Police Raid on Canal that housed the homeless in Bucharest, Romania

My initial response to VICE’s headline “Romania’s ‘Sewer People’ Have Been Raided by Police” was of slight disgust, with a feeling of dread in my stomach as I opened the link. This is a topic that is close to my heart; I lived in Romania for seven years, seeing these people on an almost daily basis when travelling across the city. They intrigued me so much that last year I did my MA research with them. I was working with a charity that strives to help the people by supporting them, taking off from where they are. Many of the people live, have lived, or know someone that lives or has lived in the canal this article writes about. Every time I see an article regarding this topic (such as this, this, or even this) I wonder who’s picture I am going to see; whether it’s of them smiling, crying, or using. It all depends on the kind of image the article is trying to portray. What’s often forgotten is that these are people. PEOPLE. They have dreams and hopes and emotions, and experiences that shape them, that make them who they are: a multi-faceted human being that is more than just one of the ‘sewer people’.

I’ve written before about the canal that was recently raided by the police here, here, and here and have experienced the heat that is down there first hand. I’ve seen the dilated pupils and syringes lying around and sticking out of peoples’ bodies. What I also saw was friendship, laughter, tears, and community. People spending their last dime on their pet dogs and cats rather than buying food for themselves. Sharing the little that they have with their street family, because that’s all they have, yet the media demonises them for their lives.

This article made me cringe, not from the way it was written, but from it’s content.

They even say that arresting the “suspected ringleader” Bruce Lee is “likely to do little for the Bucharest’s people of the tunnels”. Yes, he is the ringleader, yes he is probably part of a drug selling ring, but he’s also a father to many of the children living in the sewer. He makes sure people get money for medicine and food; shares water and other materials. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be arrested, I’m sure there’s reason for his arrest, but it all could have been thought out a bit better…Where are all the people going to go?

Dan Popescu, the leader of Aras (a needle exchange programme in Bucharest), makes some very excellent points when asked what difference the arrest of Bruce Lee will make.

  • Bucharest’s homeless shelters don’t have capacity to take on 70-80 more people.
  • Drug addicts will go through withdrawal in the next couple of days without drugs.
  • They will migrate to other areas of the city to get these drugs causing the problem that was more or less confined to the Gara de Nord to spread across the whole city.
  • The arrest should have been more carefully planned and thought through.

I also found this article about the same story through Channel4. First, I’d like to say: well done on getting the house built! It’s not really a ‘shack’ and is actually  more like a bottom-up homeless shelter…but you know whatever. I remember there being talk about building this when I was there last year, so it’s great to hear that they got the house built. It’s sad that they achieved all of this just to see it being raided by the police.

Although the way Bucharest’s people experiencing homelessness are portrayed in the media generally make me angry, statements such as “The tunnels were a destination for people looking to buy synthetic heroin substitutes and to inhale the fumes of a metallic paint called aurolac” really piss me off. That’s not all the tunnels are! Could people at least attempt to see things from a different perspective?!

“Bruce Lee may be imprisoned – but another gang lord was bound to take his place.” Well, yes. Well done on imprisoning the guy that actually made life on the streets of Bucharest more bearable for many. Well done on letting the time from before him come back when there was a constant battle for who would be the leader, the person in charge.

All in all, this could have all been thought out a bit better. Announcing the raid to the media and then having the police and gendarmerie showing up in large numbers to arrest the drug dealers wasn’t necessarily the best way of going about this problem. But at least this means the state acknowledges that this population exists, and that they’re at least trying to have an impact…let’s just think of the people the next time we do that, shall we?

How to get from the (Buharest-Athens) bus station to the city centre in Athens…or how not to do it.

Let me start off with saying that you should bring good shoes if you try to do what I did in Athens. I didn’t wear my hiking boots, so I got blisters. It’s my own fault.

Anyway.

I arrived somewhere in Athens at around 8 o’clock in the morning. I had no idea where I was. I just knew, I didn’t want to take a taxi to the city centre. I’m sure there’s a bus to somewhere. I set off to find a bus station, which I do very quickly. After waiting for a while and witnessing some funny secret cigarette sales the bus arrives. I, being as stupid as I am, got on to buy a ticket, but was told I had to get it at the kiosk. Of course. Whatever, I’m not going to wait another 15 minutes for the next bus to come, so I shoulder my backpack and start walking to where the bus took off.

If I walk along the bus stops I’ll get to where I have to go, right?

Yea, if I would actually follow the bus stops…
Somehow, I lost them…I don’t know how. But I followed the road signs to a square that was actually on the map in my little “South Eastern Europe” guidebook.

Inevitably, I got quite lost…looking up all sorts of streets I suddenly saw something that looked like it would be a large square. I walk towards it, and lo and behold there was a large square filled with cars, mopeds and tired pedestrians.

There was even a metro station!

I skip down the steps to the metro station, because I still had no idea where I was. After consulting my trusty map and the metro stations I conclude that I was one station away from the city centre.

Despite carrying a 10kg pack and my little backpack converted to a frontpack-with my water, passport and money in it-I decide that it’s not far enough to pay the E1,40 ticket. I head back to the square and go to look for the street I need to take. After a short couple of minutes of looking around I find it and am on my way to the Acropolis. It wasn’t until I had the first ruins infront of me that I realized that I was smack in the centre of Athens.

So to conclude…I could’ve just taken a bus that would have dropped me off exactly here, but I decided to spend quite a long time walking, searching and getting lost in this city with a 10kg backpack. I still think I made the right choice.

Europe’s most Illuminated Gutter (Part 3: Drugs)

One thing that I could not get around in my interviews (even if I didn’t ask about it) was drugs and drug usage on the streets. This is definitely a very important topic when discussing homelessness.

In my last post I quickly talked about Aurolac and how it used to be the spitting image of children who were homeless in Romania. I think this image is still upheld, despite the shift in drug usage among children, youths and adults who are homeless. People are still seen to sniff out of black plastic bags, but the more prevalent and dangerous drugs they are using now are what they call legal drugs. Nobody really knows what they are, but they are some bio pharmaceutics that can be legally bought over the counter at pharmacies once you reach the age of 18.

The major problem with this drug usage is that you need syringes to get high. Now, because many of these people are on a constant, or almost permanent, high they would need lots of syringes. Syringes are expensive…and why should you waste money on something that you could use over and over again? Now if each person had their personal syringe that wouldn’t be such a big problem, but since syringes are a communal good that is shared throughout the canal HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis are prevailing diseases.

I have also heard that drugs are the main cause of death on the streets. Overdose or drug related incidents have caused deaths of friends of every single person I talked to at the social centre.

But, drugs also equal money. I am here to destroy a very common misconception…people who are homeless are not poor. Yes, they live in what might be seen as inhumane conditions, don’t have enough to eat and cannot pay medical bills, but when it comes to money, they are not poor. One man proudly told me of his begging and stealing days in Western Europe where he would make E40 or E50 every day for three months. After that, he would come back to Romania and spend all that accumulated money (around E4000) on drugs…within 2 weeks.

As a drug dealer, even among the poorest of the poor, making E25,000 is quite a quick thing. It doesn’t take years to make that much money. Only a couple of trips to foreign countries and some good drug deals and some lucky golden necklaces that were stolen.

To put this in relation to Bucharest prices, I saw an advertisement the other day for a 2-bedroom apartment that was for sale close to the train station. It was for E35,000. Working for a couple of months on the streets could get you almost an entire 2-bedroom apartment in Bucharest.

I’m just going to leave that there for you to make up your own opinions.

I was told repeatedly, by several people, to not give money to the people that are begging, because they will just spend it on drugs. I was told that it’s better to give them food or some tea or coffee. Either way, someone who needs drugs is going to find ways to get them. And after having a man explain to me, in very much detail, how easy it is to steal something from unsuspecting, but also suspecting, victims, I wonder if it makes a difference whether you give beggars money or not…

 

Europe’s most Illuminated Gutter (Part 2: The King of Aurolac)

Something that made life a lot more bearable and safe was the hierarchy that was established two years ago when THE LEADER came to live there. Now he sees himself as the King of Aurolac.

Aurolac is the drug that Bucharest’s street children became famous for: Schnueffelkinder. The image of homeless children in Bucharest that are sniffing glue or car-paint out of a bag to their mouth and nose made the news all across Europe for the last 20 years or so. It’s what many think of when they hear street children of Romania…or at least the people I have talked to about this in Austria.

THE LEADER of the canal considers himself to be the leader of his canal and the King of Aurolac. He is also known to paint his head and leather jacket (among other things) in the silvery liquid to represent his superiority.

I understand why he is the leader. When I saw him I was quite scared. Covered in tattoos and hung with chains around his neck and arms he sat in his little kingdom not wearing anything except for shorts. It was definitely him, who was in charge.

Everyone who lives in the canal gives their daily earnings to him so he can redistribute material goods to his people in a way that he feels is fit.

But is that a bad thing?

I wouldn’t necessarily say so. I remember years ago my mother would tell me never to give money to street kids because they would just have to hand that money to their leader who would go off to buy drugs for himself leaving the kids with nothing…but is this really the case?

From what I have heard and seen over the last few weeks I would say no. Yes, THE LEADER collects all the money and buys drugs for himself, but he is also the drug dealer for the rest of the people. Everyone buys drugs from him. He makes sure it’s decent stuff that won’t kill them. On top of this he makes sure that everyone has something to eat during the day and at night. He is also the person to go to if you need medicine. A young mother and her child were in need of some medicine today when I was there. The street worker from the NGO I was doing my research at told me that she was given enough money to go to the Pharmacy to buy what it was she needed.

The man I talked to in the canal itself also told me that life was so much better now than it was before THE LEADER had been there. C. told me that there was a constant fight over who the leader would be. The gutter was not a secure place to be. Now however the story was different. It is clear who the leader is. All the inhabitants know that if there is a dispute, he can solve it. He is also the one that takes care of people who are new in the canal, or who are very young. Some people I spoke to from the social centre spoke very highly of this man since he was like a father to them when they were very young and new on the streets.

It’s definitely not a great place to live, but this man seems to have made it a more home-y and safe place for many of the inhabitants.

Europe’s most Illuminated Gutter (Part 1: The Canal)

On my last day at the social centre a man came up to me and asked if I would like to talk to him. Wow. This was a first.

Of course, I accepted. I got the key for my usual room went to look for the man and then conducted my interview. This man talked a LOT. A lot, lot. Mostly not about the questions I asked him, but he gave me a lot of background information on life in the Gutter, or the canal, as they call it here.

He told me a lot about his life and about the hierarchy in the canal. He told me how there was a chef who took care of him when he arrived, and who made sure everyone was doing well in the canal. He was the one that sold the drugs to everyone, but also the man who took care of his flatmates and made sure they had food, water, electricity and medicine if they needed it.

On top of all of this, he taught me how not to get robbed by people like him. He told me all about his escapades in Germany, Italy, Austria, France, etc. and how he made his living as a thief. (Blog entry about this topic coming soon. Keep coming back to find out what you can do to not get robbed, the Bucharest street edition-24.04.2014)

Back to the canal.

Today was the day that the street worker, another volunteer and I would go to the canal at Gara de Nord, or according to one of the inhabitants: Europe’s most illuminated Gutter.

I am not exactly sure what he meant by this statement. Did he mean that they had the brightest people living there? The gutter with the most electricity? The most light? Or maybe, and most likely, he meant that it was the most well-known gutter in Europe. When you talk to Romanians, or Expats living in Romania and you ask them where you can find people who are homeless, they will not hesitate to tell you: in the canal at Gara de Nord. This inhabitant of the gutter also told us that many journalists had come to take pictures of the place. Journalists from all over Europe have come to take a look at their home to take pictures, to show the world what horrible state they live in.

I want to give a different perspective on this. Yes, it is a stuffy, crowded, hot, probably flea and other bug infested place to live, but it is also an alternative to living in the cold. It is an alternative to death, and it is an example of freedom.

If I have learnt anything from talking to many people who have spent years, if not almost their whole lives, living on the streets it’s that many enjoy the lifestyle. Yes, it is dangerous and violent, but for many it is also a life where they can enjoy liberty. Liberty from the state, laws, abusive homes and orphanages.

Although I made sure I looked and sounded tough when THE STREETWORKER asked me if I wanted to join him, I really wasn’t. To be honest, I was terrified to go down there today. I had some trouble sleeping and was worried that similar feelings of fear of the dark, the depth, the unknown would overcome me like it did in the bat cave in Nepal.

I made sure nobody knew.

After all, this isn’t an opportunity you get thrown at you every day. It’s not usual to be able to go see a place that so many ignore, that so many people don’t know exists.

First I saw the other volunteer climb down. As soon as she reached the bottom, I began my climb. Once I reached the bottom I no longer saw her. In fact, I no longer saw anything. I started to feel all those feelings come up. The fear of being left behind in a deep, dark and dirty hole. I was beginning to fear the worst, all logic had left me. It’s kind of sad to think back now, in the privacy of my room, to think that that’s all it takes for me to get so scared…after all the places I’ve been to and all the things I’ve seen…something like this still scares me.

I was left alone, I couldn’t see THE OTHER VOLUNTEER or our friend from the social centre that wanted to show us the place he used to live in. Behind me I saw a wall with a little hole underneath it, so I decided to bend own and peer through the hole. Sure enough I saw some feet and legs, as well as some carpes. Ah. That’s where I’m supposed to go.

I was glad I am so small and climbed through the hole that wasn’t any taller than half a metre. There I was. Standing in the middle of a living room. As I looked up I saw a man with snot coming out his nose, spit coming out of his mouth and a bloated, dirty face. After swallowing all the spit I had in my mouth, and not taking a deep breath because of the stench, I smiled and said Buna ziua. I got a response and as I was searching the room for THE OTHER VOLUNTEER, I found her standing a couple of metres in front of me. I quickly walked towards her past other men, a woman and a child (approximately 20 people) who were either standing up or laying on their beds, but mostly sitting down. The place wasn’t crowded, but it was quite full. The small path between the two concrete tubes that are Bucharest’s sewage systems was kept pretty clean. There were only very few plastic bottles and cups on the floor. The tubes were covered in carpets and blankets. At first I didn’t see everything, it took some time for me to actually see where I was. As I walked towards the end of the room, I began to see where I was heading.

I was heading towards the social centre of the canal. The drug kitchen.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER was talking to the man that had taught me so much about stealing, whom I have gotten quite fond of. He told me several times to be careful of the people in the canal, to be careful what I touch and to make sure I don’t touch any of the syringes that are there. He took care of me.

I meet up with THE OTHER VOLUNTEER before we are introduced to THE LEADER, the leader of the canal. I quickly shook hands with him and introduced myself. He knew I came with THE STREETWORKER, who goes to this canal every Friday to keep in touch with the people that might want some assistance from the NGO.

Another inhabitant tells me that he is so glad that THE LEADER is now here, because he made this place the place it is. Before it used to be really bad, but it was his sole doing. This place. THE LEADER heard this and retorted with a smile and a: no, it wasn’t my doing. It was God’s doing. As we turn around to leave, our guide from the centre tells me that it was all THE LEADER’s doing with the help of God that this place was now safer, had electricity and was this clean.

On our way out I made sure not to touch anything as I saw that syringes were not only neatly placed in cups on the counter that was separating THE LEADER and his closest friends from the rest of the inhabitants, but also in peoples arms, mouths and necks; as well as on the carpets and the floor.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER made sure to quickly tell me to make sure I am careful where I place my hands because of all the syringes she also saw before we climbed back out of the hole.

In retrospect, I was imagining the place to be larger, but I hadn’t imagined it to be this bright or warm. The warmth coming from the concrete tubes made me sweat under my jacket and sweater. The light made it almost unnecessary for my eyes to adjust once I finally reached the room. The flat-screen T.V. was showing Romanian television and the ventilator made sure that there fresh air could always come into the canal. This, I was later told, was the biggest problem with living in the canal: fresh air.

Something else I learnt later from THE STREETWORKER, was that in this small space, that seemed to be quite full with the 20 or so people there when I visited, was the sleeping place for somewhere between 80 and 100 people. Where do they sleep? They have to be sleeping on top of one another for them all to fit. I was talking to THE OTHER VOLUNTEER about this a little, and she agreed with me in assuming that at night maybe 40 people or so would be sleeping in there. We both could not believe 80-100 people could even fit into that small space.

As we were back on the outside, in the cold, grey daylight that Bucharest had to offer today, our guide told us about the canal across the street. This one was supposedly very similar, but quite a bit larger. We were also told that they were planning on building a shower in the other canal.

This piece of information was very interesting for me, because it shows that this really is a home for these people. It is the place where they live and spend many, many years of their lives. Our guide himself had lived in this particular canal since 1989.

After walking around the large place and park in front of the train station and giving out tea to people who are homeless, I engaged in some more conversation with our guide. He told me something I had previously also heard in some of my interviews, one of the worst things of living on the street is not the hunger or thirst or need for drugs, it’s that everyone either ignores you or usually looks at you with a face of disgust, makes sure there is a big space around you or makes sure that you are nowhere near the actual train station because you might upset some people with your mere presence.

I am sure you have done the same, I am sure I have done the same…ignored beggars on the street. Yes they might be dirty and might not smell good. Yes they might be high and off the rocker, but the next time you walk past someone try to not change your path. Stay on the path you were on. I am not asking you to talk to everyone or to give them something, but just acknowledge their presence. Who knows, maybe you’ll make their day with a smile and a quick Hello or Good Morning.

One slow day and one day of serious focus group action.

Monday was a very, very slow day. I got to the centre a little early, so everyone was still in the lunch room. That didn’t bother me. I went upstairs, got the key for my room and went to my room to prepare for the day. I thought I had a big day ahead of me. I wanted to get my focus groups going.

Once I’m ready, I head out of the room towards the Café that is usually very full of people drinking coffee and tea. Not today. So I go downstairs and outside, around the building and into the other building. I see a couple of people, but nobody I know. So I start to go back inside to see if Marius is now in his office.

He is.
So I ask him about going to visit the school in the other centre run by the same NGO. He agrees and tells me I can go on Wednesday. Yes. Awesome.

I still don’t really find anyone. So I take matters into my own hands. Thank god I made a quick ‘what’s important on the street’ survey. I basically force whoever I see to talk to me and even talk one person into doing a longer interview with me. In the end I get one focus group done as well. Still…it was a very, very strange day. I recognized nearly nobody.

Tuesday was quite different. The centre was still not bustling and full of life like the past week, but I saw more familiar faces and was able to get two focus groups going. This time however, I decided to just do everything I wanted to do in a focus group at once. No more ‘oh, but they need time’ or ‘but I don’t want to use up 30 minutes of their precious time’. No more. I just did everything I had to do: positives, negatives and interesting aspects of life on the streets, what was learnt on the street, personal learning timelines, a picture of the most important lesson and short interviews about all of those things. It was a good day.

As of now, I have all the data I need for my dissertation.

I think.
I hope.

Tomorrow I will be going back in just to see if anyone else is willing to do any of my research schedules with me…an interview, a focus group, just have a chat. I feel like most of the people who want to talk to me have done so already. Many have talked to me on several occasions. I have my eye on 4 more people who were busy doing other activities today. I might get them to do another focus group with me. We’ll see.

Besides that possibility, tomorrow I have an exciting day ahead of me. In the morning I will be heading in to the school to conduct the first part of my placement research. In the afternoon I’ll be back in the centre and a little later I’ll be able to visit the school that the NGO has created for the people who are homeless.

One world Romania

image

 

This past week was the One World Romania  Film Festival. The picture above was taken in the Muzeul Taranului (Peasant Museum).

I am not a film critic, and will not pretend to be. I don’t know much about films. I just know I enjoy watching documentaries and somehow end up at different film festivals. If you want a proper review of this festival or the movies I am going to talk about, this is not the place to go. I will simply give my opinions and impressions from the two movies I watched: 727 days without Kamaro and American Vagabond. Stay on the lookout for them on a new segment I am calling Thoughtful Thursday...even if my writing wont be particularly thoughtful. I like the alliteration, okay?

Impressions of Bucharest

All I want to do today is leave you with some impressions from the Bucharest I have learnt to love over the years and fell more in love with yesterday.

These are different angles of the view from the terrace of the national museum of contemporary art (MNAC)

image

image

And the facade of the museum…the back of the people’s palace!

image

What I think is cool about this little museum is its location. It is in the second largest building in the world and lets you see another side of the highly exuberant building. The tour that you can take of the building only shows you a tiny part of the palace and this museum lets you see another one.

image

That’s the entrance hall.
One of my favourite pieces was the following

image

image

I’m going to let your own mind wonder and wander about the meaning of this piece. The artist’s fingerprints create a rainbow barbed wire fence…the imagery and symbolism of this hit me pretty hard.

Also, here are some kisses for those that need them:

image

On another kind of art…I have written before on my thoughts of graffiti and Bucharest’s very own wallers wall. Enjoy some of the beauties:

image

image

image

image

And something motivational for the end:

image

The two extremes

Today has been a slightly strange day. I got up quite early to go to the private school where I will be conducting my small research project to have a meeting with the principal about my project.

After that I took the bus to the NGO where I’m doing my research. Seriously. I went from one extreme to the other. Rich school to a centre for people who have nowhere else to go.

Personally, I think that these extremes are perfect examples for the way Bucharest is set up. There is such a huge number of people living off the €200 they make at their jobs (and I am not talking about really ‘bad’ jobs, but jobs regular people do. You know, building things, shop assistants, etc.), and a large number of people that do not even have that, but there are also a great number of people who make millions. You can see them drive around in their Porsches and Ferraris, which for me is strange, becuase at the number of potholes in the roads I wonder how their cars aren’t constantly broken…

Something that is great about Bucharest though, is that there is a growing middle class. It is definitely growing and quite visibly doing so. An example of this is the Pipera-Tunari area. 15 years ago there was nothing there. And when I mean nothing, there really was NOTHING. Grazing land. Sheep. The former owner of the area sold the land at pretty high prices and now resides in a huge villa. Around 1o years ago some expats began moving into the area because a school had recently moved there. But the amount of growth that has happened in the last 5 years is amazing.

The last time I was in Bucharest (2.5 years ago) some companies had built buildings and there were some new offices, but now this is a new place. People actually take the metro to the last stop now. There is more than one maxitaxi route, huge office parks, new bridges criss-crossing roads to reduce traffic, restaurants, shops, supermarkets. Everything you can think of. It’s a proper suburb now.I still remember when Taxis wouldn’t take you to this part of town without charging twice the rate because they would have to drive back to the town empty.

It’s strange, because Bucharest has developed so much over the last couple of years. Some other changes that I have observed are that people dress differently than they used to, there is actually less traffic although peoples lives have improved, you can just go to the supermarket and buy whatever it is you need, there are fewer street dogs and what seems to be a higher percentage of spayed and neutered dogs (seen by a tag in their ears). There are also more people riding bicycles and scooters. The buses are air-conditioned and peoples’ driving seems to be following the laws at least some of the time.

It’s great to see this city become more and more developed without losing its charm. Despite the many changes it is still the Bucharest I loved. No matter how much certain aspects of the city are turned onto their head, some things never change.