Everyone is actually already dead. Their hearts are beating and they walk around among the rubbish and try to fight their demons, but actually they are already dead. It just takes some people longer and more suffering to get there. To the only guaranteed route out of Livezilor Alley. Death.
It is the same day that they stole the balcony. They took it down and sold it as scrap metal. 60 kilos for 65 bucks.
"Why the hell didn't you say you hadn't shot up in a while?"
"Suck my dick, you prick, how could you miss it?"
Marin swears in a panic. The heroin is rushing through his bloodstream but he is not able to relax with a cig like he usually does. The guy he is shooting up with has collapsed onto the bed, his face white and his lips blue.
With hands as practised as an A&E nurse, Marin finds a new syringe and fills it with citric salt and water.
His partner Ana holds the guy up with one arm. They have dragged him down onto the floor, slapped his face and splashed water on him. His lips are no longer blue, but he is shaking uncontrollably. His legs have folded beneath him, as if he was paralysed.
“Make sure he doesn’t collapse,” orders Marin.
Ana prods the guy’s cold forehead and chin, “Oi! Wake up. Come on, open your eyes.”
“And I wanted to give him a higher dose. Fuck him, he’s not going to die.”
Marin has been injecting heroin since he was 13. The neck is the last resort, when all the other veins are wrecked. If the needle goes into the wrong place in your neck, you die. Marin is out of it on heroin and Valium. His partner Ana and their son Antonio pass the time on the front steps. Antonio with his mother, Ana, who has never tried drugs. "I'm so done with this. Eight years and he still takes drugs," she says about Marin. Marin constantly feels bad about what he is doing to his five-year-old son, Antonio. "I don't want to inject in front of my child, but I can't control myself."
When Marin takes out his heroin Antonio, 5, gets stressed. He paces back and forth on the brown floral carpet.
He is already in hell. The address is Livezilor Alley, Ferentari, Sector 5, Bucharest.
A stinking alley with big fat rats that thrive in the flooded cellars and dilapidated five-story buildings that would even make their creator, former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, turn pale with fear. There are downpours of rubbish and needles falling from the darkened windows. Decaying human souls enslaved by their inner demons, Roma mafia and corrupt politicians. The children take drugs, have HIV and take their own lives.
When Marin came home to his 13 m2 ground floor flat and took out his heroin, his five-year-old son Antonio started pacing about on the brown floral carpet between the bed, bookcase and toilet door.
That is how Antonio usually reacts. He gets more active. Those five to ten times a day that this happens.
The powder that is poured out onto a bit of paper, the filter that is removed from a cigarette, rolled up into a little ball and placed over the needle, the burning beneath the snapped glass tube and the brown liquid that is sucked into the syringe... He is used to that.
That is not what gets him stressed. It is the change in Daddy’s behaviour.
Now that the claustrophobic room is sweaty with anxiety, screaming and bodies, Antonio huddles tensely into a ball. His face is red, he is mumbling to himself and he is fighting the urge to cry.
Marin leans over the guy on the floor and tries to see, in the muted daylight coming through the window. He finds the same vein as last time and injects the citric saline solution.
It dilutes the heroin. Marin gets a glass and forces water into his mouth, but it comes back out again, onto the wall. He drags him up into a standing position.
It works. The guy remains in hell.
“I’m the best damn doctor here!” rejoices Marin and lights a cig.
The resuscitated patient straightens his clothes and staggers out into the alley. He is about 20 years old, a university educated structural engineer, but runs a music studio. He has been taking heroin for over ten years. He hardly remembers why he began, when he was little more than a teenager.
“All my friends did it I guess,” he manages to say and disappears.
He is just one of the people who visits Marin’s neighbourhood for a refill.
Ana lies back down on the bed. There is mould growing up the patchy blue wall above the headboard. Antonio quietly creeps up beside her. Marin goes up to the workbench by the window, the sheer grey curtains are drawn, and starts all over again. Powder, pipe, burn, syringe. Among his tools are a knife and a teddy bear. He uses the mirror in the bathroom to inject himself in the neck. If he injects in the wrong place he will die. But he gets it right. Blood is drawn up into the syringe and mixes with the heroin. With a combined look of pleasure and pain, he injects it all.
When Marin has heroin at home. He takes it. Until it is all gone.
And today he told us that he has stolen a balcony and sold stolen shorts, so he has heroin. Unusually strong it is too.
"Are you alive?" He looks up with one eye. "Have you ever seen the devil die? Ha, ha!"
He goes outside and sits on the stone porch in the scorching sun. He hangs his head with his eyes shut. Gazing inwards into his own world. The soft opiate world. He has plump lips, dark eyebrows and his stubble frames his features. Beyond the broken, it is beautiful. After a while I give him a shove.
He looks up with one eye.
“Have you ever seen the devil die? Ha, ha!”
Marin is 27.
“How long do you think you will live if you carry on like this?”
“As long as God wants,” he answers as quick-witted as ever.
And then adds, “We’ll go to the barbers in a while. I need to get a haircut.”
On an identical porch across the street, Elena is sitting on a wooden pallet. Her face is a treasure map of wrinkles, her body is bony. She hopes God will not let her wait much longer.
She wants it to come now. Death.
Elena is 78. The only thing she regrets is not going to work at a bakery in Germany when she had the chance. Otherwise she does not feel that she has done anything stupid. She has worked at the canning factory and was a member of the Communist Party.
She stubs out her cigarette, picks up the pallet and, in her sandals with pink flowers on, she walks slowly back into her stairwell. It is so dusky that her steps are more audible than visible.
“Under Ceausescu, military staff lived here, so there was order. There were rose bushes between the buildings. Now it’s just the laziest, the poorest, the people who don’t want to work and the drug addicts who live here,” she hisses angrily, the way only she can.
She has written her name above the door with a marker pen. With a sad voice, she continues, “One day when I had been food shopping, I stood here with my key, about to unlock the door, and a gypsy came up and ripped my money out of my hands.”
Her flat is 13 m2, just like Marin’s. It is her old workers’ housing from the Communist era. Her bed is on the left and on the right is her coffin. Hanging on the bathroom door are the clothes she wants to be buried in. Along one of the walls is her gravestone. The last digit of her date of death is the only thing missing. 1936-201_.
Along the other wall are rows of clocks and dolls. Time. Loneliness.
She has no children, her husband is dead and so are all of her eight siblings.
With a shrewd smile she takes out a perfume bottle. It is not the scent that seduces, but the name, “Far Away”. Far away from Livezilor Alley.
When you want to say that something is far away in Rumanian, you say that it is “la mama naibii” – with the devil’s mother.
That is what the perfume smells like. Like the devil’s mother.
“Elena, what is it that will happen when you die?” I wonder.
“That’s when I get to heaven! Close to God, above the clouds!”
"I'm going to go there and work and find a woman. Might get married to a hot Swedish woman. A new life!"
A man we will call George also wants to go to heaven. He is one of Marin’s uncles. But his heaven is not close to God, above the clouds.
It is in Sweden.
“I’m going to go there and work and find a woman. Might get married to a hot Swedish woman. A new life!”
He stands outside the corner shop at the edge of Livezilor, surrounded by children who have not been fed and who want SEK 5 for chocolate. The few teeth he has left are golden brown. His stubble is grey, a red and green ink dragon curls around his bicep and there is a bandage wrapped around his swollen, black shin. Since George quit heroin, his blood does not want to flow properly.
He is 46 and has already looked for that new life in Italy, Germany and Spain. His buddies are now saying that Sweden is the place to go.
“There are so many people here who’ve been to Sweden but they aren’t going to tell you what they did there, that they’ve been there stealing.”
“What are you going to do in Sweden?” I ask.
“I’m going to steal! I would never beg, I want to work or steal. And meet women, there are a lot of single women there, that’s what my friends have said.”
“They might be single because they want to be.”
“No, no. They are single because there aren’t any real men in Sweden!”
He laughs scratchily and wonders whether he can move into my apartment in Stockholm.
“If you and I were together in Sweden, you could help me get new teeth.”
A man and a woman hear us chatting and stop in the street. They have a young son and are married, both to each other and to the heroin. The woman, who looks like she could snap in half, scratches at a wound on her leg with her nails, and raises her chin, “We’ve been to Stockholm and stolen. We drove on the off-chance, stole wallets and hoped to find money in them. It went well. Could get SEK 3,000 in one day.”
A lot of the residents of Livezilor are addicts. The man staggering off on his crutches has just injected heroin, surrounded by rubbish. The Roma are still over-represented in the various ghettos in Ferentari, but Livezilor Alley is an ethnic mix. Among the rubbish lying around everywhere are loads of used needles. Some people send their children out to collect them, and then swap them for new ones through the needle exchange programme. 33% of people living in Livezilor admit they throw rubbish out of the window.
Even after they had paid protection money, the earnings were decent. The other method is to first see how much money people have in their wallets, by keeping an eye on them when they pay for something. George puffs out his chest, so the tiger on his t-shirt is staring at me, “Being a thief is a profession that requires skill. And I don’t steal from poor people, I just take mobiles from people who look like they can buy new ones.”
“But a lot of people have photos in their mobiles. Perhaps pictures of their children, which can’t be replaced. And all their telephone numbers. Don’t you think about that?”
“Nah, you don’t think about stuff like that. Stealing is like sex, when you’re doing it you don’t think about anything else.”
George has already saved up for the petrol. He is going to Stockholm in a BMW with his mate, who we will call Robert. His entire body smiles when he talks about it.
“First, we’re going to spend a few weeks in Germany, stealing, and meet a Romanian who works in a nightclub there. Then we’re going to Sweden!”
Robert the thief has the ability to always slip away. You see him standing on the street or sitting in his car and the next minute he is gone.
One afternoon, he picks up a girl with cats’ eyes and her hair pulled back into a ponytail to go stealing in town. He has a reputation for being the best at it in the entire ghetto. One evening, he is drunk and wants to kiss me.
But one morning, when the skies are an innocent shade of pale blue, he’s just leaning against the railing outside Elena’s door in striped turquoise shorts and a white YSL vest. His head and cheeks are shaved, his eyes are scrutinising, narrow lines. He draws on a cig and talks about the trips to Stockholm.
“The first time, I stayed in a tent. Last time, in a hotel at Mariatorget.”
“What? But that’s really expensive, you can’t afford that,” I burst out.
“Ha, ha, yep...”
“So you didn’t steal then?”
“I stole to pay for it, and you can steal a lot of money in Sweden.”
Robert inhales the last of his cig and throws it away.
“Why Sweden?” I wonder, curiously.
“We go where we hear things are good. Spain, Germany, Austria... Now Sweden’s good. Swedish people are kind, have money and the punishments are mild. And they have nice prisons.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve spent four months in prison in Sweden. It was good, better than living here.”
He nods his head towards the spooky concrete and the desperate addicts searching through the rotting rubbish that covers the ground for things to sell. If they do not find anything, they might pick up other people’s old needles, scrape together the leftovers and inject it. An explosive lucky dip of drugs, HIV and hepatitis.
"Mariatorget's good because young women go there in the evening and get drunk, so it's easy to take their mobiles"
Others send their children out to collect used syringes. They can swap them for new ones through the needle exchange programme. New needles are a currency here.
A guy with a long knife in the back pocket of his jeans shorts climbs out of a taxi and pays the driver in needles. He moves about nervously. A few nights ago he stabbed his knife through a man's stomach. Now he is worried that the police will come and get him.
The sunshine pokes Robert in his sleepy face. He frowns, and his eyes grow even smaller. I step a bit closer and ask, "You said that Swedish people are kind, what did you mean by that?"
"If they catch you with your hand in their bag, you can talk to them and explain why you steal, and then they understand."
"And why did you stay at Mariatorget?"
"Mariatorget's good because young women go there in the evening and get drunk, so it's easy to take their mobiles."
This time, he and George will be meeting up with two of Marin’s acquaintances who have “established themselves” there.
“They have an ATM business. They watch people enter their pin code and then steal their cards.”
“But the people who beg in Stockholm, who are they?”
“They’re people who aren’t intellectual, but they are streetwise and they earn their money that way. By begging, or begging and stealing.”
Robert stretches, and is about to slip off again, but he wants to know something first, “Why do Swedish people walk around with bags of vodka bottles in the middle of the day?”
At a carwash near Livezilor, addicts can wash cars and get paid in heroin
Marin dozed off slightly at the barber shop, beneath scissors and blades, rocked to sleep by his heroin. But now he is trimmed and shaved. A relative is getting married next week and he wants to look tidy for the wedding. He has promised me that there will be a big street party.
“You’ll have to take it easy Magda, otherwise you’ll end up taking cocaine with us!” he laughs loudly at me.
He jumps onto the tram into town to do his job. “Free shopping” he calls it. It is 32oC outside and even more baking inside the overcrowded carriage. In Bucharest, people have been complaining that the trams still lack air conditioning, despite reminders from the authorities.
Outside, Ferentari rolls past, the neighbourhood that Livezilor Alley is part of. Notorious for being the most dangerous in Bucharest.
Round every corner there are depressing high rises and carwashes, a business that seems to work well with the hard up. But people with knowledge of the industry say that these carwashes are also mafia money laundering operations – that this is where they launder their organised crime money, through a 90oC white wash.
At a carwash near Livezilor, addicts can wash cars and get paid in heroin. One addict who has done just that tells us that the owner drives a black Mercedes with tinted windows.
The Mayor of Bucharest was arrested on charges of corruption, and according to Centrul de Investigatii Media, his driver has been charged with drug trafficking. The driver's wife also owns a carwash that washes the city's police cars and at the same time is suspected of having ties with the feared Camataru mafia.
I wake Marin up once the tram has shaken its way to Unirii, a gigantic roundabout where neon signs, bearing names like Zara, Bershka and H&M, lure customers with a bit of glamour amidst all the Eastern Bloc greyness.
“I can lay down there and sleep,” yawns Marin, pointing at a patch of grass next to the tarmac.
“Have you taken more than usual today?”
“Yes, I bought almost 500 bucks worth. I’ve probably taken nine doses.”
He does his usual round of the shops. Tries on jeans in the changing rooms and keeps an eye on the security guards. He has a small knife in pocket of his shorts, for the alarm.
“This is not a good time, between 1 and 2 pm is best, that’s when the guards change shift,” complains Marin.
It is now 6 pm.
Everything has been delayed by the volume of heroin and the overdose.
If you are going to steal in Rumania, you have to stick to your plan. The risk is too high to be careless – you can get three years’ in prison for stealing a Snickers.
When, one evening over dinner, I tell a university educated man about sentencing classification in Sweden, he admits, “Do you know what my first thought was, when you told me that? I thought, ‘Why don’t I go to Sweden and steal?’”
“Wouldn’t you feel bad about that, though?”
“Magda, I’m Rumanian. We grew up like this, it’s about survival. Taking what we can.”
Another day, we talk about all of the mayors who have been arrested for corruption, and the Prime Minister who is being investigated for fraud, tax evasion and money laundering. The man questions this, rebelliously, “How are people expected to be better than their leaders? The worst thieves in this country are the politicians. Give me a billion Euros and I’ll open the world’s first prison for politicians. That’s the only thing that can save this country.”
A doctor in Ferentari earns SEK 3,000 a month and receives bribes from the patients, just to put food on the table – the Mayor of Ferentari was arrested on charges of corruption and, according to Romanian newspapers, is suspected of having acceped €90 million in bribes.
When I bring this up with Marin, who is standing trying on sunglasses in a discount shop, he turns to me in aviator glasses, "They found all those millions in the Mayor's house, and what's he done for us? He put out a couple of fucking rubbish containers. If I was to go up to his office and ask for help with something, they'd throw me out."
He shoves the shades up onto his forehead.
"I got 65 bucks from a campaign worker for voting for the President, he hasn't done anything for us either."
Seconds later, Marin has left the shop. With five pairs of sunglasses in his hand. He needs money for his evening fix too. Otherwise he will wake up at five, crippled with pain and feeling sick.
Marin is Roma. Ferentari has had Bucharest's highest concentration of Roma people since the 19th century.
They are still over-represented in the various ghettos around here, but Livezilor Alley is an ethnic mix. Here the people are low income, unemployed, widows, pensioners, handicapped, addicts, mentally ill, homosexual, immigrants, criminal and prostitutes.
The factories in the area were closed down after the revolution in 1989 and a lot of the workers' and military housing was vacated, so the social outcasts occupied the flats.
Marin has lived here since he was eight.
"If I could, I would give all the poor people a week of living like the rich people, so they could feel what it was like," he dreams longingly and pours out two doses of his brown powder onto a bit of paper.
His neighbour stands beside him, impatiently flexing his prison-tattooed arms. His body is angular.
“I’ve been to prison in loads of countries. England was best. I’d like to go to prison in Sweden too, it’s probably even better,” says the neighbour.
"Eight years and he still takes drugs. But he is my first and only love."
The teddy bear is lying on its back on the workbench. Five-year-old Antonio never touches it. He is now sitting on the edge of the bed in his underpants, with clenched fists and a clenched jaw. Ana is lying down, at the bottom of the bed, with one arm across her eyes. She hides her tears. She suddenly roars at Marin, “Switch the telly on for Antonio!”
First she says that she is sad because she has not had any coffee. Then she says she is tired of it all.
“I’m so done with this. Eight years and he still takes drugs. But he’s my first and only love. I was a virgin when we met.”
Ana is 26 and has never tried drugs.
The two syringes are filled. Marin jabs the first one into the neighbour’s arm and empties it. Then he goes into the bathroom and jabs the other one into his neck. There is a bowl of laundry on the floor. He put it there to soak this morning.
When he comes back into the room he moves with a new energy. As long as he does not take too much, the heroin is an upper for him.
He goes out onto the steps for a smoke. Elena is sitting in the same place as always, on the steps across the street. She is smoking too. She does not want to smoke indoors, because the coffin is in there.
Marin’s uncle, George, and Robert the thief are further down the alley. It will not be long now, till they leave for Stockholm.
But first there is the wedding.
Then they will leave.
Away from the ghetto.
There are teenagers in Livezilor that began taking heroin when they were eight
Almost all the girls who grow up in the ghetto start selling sex, and nine out of ten guys end up in prison, according to a human rights activist who works on the street.
Like all the other men, Marin has knife scars on his arms and stomach. Self harm scars. He got beaten up in prison, and cut himself to get into the infirmary. He got three years for trafficking five grams of heroin, which he claims was for personal use.
He got clean inside. But as soon as he got out, his blood brother was waiting for him in the ghetto – the heroin he has been injecting since he was 13.
A lot of children are not allowed inside this building. This is where most of the drug deals take place. But the children who live here are not exempt. Mariana Roberta, 6 years old Livezilor is considered one of the most dangerous urban areas in the world. Children who grow up here have the odds stacked against them. Most fall into the same social exclusion as their parents. The girl in the picture is Rebecca, 4 years old. David, 5 years old.
One day, a young man came cycling through the alley. Marin’s cousin, Adi. He has curly hair, shaved into a Mohawk, and a calm face. He was the person who gave Marin his first ever dose of heroin.
Adi lives in Belgium, cleaning bars. He has come over for the wedding.
“How does it feel to be the one who gave Marin his first dose of heroin?”
“It doesn’t feel great, really. But if I hadn’t done it, someone else would have. Everyone in our gang was using.”
Marin says that he had already quit school by then.
“My teacher told my mum, ‘He’s stupid, take him to a special needs school.’ So I quit.”
At home, things were not much better.
"If I didn't come home with money, they made me sleep outside."
He ran away and moved in with one of his uncles, who was good at boxing and a clan member. When Marin began using and stealing, he helped his parents financially. His mother said that if he could not make money any other way, then he could sell drugs. Then when he ended up in jail, she did not help him with Ana and Antonio. He felt betrayed.
“When I got out, they had lice and Antonio didn’t recognise me.”
Today his mother, sister and brother-in-law live in Spain. I ask what they do.
“What can they do? They steal! My sister and her husband went there to steal, and Mum followed them to look after their kids.”
Marin grabs a mop bucket and leaves with his cousin. They have to get the wedding venue ready for a party.
The bride's ruffled dress fills half the courtyard. No one seems happy.
The wedding day is chaotic and sad. The groom’s father died of a heart attack the night before. Eventually the family decide to hold the wedding anyway, as it would be a bad financial decision to cancel.
Marin paces about his tiny flat wearing Ana’s floral sandals, his face contorted and his hands clutching at his stomach. That cocaine he warned me I would take if I was not careful, he took it. Mixed it with heroin, and injected it. His throat is painfully dry and he has vomited.
Ana has put on her make up but does not want to go anywhere any more. She is angry because Marin has not organised a wedding outfit for Antonio. He has borrowed a couple of shirts, but she does not like them.
“All the other kids will be wearing nice outfits. We can’t arrive like this.”
The immediate family parade along the alley with the groom. The women’s heels are higher than 10 cm, the dresses are pink, red and golden creations. They stop outside the detached house of a family member, a few streets away. They have several houses. Marin is not allowed to live in them because he takes drugs.
Out in the street, Champagne is being poured over smouldering dry ice. Two men, who are both taller and broader than everyone else, stand facing the crowd with expressionless faces. One has the same sort of shoulder bag that plain-clothed Balkan police officers keep their guns in. Men with fiddles, accordions, pianos, drums and clarinets play manele – Roma folk music.
The bride comes out, with flowing black hair and wearing a white princess wedding dress with ruffles that fill half the courtyard. She is seated on a chair and a manele singer sets the tone.
There is dancing, eating and drinking. People shower the singer with large banknotes. You have to look like you have money, even if you do not.
No one seems happy.
The next morning, the groom’s father is on display in an open casket.
Autumn has arrived in Livezilor Alley. Marin and Ana are curled up under a blanket, watching television. They have made egg sandwiches. Antonio is playing with a plastic bow and arrow.
Marin sits up slightly and says that he has seen a show that Rumanian television made in Sweden.
“You’re the ones who are racist and are discriminating Roma people,” he accuses me.
“What do you mean?”
“The Swedes in the show talked about us like we were all beggars. We’re not. There are loads who work and have their own company and do all sorts of things.”
I go out for a walk with a guy called Larry. He has tuberculosis and I usually accompany him to the hospital for his daily antibiotics injection. I ask him what it is like to be Roma here.
“I’m proud because I’m a gypsy,” he says in his lighthearted voice.
He has lived here all his life. His wife got him started on heroin, but that is over now. Both with the wife and the heroin.
Larry had a construction job that paid well, but now he cannot work because of the tuberculosis.
He believes that everyone has it just as bad here, regardless of ethnicity.
“What’s good about Livezilor?”
“Nothing. Friends steal and deceive each other.”
“What will happen to the children?”
“Same thing as their parents.”
Livezilor Alley transforms every evening. It is like life is upside down here. Sleepy during the day. Noisiest at midnight.
One evening, tables have been set up out in the street. People are drinking. Robert the thief is standing next to his car, distraught. At first I do not understand why.
Then I get it. He has taped a photograph onto the windscreen of his car and one onto the rear windscreen.
It is the same photograph. A photo of Marin’s uncle, George. Underneath he has written, “We’ll never forget you.”
George never made it to Stockholm. The blood did not want to flow any more. It clotted up and sent him off down the only guaranteed route out of the ghetto. Death.
Marin gives me a memorial beer.
“Have this. In memory.”
“I don’t drink.”
It is time for me to leave Livezilor. The hell that turned out to be a place where you share your life with everyone, with no room for façades or closed doors. Leaving this place no longer feels straightforward.
I go over to Elena and tell her that I am leaving.
"Good," she mutters and stubs out her cigarette.
"Why is that good?"
She gazes silently out over the dilapidated buildings. The ones she never left when she had the chance. She gets up and picks up her pallet to go in to her coffin.
“What are you going to do here? There is nothing here for you. I would leave this place too if I could. This is a place for the living dead.”
Translator: Laura Åkerblom
Interpreter and researcher: Madalina Botoran