8 November 1993

Romania: Children of the Tunnels
by Louise Branson

Threadbare and dirty, unwanted youngsters inhabit a dangerous Dickensian underworld

It is a terrifying experience to follow Dan into the hole he considers home. The door is a manhole cover on the edge of a park near Bucharest's Gara de Nord subway station. He squeezes through and descends on iron rungs into a dark, stifling and dirty space. Huge, warm pipes along one wall make hissing noises. Rats scuttle past his feet. The stench of urine and excrement is overwhelming. ``Here it is,'' he shrugs. It is difficult to read any emotion on his young face. Dan and three other ragged boys, all in their mid- teens, have spread torn cardboard boxes on the floor. They are grateful to have this warm place for the coming winter. In other tunnels under the Romanian capital, homeless children have even managed to rig up electricity for makeshift lights.

Dan and his tunnel mates are part of a Dickensian underworld in which many of Romania's unwanted children now live. These threadbare and dirty- faced Oliver Twists, some as young as three years old, can be seen flocking to the entrances of the warm tunnels of Bucharest's subway stations after they shut down at midnight--packs of miniature pimps, prostitutes and glue sniffers with their own hierarchy and unspoken rules. Some of them have escaped from overcrowded and underfunded state orphanages. Most of them have run away from homes broken by poverty, domestic violence and alcoholism. All of them are the victims of either former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who forbade contraception and abortion to fulfil his dream of ruling a populous nation, or Ceausescu's successors, who have failed to provide a social safety net for Romania's youngest--and most vulnerable--citizens. Rev. George Sporschill, co-founder of an aid project run by the Roman Catholic organization Caritas, describes the street kids as ``a symbol of the situation in Romania as a whole.'' He adds: ``The sight of children in the streets, their faces hidden in plastic bags containing Aurolac [glue solvent], is a picture of hell on earth.''

Romania's dramatic revolution in December, 1989, which overthrew Ceausescu, caught the imagination of the world. In the aftermath, TV images of neglected infants in barracks-like state orphanages, their metal cribs lined up end to end, pricked the conscience of Westerners, many of whom streamed into Bucharest in search of children to adopt. Offers of financial aid also poured in from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other lending institutions to help Romania transform its economy into a free-market system. But after an initial spurt of democratization, fundamental reforms have stalled and former Ceausescu officials have crept back into power. The IMF has suspended all loans to Romania since June because of its failure to implement economic reforms. The country is in economic crisis, with an annual inflation rate of 300 percent.

When questioned about the street children--various estimates put their numbers from several hundred to 10,000--government officials said that Romania has more pressing problems. ``When you are converting to capitalism you have to kick start the more prosperous areas of the economy,'' said one official. ``You can't afford to worry about poor people until later. That is the way capitalism works.''

Romania's forgotten children come alive in groups around the subway stations when the adult world goes to sleep. It takes time and patience to get to know the characters who are bound together by a complex dynamic in which the oldest and strongest are the rulers.

One of the kings of the Gara de Nord, ``Michael the Blonde,'' thinks he is about 19 years old, but he is not sure. He and some of the other older boys make money by buying glue solvent for 50 cents a bottle and selling smaller amounts to younger children. The sniffers smear solvent inside a plastic bag, then place the opening over their mouths and inhale. Some of the glassy-eyed juveniles have burns on their faces where the solvent touched their skin. Michael and his cohorts also control entry to the warmer entrances of the tunnels, sometimes extorting payment. And they pimp for some of the girls, who favor tight, Lurex working clothes. At least one of the young prostitutes in the Gara de Nord recently was in an advanced stage of pregnancy.

The younger children appear desperate for human contact--even with strangers. Nine-year-old Ciprian, for example, holds a foreign visitor' s hand tightly and calls her ``Mama.'' He is one of the few kids from the tunnels not visibly high on glue solvent. Ciprian shows a cut on his head where, he says, an older boy had hit him. He tells of having run away from his Bucharest home at the age of eight after his mother died and his father turned to alcohol. As Ciprian huddles with the visitor over a heating vent at the entrance to the train station, the ragged boy is suddenly accosted by a cleaning woman, who hits him with a broom and berates him for ``bringing shame on our country to foreigners.'' He responds with a torrent of foul language. But a few minutes later, when the woman is out of sight, the bravado subsides and the child bursts into tears.

One foreigner who has penetrated the hidden world of the tunnel children is Valentine Morby, a 34-year-old Briton who drove a charity truck to Romania last year and wound up staying. He now helps run a Caritas drop-in centre at the Gara de Nord station, trying to coax the tough and independent youth into one of five group homes that the Catholic charity runs. The street kids seem to prefer the Caritas homes to those run by other charities where children are locked in. But even those at the Caritas homes frequently run away, preferring the freedom and anarchy of the streets to regular bedtimes and school classes.

The brightly painted Caritas drop-in centre at the Gara de Nord is only open during the day. It provides breakfast and lunch for the children, 110 of whom are regular visitors. It also offers free haircuts, first-aid treatment and vaccinations, showers and a change of clothes. Morby tries to find menial work for some of the older boys. The younger children come to the centre to play with jigsaw puzzles or just doze in chairs. ``One of the most important functions of this place is that it is somewhere the younger ones can feel secure,'' says Morby. ``That's important to them.'' Morby' s biggest reward has been seeing some children decide to get off the streets and settle in a group home. ``I was director at one for a while and my greatest joy was to walk into the sitting room one night to find it full of children I didn't know, watching television,'' says Morby. ``Some [resident] kids had felt comfortable enough to bring their friends home.''

The boldest Caritas experiment is a children's farm in Aricesti village, 65 km north of Bucharest. There, about 25 kids aged seven to 17 are learning skills such as dairy farming, cooking, woodworking--even building their own group homes on land that once belonged to a Communist-era state farm. The number of residents is expected to rise to 100 later this year as 10 new houses are completed. Each house will have a ``family unit'' of eight children and one adult supervisor.

Although some of the farm kids have returned to the streets of Bucharest, most have settled in. Among them is Alexandru Ivan, 14, who said that he ``ran away from an orphanage because it was too strict, too monotonous and without prospects.'' He added: ``The older children bullied us all the time.'' Alexandru is helping to build a house and says that he now looks forward to the future. Another happy resident is Maricia Vlad, 13. ``Six years ago, my parents were killed in a car accident and I was put in an orphanage, but I ran away,'' she said. ``Then, in the Bucharest railway station I heard about Caritas and the farm. I want to learn an occupation. ''

Alexandru and Maricia are the lucky ones. For the thousands of others still living in Bucharest's tunnels, the future is decidedly less bright. Said one aid worker at the farm: ``The problem is that the number of children on the streets is growing and we simply can't absorb them all.'' Morby bemoans a government crackdown on foreign adoptions since their heyday after Ceausescu's overthrow. ``These children are worth saving,'' he said. ``People have forgotten Romania and its children. But they are still here.''

Copyright 1993 by Maclean's Magazine. Text may not be copied without the express written permission of Maclean's Magazine.

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