In Bucharest, a notorious drug dealer managed to achieve something that neither the politicians nor the aid organisations could.

He built a shelter for the city's forgotten souls. Underground.

But he was arrested. And now those people are wandering around like lost souls.

Expressen's Magda Gad lived with them on the street.

They are the forgotten ones. They are the orphans. They are several generations of orphanage children and addicts, who never received any love above ground. Which is why they gravitated towards an underground kingdom of their own. And now their leader is gone and violence has taken over.  

 

 

The blonde woman in heels and a ponytail who parks her million dollar BMW is visible. The man buying a bouquet of red carnations from the flower shop on the corner is visible. The office workers who hurriedly disembark from the train, on their way home from work are visible.

But the boy who we will call Liviu is not visible.

He is sitting in the backyard of the forgotten souls. A concrete space surrounded by high stone walls.

Next to him is a bag of excrement and a mephedrone syringe, otherwise known as ‘legale’ – a cheap crappy drug from China that hurls you into another world. And you won’t know if it will turn out to be a dream world or a nightmare world until you get there.

”He was Romanian. He raped me at the market in Rahova.”

But it makes no difference to Liviu. He is already living a nightmare.  

“Life is ugly,” he says in a voice that sounds more like a whisper from the grave.

His entire hollow teenage body looks dead. His deathly black clothes hang from his frame, as if he had died long ago but was forced to remain, just because his heart was still beating.

Perhaps Liviu’s soul died when he was young, when his parents were buried. Perhaps it died when he was locked up in the orphanage, where he was beaten. Or perhaps it died when he was raped. At the age of 12.

“He was Romanian. He raped me at the market in Rahova,” he says and looks down towards the concrete with his dead eyes.

 

Romeo starts pacing around the backyard jumpily when Liviu begins to tell his story. His back is curved and one of his feet struggles to keep up. His hard gaze pierces out from two deep grooves in his weather-beaten face.

Stefan, 16, saw his mother murdered on the street right in front of him when he was 10. His father is dead. He finds comfort in drugs, which numb his feelings of loneliness and grief.
  • Stefan, 16, saw his mother murdered on the street right in front of him when he was 10. His father is dead. He finds comfort in drugs, which numb his feelings of loneliness and grief.
  • Nicu is 18 but looks like he is 12. He has AIDS and is stunted. Few believe he will survive the winter.
  • David is 16. His mother is dead and his father has relinquished custody. He ran away from the orphanage he was put into and takes drugs with the homeless on the street.
  • Costel, 17, is Roma and wants to become a manele singer. His father is dead and his mother has moved to England.

It is as if something flips inside of him when he hears about child suffering.

All he wants is to get high. On marijuana, mephedrone, heroin, cocaine – anything at all. Usually it is Aurolac, a metallic silver paint you sniff, which numbs everything you need it to numb. Hunger. Exhaustion. The cold. Loneliness. Anxiety.

"When Bruce Lee was here, the place was in good shape. Now it's chaos. Just shit and rubbish everywhere."

The inner walls of the backyard are lined with vacant remnants, trying to fill the emptiness inside themselves with something.

A small man with sunken cheeks and a shaggy beard has erected a sheet of cardboard in front of himself. He clings onto that rickety bit of privacy with his feet, drops his trousers and shoves a needle into his groin.

 

A Romany girl with a baseball cap pulled down over her short hair does not care about privacy. She is manically searching for a vein in a sore on her leg. Her parents are beggars and sent they her out to beg too. She hated it, ran away and ended up here.

There is a hole in the wall next to where she is sitting. It looks as though someone made it with a sledgehammer.  

There is a glimpse of a stale-smelling passageway beyond the hole, where a semi-naked figure can be seen squatting, like a wild animal, with a syringe in their mouth. That is the entrance to the world of the forgotten souls.

 

“When Bruce Lee was here, the place was in good shape. Now it’s chaos. Just shit and rubbish everywhere,” complains Romeo and kicks at another empty bottle.

Beyond the hole there are 20 small rooms, and 60 beds. There are 2 km of underground sewers, with more beds and a kitchen.

The forgotten ones could have built a door to their world, but instead they made a hole. If you have spent most of your life in the sewers, then you feel more comfortable with a hole than a door.

Roxana is not looking for security. What’s the point of finding security, when you just want to die. Since she found out she has HIV she no longer wants to live. Today, for the second time this week, she’s been assaulted. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

Romeo jumps up onto the edge of a blue concrete water tank in the corner of the backyard. In the past, it was filled with water and was used as a swimming pool. Now it is full of rubbish and used syringes.

The architect, drug dealer Bruce Lee, grew up in one of Romania’s most notorious orphanages during the Communist era. When Ceausescu was toppled in 1989, Bruce Lee got on a train to Bucharest and got off at Gara de Nord, the northern train station.

Here he created his underground kingdom. He gathered together other lost orphanage children and brought electricity in to the sewers, as well as stereos, disco lights, drugs, and a pack of dogs. Later even flat screen TVs and Internet.

"I've lived in the sewers since I was a child. I am the terminator.”

Everything that the people who did not receive love above ground needed below ground. He decorated the place with art he found at rubbish dumps, painted the walls pink, coloured his hair with Aurolac and dressed in leather, medals and chains.

He was called Bruce Lee because he was good at fighting, but his underground people called him Dad.

On his leg, he tattooed the words, “I’ve lived in the sewers since I was a child. I am the terminator. I am the only person who has managed to do anything for the homeless. I turn darkness into light.”

 

Bruce Lee was king of the underground for a quarter of a century. Now he and his closest men have been arrested for selling drugs and for organised crime. There was a police raid at the end of July, and all of the souls they found down there were pulled out of the sewers and evicted.

The homeless of Bucharest do not sleep ON the streets – they also sleep UNDER them. They have several entrances down into their subterranean world, where their leader Bruce Lee, created a kingdom for them.
  • The homeless of Bucharest do not sleep ON the streets – they also sleep UNDER them. They have several entrances down into their subterranean world, where their leader Bruce Lee, created a kingdom for them.
  • In the sewers below Bucharest, there is electricity, Internet, television, drugs and a small kitchen where you can prepare food.
  • Notorious drug dealer, Bruce Lee, built a homeless shelter – below the streets of Bucharest. He dresses in chains and sometimes colours his hair with Aurolac paint, which a lot of the homeless sniff. Now he has been arrested and the homeless no longer have a leader to keep them together.
  • A lot of the homeless share the same history – they grew up in orphanages during the Communist era, and ended up on the streets. Where they stayed.

Some say that Bruce Lee was arrested because an international television crew had been here filming, putting the city of Bucharest to shame.

Ever since Communism, Romania has been good at getting things to look good – on the surface. When there was no food in the shops, they displayed fake food in parades.

Today they say that there are homeless shelters. What they do not say is that intoxicated or HIV positive people are denied entry. 90% of the people who live in the sewers are HIV positive.

They say that there are orphanages for the orphans. What they do not say is that the children in these locked institutions are over-medicated, beaten and sexually abuse each other.

Liviu pulls himself up onto his weak legs and opens the black metal gate that leads out of the backyard. It is cloaked in blue and orange plastic, to make sure that no one can see in. Beyond it is the visible world, where life goes on as normal. It is a world that he will never be a part of.

It is starting to get dark.

“Will you be going back to the orphanage to sleep?” I ask.

He shakes his head. I never see him again.

 

Romeo also leaves through the gate. He walks down the street towards the brightly lit petrol station and turns left towards the grand station building. An EU gateway with rails leading out into Europe.

But Romeo is not going anywhere. He sits in McDonalds eating ice-cream.

The police have sex with them too. Without paying. That is what the girls and the mafia bloke pimping them out tell me.

He is 27, but looks as though he has lived several lives.

“Why did you start doing drugs?” I wonder.

“I was 22...” he begins, but falters.

Those hard eyes fill with tears. His body erupts into shakes. Between the sobs, he manages to tell me that he fell in love with an Austrian journalist and that they had a child.

The child died.

He fell between the cracks of society and never managed to get back up.  

“Life on the streets has become the norm for me,” he says and dries his face on the back of his hands.

He breathes. Sorts his face out. He has to put the survival mask back on.  

Outside, yellow cabs with chain-smoking, stressed out drivers jostle to overcharge the tourists. A short distance away, the prostitutes are lined up. The most broken of them are usually picked up by elegant Romanians in shiny new SUVs.

The police have sex with them too. Without paying. That is what the girls and the mafia bloke pimping them out tell me.

Carmen begs at the Obor Market in Bucharest. Her uncle, Ion, was born with a disability and does not have a wheelchair, so Carmen pushes him around on a skateboard. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

On the way back from the station building, Romeo walks past Stella, who is stretched out on her dirty mattress. Even when she is lying down, she has a spirited energy about her. Every item of clothing she owns is piled up beside her, together with a plastic container of food. She opens it up and eats from it with her hands. It smells rotten.

She has a prominent chin, her greying hair is scraped up into a bun on top of her head and her arms are full of self-harm razor scars.

Stella tries to stick to the methadone, but sometimes she just cannot stop herself from shooting up mephedrone.

“When I take it, I can walk alongside a stranger and feel everything that the person is feeling,” she explains.

Intimacy. A connection. Getting to be part of it.  

It never happens in reality. Her getting to be part of it. But hallucinating about it is better than nothing.

Stella was eleven the first time she took heroin. She is now 40. And has three children. One in Sweden, one in Norway and one in Romania, but she does not know where.

Now she has another problem. She gets up, grabs at the saggy flaps between her legs and repeats,

“Pharmacy, pharmacy.”

She wants sanitary towels.

"What stupid questions you are asking! She is here because she likes drugs. She is a high-class prostitute. She likes to get high and have sex.”

Darkness has descended upon the backyard. Standing in the middle of it is a stylish woman with a pushchair. She is wearing a beige designer jumper and white trousers. She has rings on her fingers and earrings in her ears.

In her pushchair, her two-year-old daughter is sucking enthusiastically on a dummy. Her wavy hair is as soft as a baby’s. All around her are sewer souls, sitting on the concrete injecting themselves. I turn to the woman and say,

“What does it feel like, coming here with your child?”

“Not good, but I need to buy my drugs,” she answers with a shrug.

“And when you get home and take your mephedrone, will you be able to look after your child?”

A man who moves like a boxer interrupts us and grabs hold of me.

“What stupid questions you are asking! She is here because she likes drugs. She is a high-class prostitute. She likes to get high and have sex. She got her husband to start dealing and now he’s in jail.”

I go out to talk to the woman. But a well-built man follows me and chases me off.

His back is tattooed. With a swastika.  

He is one of the two new bosses who have taken over the underworld after Bruce Lee. The other takes money from the forgotten souls and says he will give them drugs, but never does.

This one fights and rapes.

Before the raid, there was almost 80 injecting drug users living in the underground. Now just a third remain.

The rest float around like lost souls, searching for shelter and drugs. What was once a problem for Gara de Nord is now a problem for the whole of Bucharest. If they go into withdrawal or are conned into buying really poor quality drugs, they could get violent. Not only that, but the ambulance from Aras – an organisation that distributes clean needles and offers healthcare and testing – cannot find them, which could lead to a rampant spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.

Roxana chose to stay. She does not think she deserves security. What is the point of finding security, when you actually just want to die?

“Security?” she asks into thin air and shakes her head in bewilderment.

She acts like the university graduate she is, and is always well-dressed in a blouse or pale-striped blazer.

“Yes, don’t you want security?” I insist and try to meet her gaze.

She is lying on the tarmac, a short distance from the backyard. It looks as though someone has shoved her into the dirt and pummelled her face.

“I don’t want to live,” she says and looks away.

Ever since she found out she was HIV positive, she has wanted to die. She makes a face like she does not want anything to do with herself.

“My life is disgusting. I don’t want anything any more.”

Her legs are infected. She has to dig about in the flesh with the needle to take her mephedrone. When she needs money for drugs or food, or the madeleine cakes she likes so much, she begs by showing people her legs.

“You have very beautiful eyes,” I hear myself saying.

It is a worn-out cliché, but she really does have beautiful eyes.

“I was very pretty when I was young,” nods Roxana.

A few days later, she only has one eye. Her left one is smashed up.

She is lying on the tarmac, a short distance from the backyard. It looks as though someone has shoved her into the dirt and pummelled her face. She cowers when I ask her what happened.

“I woke up like this,” she manages, and contorts in black and blue agony.

She is too scared to tell me who attacked her.

A boy’s voice reverberates from the entrance stairs of Gara de Nord,

“My thoughts. All my thoughts go to you. And in my dreams, it’s only you, my love. I’d praise your love. With just one word. I’ve wronged but give me one more chance...”

Shirtless Costel is Romany and wants to become a Manele singer. Singing folk music about the beautiful things in life. He is 17 and grew up in an orphanage. He never had a father, his mother has moved to England and he does not know how she makes a living.

His friend Stefan rests his head on my shoulder. He is wearing a black beanie and is breathing into a black bag.

“Mummy, mummy? Will you be my mummy? I love you mummy...” he mumbles and leans in for a hug.

The bag contains Aurolac, an industrial paint. A hallucinogenic substance that dissolves the brain, destroys the lungs and can stop your heart in an instant.

At 18, Nicu is the oldest but looks the youngest. He has full-blown AIDS and is stunted. Few believe he will survive the winter.

Waif-like Stefan has a silver smudge on his cheek from the paint, he smells of chemicals and is grinding his teeth – the most common side effect of mephedrone. I get high just sitting next to him. My head spins, as if I had drunk far too much beer, far too quickly. I feel sick and my nose and mouth feel like they have been doused in petrol.  

“Where do you buy it?” I ask Costel, pointing at his Aurolac.

“At a bar in Luica, in Ferentari. 55 a bottle.”

Ferentari is Bucharest’s most dangerous neighbourhood.

“Why do you take it?”

“It makes you feel good. You see stuff. Like in dreams.”

I put my arms around Stefan, who continues to call me mummy.

“Where are your parents?”

“Dead,” he says and grabs my hand as if it were a lifesaver.

It is not until a week later that he works up the courage to tell me. His mother was murdered on the street, right in front of him. When he was ten.

Costel and Stefan hang out with a group of orphanage kids: Ionut, David and Nicu.

At 18, Nicu is the oldest but looks the youngest. He has full-blown AIDS and is stunted.

Few believe he will survive the winter.

Street children have no other alternatives in life than to choose between misery – and misery. The misery of being beaten in an orphanage, or the misery of living on the street. A lot of them choose the latter because it seems like more of a freedom, compared to being locked up in an institution.
  • Street children have no other alternatives in life than to choose between misery – and misery. The misery of being beaten in an orphanage, or the misery of living on the street. A lot of them choose the latter because it seems like more of a freedom, compared to being locked up in an institution.
  • David is 16. His mother is dead and his father has relinquished custody. He ran away from the orphanage he was put into and takes drugs with the homeless on the street.
  • Metallic paint Aurolac is sold to children in a bar, despite it being illegal to sell it like that. It dissolves the brain and destroys the inner organs.
  • The older and younger generation of orphanage children meet on the streets around the railway station.

Nobody knows how many forgotten souls there are, but it is estimated that there are about 1,100 homeless children in Bucharest, half of whom are on drugs.

Claudiu and Andrei do not take drugs. They hang out a few stations away, at Unirii, where there is another sewer system.

One evening they buy me pizza. They have made more than SEK 100 that day, from begging, and are feeling happy.

Andrei shoves a big slice of pizza into his mouth. He is 13 and has lived on the streets since he was six. Before that he lived in an orphanage in Ferentari, where the staff would beat him with planks of wood and steal the money that was meant for the children’s shoes and clothes.

“I ran away,” says Andrei, in his calm, mature way.

“But isn’t it dangerous, living on the streets?”

“Yes, it’s very hard. They kidnap street kids and remove their organs.”

I have to ask again, to check that I heard him right,

“They kidnap street kids and remove their organs?”

“Yeah.”

Tonight they will be sleeping next to a rubbish dump. When it starts getting cold, they crawl down into the sewer.

He tells me that three children have disappeared and that they have tried to kidnap him several times.

His information about children who have disappeared and had their organs harvested is confirmed in a New York Post article. Children have been abducted in Vietnam, Nigeria, China, Bangladesh – and Romania.

Another thing Andrei is scared of, is being abducted and used for violence pornography on the Internet.

“They take kids, lock them up and film them being raped,” he says.

Andrei and Claudiu’s dream is to save up SEK 880 from begging, so that they can rent a room for a month.

Tonight they will be sleeping next to a rubbish dump. When it starts getting cold, they crawl down into the sewer.

 

In another sewer, in another area, there is an illegal shooting room – a place you can go to inject yourself with drugs. They have everything, from beds to WiFi to puppies, down in the sewer. One wall has been wallpapered, the floor has been tiled and the ceiling is being renovated for winter.

In countries like Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Norway and Canada, there are legal shooting rooms, with healthcare staff who monitor the addicts. They have proven to reduce overdoses, reduce the spread of HIV and increase the number of people seeking treatment.

Romanian shooting rooms are run by drug dealers.

I’ve heard stories about police wrestling out addicts, dragging them into fields and holding dog fights with them. If they refuse to fight each other, then the police beat them.

And the only addiction treatment on offer is being checked into a psychiatric hospital, getting strapped down and being sedated on benzos. But in actual fact, you cannot even do that if you do not have an ID card, which you cannot apply for until you have an address.

"I've been offered SEK 1,100 by a woman who wants to buy it, but I want to keep it."

Pregnant Melinda quit heroin and mephedrone two weeks ago. She used another method.

“My husband beat me till I stopped.”

He is one of the two new bosses in Gara de Nord’s underworld. The one taking money from the forgotten souls.

When he ended up in jail once for domestic violence against Melinda, she turned up crying and begged them to release him.

They have six children. Their seven-month-old son has HIV and is hospitalised. Their two-year-old daughter lives on the street with Melinda and her husband. The other four are scattered about in orphanages and with her mother-in-law.

Melinda has AIDS, Hepatitis C and tuberculosis. She is pregnant with her seventh child.

“I’ve been offered SEK 1,100 by a woman who wants to buy it, but I want to keep it,” she says hoarsely and then coughs.

She moves and speaks like a woman who, just like a lioness in the jungle, would defend both herself and her cubs until the bitter end.

Just as long as the attacker is not her husband.

Life on the street is normal for Melinda. Everything here happens out in the open. Her and her husband's sex life, family quarrels, partying that gets out of hand.
  • Life on the street is normal for Melinda. Everything here happens out in the open. Her and her husband's sex life, family quarrels, partying that gets out of hand.
  • Melinda has AIDS, hepatitis C and tuberculosis – and her seventh child in her belly. She lives with her husband and one of their children under a bridge.
  • Melinda's home. She is looking forward to having another child – the one in her belly.
  • Life on the street is normal for Melinda. Everything here happens out in the open. Her and her husband's sex life, family quarrels, partying that gets out of hand.

It is midnight in the autumn, and being at the forgotten souls’ backyard is no longer possible. The souls lurk about like panicked dark creatures. It is like stepping into an inferno – where everyone is fed on bad mephedrone.

I find a place to sleep a few hundred metres away, under a bridge. Melinda approaches, rocking her baby, and takes her place just a short distance from me with her daughter. Little Giana’s head is shaved, because she had lice.

They eat yoghurt, lie down, cuddle up together and fall asleep. Apart from the cars passing by overhead and the street lamps shining down into their faces, they look like any other mother and baby.

A rat scuttles across me. Otherwise there are no disruptions. Until Melinda’s husband arrives.

Giana stirs restlessly, but does not wake up. She has never slept indoors. She is the next generation of forgotten souls and already knows the law of the street.

Bellowing and with a radio in his hand, he flops down right onto Melinda. He starts to eat, in his drunken state, but then lies down and starts dry-humping her. She is not in the mood, he starts screaming and they fight.

Eventually Melinda gives in and the cross the street, where he shags her. Afterwards she runs off to pee, lies back down and he starts late-night partying with another homeless person.

There are no doors on the street.

Giana stirs restlessly, but does not wake up. She has never slept indoors. She is the next generation of forgotten souls and already knows the law of the street. There is only one: survival.

Every week, a couple of souls fail at this. They are just the deaths that aid organisation Aras knows about. Around 100 a year, in Bucharest alone. That is three times the official statistic for the whole of Romania. The government cares about counting the forgotten souls. On the contrary. The more they neglect to count, the better the statistics they can present.

"The general public's attitude is that we are wasting money on nothing, that it is better to let these people die than to help them."

The only lifeline being cast into the forgotten souls’ world is the ambulance from Aras. When it arrives, the invisible souls come crawling out of the holes in the ground and are drawn to it like moths to a flame.

It is their only contact with the visible world. Here they can cry, show their wounds and get bandaged up. Without being judged.

Aras muddles on through thanks to foreign funding. Today they are able to hand out clean needles, but have no money for condoms. By New Year’s Eve, all support could have run out.

Coordinator Dan Popescu is fighting to change what everyone else wants to sweep away under the carpet. He talks, with frustration, about corruption and predatory capitalism, where everyone is grabbing what they can. But also about the general public’s unwillingness to help the addicts and homeless,

“The general public’s attitude is that we are wasting money on nothing, that it is better to let these people die than to help them.”

Translation: Laura Åkerblom
Interpreter and researcher: Madalina Botoran