BUCHAREST, ROMANIA -- Last Christmas, Western Europe responded to compelling news reports and graphic television images of Romania's bloody revolution with an outpouring of humanitarian aid. Thousands of tons of food, clothing, medicine and bedding, mostly from West Germany and France, were soon on their way to the heroes who routed a brutal Communist dictatorship.
But anecdotal evidence from a wide spectrum of foreign and Romanian relief officials, hospital directors and ordinary people throughout this Balkan country suggests that a significant quantity of that aid did not reach its intended destination.
Medical and relief officials say the Romanian government's relief distribution system in the first months following the revolution looked more like a sieve than a pipeline.
"A lot of things were stolen," said Dr. Gheorghe Jipa, director of Bucharest's Victor Babes Hospital.
"There were big problems," agreed Dr. Guilhem Delmas of the French medical relief agency Doctors of the World, which refused to let the government near its shipments and instead set up its own distribution network.
The vanishing supplies disappeared in all sizes and guises, but perhaps the most visible incident came in early spring, when a train ostensibly loaded with relief supplies from Spain pulled into the Bucharest station. Diplomats and dignitaries were on hand to greet the train, but to their consternation, it was several cars short. The rest had been pirated along the way in Yugoslavia and Romania.
At one hospital, the staff threatened to go on strike if donated clothes were given to patients. "So they divided the clothes among themselves and they even fought over that," said one hospital official, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from Romania's new government.
Jipa, whose hospital is one of Bucharest's busiest, angrily walked out of the government's distribution center in January when he was given only 20 tubes of ampicillin, barely enough of the antibiotic to treat one patient for five days. The supplies he has received since then were mailed or delivered directly to his hospital, he said.
And in homes for abandoned children, young residents sit naked on cement floors while workers there say they already have distributed clothing donated by West European charities.
Though corruption is widely believed to be at the root of the problem, few suggest that it is the only cause. In Romania, the chaos of the revolution was exceeded only by the extreme deprivation and psychological terror that preceded it.
"At that time, everyone was very hungry and the majority of people had never seen so much of these goods. But of course, stealing such things was no excuse," said Jipa, one of the few physicians willing to be quoted by name for this article. "There was no excuse, but hunger and not having things for so long."
Government warehouses in Bucharest did distribute some supplies. But medical directors at two major Bucharest hospitals said distribution was selective, and they had to use political connections before they were given more than a fraction of what they needed.
Some hospital officials say most of the relief that reached them came from organizations that insisted on bypassing government distribution entirely. The French organization Doctors of the World ensured delivery of its supplies by refusing to allow the government to distribute them and in some cases insisting that the organization's own staff accompany relief shipments directly into hospital emergency rooms.
Officials at Romania's Ministry of Health said this strategy of bypassing the government caused its own problems. They cited a West German charity that delivered equipment to hospitals that did not need it, while other clinics went begging. They said some donors dropped off exotic machines and medicines without telling the hospital staff how to use them.
Government officials and foreign relief directors said the distribution of relief supplies has improved since the early part of the year, thanks to time, replacement of the interim government by an elected one, and a half-year of near-normal supplies of food and other consumer goods. But while distribution has gotten better, charities report a slowdown in donations for Romania.
The drop in donations has coincided with growing Western suspicion of the leaders of Romania's revolution. Televised pictures of the revolutionary government's summary trial and execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife on Christmas Day shocked many Westerners. Others have bad memories of the government's report, in the first days after the revolution, that as many as 70,000 people had died fighting to overthrow Ceausescu. The actual death toll was about 1,800, according to the government's final count.
Romania's image was further tarnished by political coercion and violence during the May election that resulted in a landslide victory for the National Salvation Front, a party led by former high-ranking Communist officials, which had steered the nation since the revolution.
Earlier this month, President Ion Iliescu, the Front's leader and a member of Ceausescu's government as recently as 1984, brought condemnation from Western governments when he summoned mine workers from outlying areas to Bucharest to help break up an anti-government protest. The miners beat protesters and ransacked the homes of two opposition party leaders, though the government later disavowed their excesses.
Following the miners' rampage, the European Community suspended work on a trade and economic cooperation package for Romania, and the United States said it would withhold all non-humanitarian aid. But Romania is a needy place, and few Western diplomats or relief agencies seem ready to close the aid spigot completely.
The representatives of relief organizations say they will work in Bucharest, but seem increasingly ready to talk tough to get the official cooperation they need. Aid officials, diplomats and Romanians themselves acknowledge that building the infrastructure and ethic needed to properly handle the 83,000 tons of supplies received from 47 countries since the revolution will be a long, hard task.