Jim Wickens reports for Channel 4 News
We are in the heart of Bucharest in the pouring rain, staring down at a man hole on the pavement and a rickety ladder bolted into the shadows within.
It seems like yesterday that the world woke to the shocking scenes of neglect and cruelty inside Romania’s orphanages and care homes. Grainy Images of feces-stained wards, and babies chained to rusty cast-iron beds that seared in our minds.
But 25 years on what has happened to Romania’s abandoned children, and what fate awaits children from Romania’s underfunded care system today? For a special report with channel 4 news reporter Paraic O’Brien and Romanian journalist Radu Ciorniciuc, we are about to find out.
We are on our way to meet one of Bucharest’s most infamous, gang leaders. But he doesn’t drive a sports car or live in a fancy house. His home is in the sewer, and his name is Bruce Lee.
A wall of heat, perspiration, thumping music and diesel fumes hits us as we descend into the darkness, clouding our senses.
We squeeze ourselves through a tangled mass of half-naked figures in the dim light, busy injecting themselves or dozing on the hot water pipes that run through the tunnels.
As we move deeper inside, the paint fumes hit us, and the world begins to spin. Teenage boys and girls, loom up on the sides sweating heavily and snorting industrial silver piping paint called ‘Aurolac’ from shiny black bags pressed to their mouths.
At the end of the tunnel we find Bruce Lee, quietly sipping his coffee and overseeing the brisk trade in needles and drugs at the front of a queue of people who stand at the make shift kiosk by his feet.
Half naked, his leather waistcoat is a mass of key rings, glittering broaches and medals; his arms and legs are covered in thick chains and padlocks alongside a patchwork of crude prison tattoos and scarred meshes from a lifetime of self-harm. The addicts approach him, pleading with him for drugs or offering old phones, even scrap metal, all deferential to a man so revered that all call him ‘daddy’ to a turn.
Bruce eyes us with suspicion at first, we glance across at this underworld legend, a punk fagin figure, with a stun gun by his side and a small army of loyal addicts waiting at his beck and call who could block any potential escape. It’s hard to fight claustrophobia as we sense ourselves getting high in the tight confines of the drug fume-filled chamber. It feels momentarily as if we have arrived in hell.
As the senses adjust though, we begin to see another side. In the dim light of the chamber, pictures and portraits are hanging on the walls, a fan, coffee, carpets, even toothbrushes in a cup, are laid out in neat order on the pipes, beneath plastic flowers and a chintzy china cat. We are in somebody’s home.
After coffee Bruce Lee offers to show us around, descending into a tiny tunnel, barely high or wide enough to crawl through, tiny puppies who have never seen the light of day, sleeping in the dusty darkness within.
“My mom abandoned me three days after birth at the hospital.” He said. “The staff took me. I was brought up in orphanages, and when Ceausescu was toppled so was I. I’ve been living in the sewers since I was a child, with many others that are now dead.”
“Most of the peope here are from the orphanages..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.”
We watch as one man sweeps the floor, whilst a couple hug and share jokes intimately in the corner. There is humanity here, civility of sorts in this, the most unlikely of places.
“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,’ he says.”
Irrespective of age, everyone here has AIDS and hepatitis, many have TB, all a product of sharing needles and living jeek by jowl in the crammed confines of the tunnels, their only sanctuary in a city that seemingly doesn’t care about their fate.
Crawling out of another exit in the sewer we squeeze through a tiny hole in the bare earth with a pack of dogs streaming out with us, following Bruce Lee into the daylight. Our senses heightened by hours in the paint and needle-filled world beneath my feet. We emerge by a bus stop, to the bewildered looks of passers-by.
It’s easy to demonise Bruce Lee as just another drug dealer, a demonic figure of the underworld selling hard drugs and destroying lives. Others in Bucharest see him as a sort of benevolent folk hero, a man who offers clothing, food and shelter for people that society has rejected from birth, and who would otherwise sleep in the gutter.
He is perhaps neither of the above, just a deeply flawed human being with a heart, trying his hardest to make something out of a life carved out on – and underneath – the mean streets of Bucharest. An experience so unremittingly tough, that few could begin to understand, let alone judge it.
Watch our report on Channel 4 News