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Ear to the Ground

A Grim Existence in the Sewers of Eastern Europe

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Posted on May 22, 2014

Photo by Deb Stgo (CC BY 2.0)

Beneath Bucharest’s ornate architecture, Baroque palaces and tree-lined boulevards lies a decades-old city of suffering made of filth, frigid temperatures, addiction and disease.

The society of outcasts is the focus of a new film by Channel 4 News correspondents Paraic O’Brien, Jim Wickens and Radu Ciorniciuc, as well as a stunning, must-see photo essay by The Daily Mail’s Matthew Blake and others.

When the ruling Ceausescus were executed in 1989 and the government changed hands, tens of thousands of children were placed in orphanages and “state care” in Romania. The Mail states that investigative reports shortly thereafter revealed “scenes of neglect and cruelty … reminiscent of concentration camps.” A number of those children, the story goes, moved into the tunnels beneath Bucharest.

Reporters with The Daily Mail were granted access to the tunnels by the head of the community, a man who calls himself Bruce Lee.

The Daily Mail reports:

It’s the heat that hits you first. These old tunnels were part of Ceausescu grand design to centrally heat the city. Then the smell, a metallic paint called Aurolac, snorted by the addicts from small black bags. Next up the music. 

The whole place is wired with electricity, there’s a stereo system pumping out dance music. If they had a club night in Hell it would feel like this. We’re in the first chamber; they call it The Office. You try not to gawp. 

Out of the corner of your eye, a woman with a syringe between her legs; a little boy stares at you with the Aurolac bag at his mouth, pumping slowly, like a black heart. Everyone here is HIV positive, a quarter have TB.

Lee took the name from his “street fighting days.” He tries to offer people—including the sexually vulnerable—someplace to sleep that is comparatively safe and warm. He pays a local gang for protection using money he makes dealing drugs.

“Most of the people here are from the orphanages,” he told the Mail. “I tried to organise them. We want to prove that we are not like what they believe, the scum of society, rats or prisoners, or whatever. The system doesn’t look after them. They come to me, for food, warmth, parental advice, understanding. We are a family, we want to be a family here, and that’s what we are.”

Where he is not naked, Lee is covered in thick chains, padlocks, badges, medals and scraps of cloth. Tattoos compete for space on his body with scars that display his history of self-mutilation. He introduced the Mail reporters to a boy named Nico, saying: “He’s my child, I adopted him off the streets. He had many problems, drugs, you name it. I banned him from using syringes, only Aurolac. But I did that too late.” Dogs scampered through the cramped tunnels as the group talked.

Nico told the reporters: “Bruce was the one who visited me in hospital every day. He brought me money and juice and sweets. Along with Mrs. Raluca, here where I now live. They were the only ones.” The Mail writes: “Nico desperately needs anti-viral treatment but the state hospital can’t treat him whilst he is still sniffing paint.”

Read more and see photographs from the report here.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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