BUCHAREST – German teens treated “like slaves,” tied with ropes and forced to pull carts alongside animals — these are the allegations facing a Germany-funded social program in remote northern Romania.
On Tuesday, riot police backed by a helicopter stormed a farm in Viseu de Sus village where a German couple set up the program some 15 years ago to help dozens of troubled minors.
But now the German man and four Romanians stand accused of keeping children in “slavery-like conditions,” using “barbaric methods amounting to torture” and treating them in “humiliating and degrading” ways, prosecutors say.
They say the children were forced to “do exhausting physical labor,” deprived of food and beaten repeatedly under “Projekt Maramures” named after the county where it is based.
Twenty children, ages 12 to 18, were in the program’s care — several of them at host families — when authorities raided the farm and seven other houses.
Berlin has said it had not been aware of any problems with the program in the past 20 years. Some of the children have also dismissed the abuse allegations.
“What slavery? We fed the cattle and the sheep. It’s not so tough to feed them. And we could eat as much as we wanted. I gained 11 kilos (24 pounds) in three months,” Jonelle Kooi, who lived in a host family, told Romanian news channel Digi24.
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But at least four of them, who are with child protection services now, have denounced the alleged brutality of the center employees, punishments and in the case of a young girl the forced use of a contraceptive coil, according to investigators.
Vasile Dale, a journalist from the region who wrote in 2006 on alleged abuse under the program, said the children’s treatment depended on where they were hosted.
“It was like in a market: when the minibus with the German kids arrived, those close to the ones transporting them chose the least problematic kids; the others were sent to the center,” the 40-year-old, who now lives in Denmark, told AFP.
“When I spoke to the German in charge, I was shocked: his slogan was ‘work sets you free,’ ” reminiscent of the Nazi slogan written at concentration camp entrances.
Dale said it was “impossible” that the Maramures child protection agency had no idea what was going on. But authorities closed their eyes, he said, since it concerned a “center for German teens under the supervision of the German state.”
A Viseu de Sus town hall official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, insisted she had never received any complaints.
About 15 families took part in the program, receiving about €600 ($660) per month per child, a sizeable sum in one of the European Union’s poorest members where those in rural areas typically earn less than €300 per month.
The center, which on its website offers “educational and recreational activities in nature,” received up to €6,000 per month per child, according to Romanian media reports.
In the searches conducted Tuesday, investigators seized close to €150,000 from the suspects.
The German, 61, and the four Romanians have now been detained 30 days, while his German wife and two other center employees are still under investigation.
In Viseu de Sus, which lives from tourism, many of its 15,000 inhabitants are afraid the village’s reputation has been “tainted.”
The case follows the killings of two Romanian teenage girls in the southern town of Caracal.
Several top officials have been sacked after it emerged that one of the girls made three calls to emergency services to report her own kidnapping but that the police failed to react in time.