By Bogdan Cristel
RAST, Romania, Apr 23 (Reuters) Hundreds of Romanians celebrated Orthodox Easter in a field of tents outside their flood-stricken village today, waiting to find out if they will ever return to their homes.
A poor village in southwestern Romania, Rast suffered some of the worst damage in the floods which have ravaged the Balkans as melting snow and heavy rains swelled the Danube river to record highs.
Muddy waters which poured over dams upstream from Rast have submerged hundreds of houses and forced villagers to take refuge in tents set up by the army and the Red Cross on higher ground.
''It's Easter and I am sure Jesus will help us, so we don't lose hope,'' said Maria Vadu, as she struggled to shelter a candle in her hand from gusts of wind and walked towards a military tent she shares with several other residents.
Flames flickered in the hands of dozens of other villagers as they left mass in the early hours, fulfilling the Orthodox Christian custom of lighting candles from an altar light to symbolise the resurrection of Christ.
Later in the day, villagers held festive meals among tents, surrounded by bedding drying in the sunlight, farm animals tied to posts and dozens of dogs. Many have lost hope of returning to the village.
''I would have liked for the water to come dashing into the village and drown me. I have nothing left,'' said Constantin Bistriteanu, 54, sitting at a table near his family's Red Cross tent.
Romania, which wants to enter the European Union next year, is preparing for millions of euros of losses from the floods, which forced as many as 7,000 people out of their homes, swamped 400 kilometres of roads and submerged more than 70,000 hectares of land.
Sixteen years after the fall of communism, the Black Sea country has made less progress than many of its former Soviet bloc peers due to slow reforms and corruption. Poverty is particularly dire in rural areas such as Rast, where pensioners bring home often less than 50 euros a month.
Local officials say water levels have not yet started to recede in Rast, although they have fallen in some other parts of Romania, a country of 22 million.
''We will decide tomorrow if the villagers can go back to Rast or whether they will go elsewhere,'' said Nicolae Giugea, a local official.
But some villagers, such as Stefan Butu, a 44-year-old mechanic who was laid off a few years ago, prepared to move on.
''I hope a new village will be built instead of this camp, the old village is filled with dead dogs and birds,'' Butu said.
''I hope it happens soon. I worry about school for my children,'' said the father of two.
REUTERS SHB BST2148