Delivered from the darkness

12th May 2000 at 01:00
Ten years ago, there was a revolution going on in eastern Europe. One by one, communist regimes were collapsing. Like dominoes, as they described it on the news, but it was much more dramatic than that. Crowds swarmed over the Berlin Wall, singing and dancing and hacking it to pieces. Statues of communist icons were pulled from their plinths. After years of being cooped up and kept down, people wanted to destroy the evidence, remove all reminders of the bad old days.

You can see why they were so angry. When the Iron Curtain was ripped down, it was like letting in the light for the first time in 40 years, and the neglect in some countries was shocking to behold. Parts of Romania resembled something out of the Dark Ages - it was obvious why dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had kept out prying eyes. While his greedy, corrupt regime had brought him extravagant riches, it had left the Romanian people bereft, living in poverty and choking pollution. If politically it had failed, environmentally it had been a catastrophe.

There were two factories in Copsa Mica in north-west Romania (pictured here). One was a lead smelting plant and the other made carbon black for inks, dyes and tyres. Thick, black smoke had belched virtually unchecked from their chimneys since they were built in the 1930s. Toxic soot - lead, sulphur dioxide, cadmium and zinc - covered the land. It was a dead zone. Nothing grew, animals starved and the people suffered - but not in silence. They raised a petition in defiance of the authorities who said that filters were too expensive. There was little incentive for the factories to do anything as the maximum fine for pollution was just pound;10.

When United Natios inspectors arrived in Copsa Mica in 1990, they found that half the population had bronchitis or pneumonia, and that two out of three children suffered from some kind of mental illness. Lead poisoning was widespread. "It wasas if a gigantic bottle of ink hadspilled on the town," said photographer Anthony Suau, who took this picture in February 1990."It took several hours for me torealise that I was still standing onthe planet Earth."

These children each wear the sullen, world-weary expression of someone 10 times their age. In their town, hope and optimism were probably as hard to come by as aclean change of clothes.

But things did get better. The carbon factory was shut down in 1993. The lead smelting plant was kept open, saving 4,000 jobs in the town, but emissions were cut down with filters. Trees, which extract heavy metals from the soil, were planted around the town. A water treatment plant was built to stop harmful discharges running into local rivers.

The people of Copsa Mica can now cultivate their gardens again. The air they breathe is cleaner. And Mr Ceausescu? Well, he didn't live to see any of it. While the people rioted below, he and his wife escaped from the roof of the presidential building by helicopter. They were captured a few days later, tried and shot by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989.

Web links: CIA facts and figures on Romania: www.odci.govciapublicationsfactbookro.html Pictures from Anthony Suau's Beyond the Fall exhibition on Eastern Europe: www.ilford.comhtmlus_englishAnthonySuau Romanian tourist site with extensive history and links:

Photograph by: Anthony Suau Words by: Harvey McGavin

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