- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

BANGUI, Central African Republic About 100 Romanians live marooned in space and time in the Central African Republic, an impoverished former French colony of 3.5 million people.
They arrived in the 1970s and '80s because of a cozy relationship between this country's self-proclaimed "emperor," Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who crowned himself in 1977, and another dictator, Romania's Nikolai Ceausescu.
Stranded since the unraveling of communist Romania in December 1989, some have little notion of the dramatic changes at home.
Mr. Bokassa a former soldier in the French army who fought in World War II, Indochina in the 1950s and France's Algerian war started courting Romania's favor in the 1970s, giving Mr. Ceausescu diamonds in return for promises of technical assistance.
He sealed their friendship in 1973 by marrying a Romanian dancer, Gabriella Drimba, whom he spotted performing in Bucharest and brought to his palm-tree-lined capital, Bangui.
While his wife languished in a luxury palace Mr. Bokassa had built for her, the leader forged ahead on ventures with his European partner.
Romanian lecturers taught at Bangui University. The police force was whisked off for training in Bucharest. Carombois, a forestry company formed by the two countries, stripped the bush of hardwoods for shipment to Europe.
Central African students sent to study in Romania sometimes married Romanian women, bringing them back to Bangui.
"For weeks, I couldn't eat the food my husband's family ate. I lived off fruit but I was in love," the honorary consul of Romania remembers of her arrival in Bangui.
During the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union vied for influence across Africa, the Central African Republic was never short of suitors, thanks to its strategic location at the heart of the continent and to its abundance of natural resources.
The Russians descended on Bangui in the '70s, erecting a 10-story Soviet Embassy. The North Koreans built the national parliament building.
Even today, China is helping the ruling party of President Ange-Felix Patasse, who survived two coup attempts last year, in the upcoming local elections.
After the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe and the execution of Mr. Ceausescu and his wife on Christmas Day 1989, the Central African Republic stopped cooperating with Romania.
But a close-knit community of Romanians stayed in the country. Some opened businesses, such as a furniture store and computer-repair shop, or got jobs in a local hotel.
Alexia Lei, an engineer from Bucharest, has been reduced to running a brothel what she calls her "little job" in a small villa behind dirty nylon curtains that do little to ease the stinking heat.
"We live in the same conditions as Central African women. We solve our problems in the same way as many women here do," Mrs. Lei said.
Polly Strong, a missionary from the United States, said that "to return often meant leaving their children behind. These women were torn." The dilemma led several Romanian women to suicide, while others turned to alcohol.
Some cannot imagine life in a free Romania. "The secret police made us live in fear. My family were questioned while I was here," said one Romanian.
In the '90s, the Romanians had the means to leave, but the Central African Republic's slipping economy means many can no longer save enough money for an airline ticket out.
France's withdrawal of assistance to the government wages of its former colony after a decision to disengage from Africa means civil servants rarely get paid.
Romanians in the limping private sector are paid the same pittance about $100 a month as the Central Africans.
Denise Cristodor came to the Central African Republic with her husband in the 1970s, compelled by images of the Biafra war in Nigeria, to set up an orphanage. Today, she is an accountant in a supermarket, hoping one day she will be able to buy a ticket to return home.
"It's as hard for us to go to Romania as it is for a Central African. We also don't know what we will find when we get there," she said.


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