Although he can’t help around the house he provides the only income in the form of his disability pension.
“I’ve been here 35 years, since I got married. We have four cows, four horses, seven pigs, and a lot of work. But it is better here than in Oravița, there we had nothing.”
Ana is 92 and has very limited mobility. She hasn’t seen a doctor in two years.
The hospital in Bozovici, the closest to the village, was closed down and only the emergency wing remains open. The closest hospital is now 70 kilometers away, in Oravița.
On another knoll we meet a woman with a plastic washbowl full of freshly ground corn. She’s 76 and still very much working around the house. She lives with her son and two nephews; a 17 year old boy who is at school and a 20 year girl who was born disabled.
The volunteers give her food to better prepare for Easter.
“Please, let me at least give you a bottle of țuică.”
One of Romania’s six Czech villages is located in the Șopotu Nou commune. Ravensca is home to about 100 inhabitants. Situated at an altitude over 800 meters, the Czech language was well preserved here. Most of the village’s youth left for the Czech Republic following the revolution.
Carolina, a shopkeeper in the village explains that Moravian Czechs settled the area in 1826. Her shop sells just about anything, including rubber opinci.
Members of the Off-Road Adventure club have been visiting and helping villagers from the forgotten communes in the mountains of the Banat region for 15 years.
This time, over 100 people participated in the convoy with 40 off-road vehicles and three supply trucks. The club’s members and their families raised about 35,000 lei to buy tons of food, clothes, hygiene products, stationery and toys.