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Romania: Sailors Stranded And Hungry In Foreign Ports

Bucharest, 17 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Rising concern over the fate of stranded Romanian seamen around the world has finally brought action from the authorities in Bucharest.

It's estimated that more than 10 percent of Romania's high seas merchant fleet of some 250 vessels is now impounded in far-flung foreign ports because of unpaid debts. According to media reports the debts and unpaid duties total more than $20 million, and in many cases exceed the value of the individual cargo ships involved.

In recent years, Romanians have become accustomed to hearing that yet another vessel has been impounded by port authorities in some harbour or other. Such routine news for a long period did not stir either officials or the public to any specific action. Ships at present are being held in China, Algeria, Greece, Spain and Britain.

However, the stories reaching home of the deprivations suffered by the dozens of sailors stuck overseas with their ships has gradually seeped into people's consciousness. The sailors have been stranded sometimes for more than a year, their wages unpaid, without food, water or electricity, before being repatriated.

Some of the sailors who managed to get home have spoken to the media. One of them is Adrian Butoianu, a baker aboard the vessel Feldioara. He said he was confined to his impounded ship for seven months in Istanbul until he was finally repatriated because of health problems. He said he had been ill and underweight for lack of food, and had often suffered from hunger, thirst and cold. He said the crew had neither lights nor money, and were reduced to begging for cash from the harbor agent who was dealing with the ship.

Butoianu said the crew ate a single meal a day, consisting of rice or stewed potatoes and dry bread. There was no doctor on board, and his colleagues became ill with hepatitis, ulcers or skin diseases.

Another sailor, Cristu Lupescu, was with the ship Harsova when it was detained almost a year ago in the British harbor of Newport. He came home after nine months, and is still angry at his employer. He said almost died of hunger on the vessel, and that he has received no salary since last year. Now he said, he's starving at home instead.

The problem came into focus last month, when wives of some of the stranded sailors went on a hunger strike to demand that their husbands be helped. Then earlier this month a breakthrough came, when the wives were received by Romanian President Emil Constantinescu at the Cotroceni Palace.

The President and the Government subsequently decided to start repatriation of all the Romanian sailors on the detained vessels, and to study the possibilities for paying the arrears of their wages. A sum of $50,000 has now been allocated for the repatriation of some 40 sailors confined on board their ships in inhuman conditions. The repatriation process is due to start immediately, authorities in Bucharest say.

It's also been reported that for the purpose of freeing the detained vessels themselves, the State Ownership Fund, at the request of the Transport Ministry, has allocated some $14 million.

The ships in question are owned by state Romanian enterprises like Navrom, Romline or Uzinexportimport, but in many cases are leased to private companies. There have been reports that unscrupulous businessmen are knowingly abandoning the vessels overseas, for instance after using them for a single profitable trip. Some politicians and officials are said to be involved, and this has led Constantinescu to denounce what he termed the "destroying of the Romanian flotilla for the profit of some adventurers". The Government has decided to start an inquiry into the situation, with the involvement of the Romanian intelligence services. "None of those found guilty will be spared", the President said.

But shipping experts say the basic problems of the Romanian commercial flotilla will not be solved by punishing some wayward businessmen or politicians. They say that only privatisation of the fleet will bring health to this sector of the economy.