Oftentimes dubbed “the dark years of the AIDS epidemic” here, in the U.S., the eighties also marked a dark time in what was then my corner of the world, where most people were trying to survive what was to become the last gasp of an authoritarian regime that had grown more and more draconian.
But what happens when people are deprived of their freedoms? What happens when they are denied fundamental rights and facts? Or when their attempt at self-expression can lead to incarceration or death? How does one adapt to that kind of life?
One cannot comprehend what that means, until it happens to them. Thinking of it now and seeing it through the very long lens of time, I find that the best way to explain that kind of imprisonment would be to compare it to an enormous closet in which everybody is forced to live. It is a closet of the mind and soul. It’s a closet at first visited by occasional slivers of light and dominated by shadows. And those shadows become more extended, darker, and harsher with each passing year until there’s no trace of light left, until all the space inside that closet is filled with an absolute, seemingly impenetrable darkness. To survive, those trapped inside have no choice but to learn how to navigate it.
Dictatorships and autocracies are such dark closets, imprisoning minds, bodies, and souls, imprisoning thought. Life can be pretty bleak under such suffocating regimes. And although they’re a distant memory, I can still remember those days.
People were afraid to speak freely, fearful of being arrested (or worse), and, thus, unable to see their loved ones ever again. It was also common knowledge that some individuals were informants who infiltrated every layer of society; they could be anybody, including colleagues and the closest of friends. There was no question that they were ready to turn anybody and everybody in if the opportunity showed itself.
Women’s reproductive rights were nonexistent. Abortion was illegal for women between the ages of sixteen and forty-six. These women were referred to as “the herd,” as a nod to the fact that their bodies were suitable for reproduction. There were a lot of propaganda campaigns encouraging women to “make children for the Party.” Also, while abortion was illegal, contraceptives, even condoms, were nonexistent. If somehow, someone could get their hands on contraceptives on the black market, there was no way of knowing, for sure, if the contraceptives were the real thing, if they worked, or even if they were safe for the overall health of the women taking them.
Also, if caught, abortion providers were stripped of their medical licenses and sent to spend years in prison. The women seeking abortions were sent to prison, too. Hence, some abortions were performed on kitchen tables or, even worse, in dark, back alleys. And when doctors were not available or were afraid, for good reason, to perform abortions, women were forced to take matters into their own hands—use metal clothes hangers, ingest who knows what or seek the help of very questionable individuals. Many would end up in the hospital yet remain silent and deny any accusations of self-inflicted abortions to avoid trial and imprisonment. Thus, many women would die, leaving behind families, loved ones, and the children they already had.
Abortion, as illegal as it was, was the only form of birth control. There were no condoms, no pills, nothing of that sort. While the Party forced women into unwanted pregnancies and birthing unwanted children, it could not force them to love those children. Hence, the orphanages were packed to the brink with unwanted children resulting from unwanted yet forced pregnancies.
I’ve never set foot in an orphanage, but from the stories my mom told me, “heartbreaking” doesn’t come close to describing the horrors happening at that time, in those places. My mom was a doctor. She loved helping and healing people. She loved kids, too, and could chit-chat for hours in their kid language. That always fascinated me because I wouldn’t know what to do in such situations, especially when dealing with very young, very sick kids. But Mom knew just what to say and what to do to make their lives a little better.
Sometimes, children from orphanages would end up in the hospital where she worked. They would arrive frightened and unsure of what would happen to them. They would be sick and in pain, with no parent by their side, wary of being examined, no matter how kind the doctors and nurses. And they often wouldn’t speak since, in the orphanages, nobody would talk with them.
Mom would always ask me if I wanted to give them some of my toys and clothes, and I always did. And so did some of the nurses. Because these poor children needed much more than just medical care, they needed someone to tend to their bodies and souls. Usually, after spending a couple of weeks in the hospital, just about when they were feeling better, they would start to smile, talk, and learn how to be kids. And when forced to let them go and send them back to the orphanages, the healthcare workers would do so with teary eyes and broken hearts.
Years later, after the revolution of 1989, it was discovered that, while in orphanages, many children had been administered medications through shared needles. Many then teenage orphans tested positive for HIV. They had contracted the virus while growing up in those god-forsaken places.
Alina Oswald is the Managing Editor of A&U. Contact her online at alinaoswald.com.