Harsh winter ahead for Romania's streetchildren

Copyright © 1997 Nando.net
Copyright © 1997 Agence France-Presse

BUCHAREST (November 21, 1997 10:11 p.m. EST - A drive by authorities to clean up Bucharest's main railway station could threaten the survival this winter of dozens of street children whose only home is the dank, fetid, rat-infested sewers below.

With the first snowfall already covering the capital, these kids have retrenched, refusing to give up what for some is the only home they remember and using every ruse they have learned in their short, hard lives to avoid a team of guards -- armed with clubs -- waiting to rout them out.

Above ground, the busy North Station, with its travellers, shops and dustbins, provides their only livelihood -- begging for coins, doing odd jobs for shopkeepers, stealing or scrounging through garbage for food.

Rosu Gheorghe, who goes by the street name "Gigi," showed the way into his underground home, advancing slowly in total darkness as he slushed through pools of water underfoot, feeling his way along the labyrinth of steel beams and concrete.

With another 100 children like himself, he has lived for years in this musty world a few yards below street level, near a network of hot water pipes with no relief from the reeking stench of excrement and mud.

For two days he has stayed inside, afraid to venture out for fear of getting caught by the guards sent in to keep vagrants, beggars, prostitutes, traffickers and other "undesirables" out of North Station.

The street kids use the station's sewer network like a dormitory. They live in bands of eight to 10, each group staking out their own "room."

The survivors in Gigi's group include Anton, a child even dirtier and more tattered than Gigi, who like the others seemed oblivious to the refuse and cockroaches creeping around them.

"My name is 'the orphan, the vagabond.' I have no father, no mother, no money and no name," he said, his eyes glazed in a fixed stare while his arms and leg twitched with spasms. He is drugged, a glue-sniffer, inhaling the cheap product from a plastic sack by his side.

About 125 guards have been posted around the train station but some of the desperate children still sneak out, dodging the clubs to slip into the station above.

Most of these young homeless are orphans who fled institutional care and have no identity papers.

An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 children and adolescents live on the streets in post-communist Romania. They are part of the chaos still gripping the country since the 1989 uprising that led to the arrest and execution of longtime dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, whose iron rule and disastrous social policies left the country in shambles.

The international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said this month that Romania had the worst homelss mortality rate in Europe and blasted authorities here for failing to fight the problem -- particularly in winter.

A recent initiative to improve the children's lot was a failure. A luxury hotel in the capital's suburbs, initially planned for railroad pensioners, was transformed into a shelter for homeless -- both adults and children. But the kids were defenseless against streetwise adults, some of whom stole their few belongings or tried to put them "to work" as prostitutes.

So the children fled back to the only place they felt safe -- the sewers.

Authorities "hired a bus, took the kids to the hotel and thought they had settled the problem," said French clown Miloud, director of the humanitarian foundation Parada who, in five years of working with these children, has managed to reintegrate several back into society.

"To get any results here, you have to take the time to be accepted on the street," he said.

Maricica, a small 17-year-old, is the chief of one group in Brancoveanu, a district in the city's south. She has 20 young charges, all living a dozen yards underground in what they call a "three-star sewer."

"Here, it's like home. There is no smell of shit, the garbage is swept away, we have light from candles and we even have a shower," she said, pointing proudly to a hole they poked into a hot water pipe.

But they all looked miserable -- the group hd been attacked a few days earlier by a band of "drunk punks." Michaela, 16, was hit by an iron bar and had an open head wound, while Costel, 14, had a broken arm. The rest were covered with cuts and bruises.

They passed around plastic sacks of toxic glue to sniff and get high, their way to ease the pain, as they exchanged stories about drunk, abusive parents, incest, sickness, violence and abandonment.

By JEAN-LUC PORTE, Agence France-Presse

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