Romania's Tunnel Underworld | Living in the Dark | The Flounce


“My parents abandoned me at birth.
But this is where I destroyed myself.”


Catalina, a slender young woman with messily swept-up brown hair that reveals old drug burns and cuts, says this with a wave of her hand and lips that twist ever so slightly. She’s had a long time to deal with this reality; Catalina, along with tens of thousands of other Romanians, is homeless and numbers one of the estimated 350,000 orphans who live in Romania today. She appears in a new film by Britain’s Channel 4 on the invisible thousands that live in the labyrinth of underground tunnels seething below Romania’s capital.


Once called the “micul (small) Paris of the East,” Bucharest, Romania — member of the European Union and home to tree-lined boulevards and one of the most fascinating historical and cultural legacies in Europe, boasts another legacy from its communist past– one that they are more reluctant to discuss. Romania, and its capital city in particular, is home to an enormous and ever-increasing community of the homeless that is burdened with problems such as mass drug addiction, malnutrition and illness — everyone living in the tunnels has AIDS, and a fourth of them, tuberculosis.


Heroin and synthetic Methadone substitute in Romania's Tunnel Underworld | Living in the Dark | The Flounce      Heroin and a synthetic methadone substitute are two of the drugs on offer


The camera lens fogs up from the heat as the filmmakers descend on hands and knees through the darkness and into the teeming network of painfully narrow dirt and concrete tunnels. This underground village is ruled over by a man who earned the nickname “Bruce Lee” from his street fighting days and has kept it ever since. In the first chamber, known as “The Office,” David Guetta’s hit Titanium pumps vigorously in the air, bracingly bright white light meets the lens and youth lounge against the walls and on beds that line the restricted space. It almost appears like a grim incarnation of a club, but a more appropriate descriptor would be “drug den.” Here, a syringe of a methadone-equivalent lies between a woman’s legs. There, money is thrust across “the counter” for a measure of heroin on a white square of paper. And everywhere, the ubiquitous black plastic bags of glue or aurolac, a metallic paint that is the poison of choice for almost all of the street people. A young boy clutches one to his mouth, his eyes wide and unblinking on the camera as he sucks in and out.


Homeless Sewer Children in Romania's Tunnel Underworld | Living in the Dark | The Flounce      Anything here? A puppy sticks his head into a cauldron of drugs


In 1966, in response to low birth rates and to expand the workforce for an economic boom that never came, former communist dictator of Romania, Nicholas Ceausescu, instituted Decree 770 which outlawed the use of all contraceptives and abortions except in exceptional circumstances. To qualify, women of childbearing age were obligated to have at least four children (later raised to five). In a state where the average monthly food ration per person roughly comprised ten eggs, 4 kilograms of flour, 1 kilogram of meat and a pound of butter, these new regulations proved impossible to fulfill and led to soaring rates of child abandonment and children cast into hastily-built orphanages by the thousands.


It’s no mistake that Romania is associated with the word “orphanages.” Conditions at these institutions were horrific, with barracks-like surroundings and the mistreatment and neglect of wards endemic. Post-1989 revolution, the children who were previously imprisoned in Romania’s orphanages took to the streets en masse; but faced with a depressed economy, a 300% inflation rate and vicious street protests, the newly-formed democratic government had little time and no funds to spare for Communism’s orphans. So they took to the streets, scrambled for make-shift homes amidst the stench of the underground or the ruins of abandoned buildings, eked out miserable livings. And never left.


The Office drug den in Romania's Tunnel Underworld | The Flounce      “The Office”


Every year hundreds more join their ranks. Places at state homes are only available for children up to the age of 18. After that, they are turned out, some informed only the day or week before — and with little money, no family and few options beyond the criminal, they spill out and congregate in the gray squares of Gara de Nord (Northern Station), Bucharest’s principal train station. Many, unluckier by a devil’s comparison, run away after being abused or mistreated in orphanages or violent homes.


By day, they roam the streets of Bucharest begging and rooting through trash cans. At night, they make their beds on cold stone and slabs of cardboard, wads of newspaper slotted between skin and clothes for insulation in the cooler months. During winter, they migrate to the underground tunnels where small bodies curl together around sewer pipes for warmth — for some, to abate the chills of tuberculosis.


Some are born underground or on the streets, children of the original orphanage generations. If discovered, few, if any, of these parents are allowed by Social Services to keep the children who are invariably thrust back into the system that spit out their parents just a few short years earlier. And if not, they begin life where those children will likely be spewed 18 years later anyway — on the streets and in the tunnels of Bucharest, where they plod on in life’s unrelenting cycle.


Homeless Aurolac Drug User in Romania's Tunnel Underworld | Living in the Dark | The Flounce      A man huffs on a bag of aurolac. The drugs are said to diminish hunger pangs and winter chill.


It is a desperately sad predicament, and despite a wave of international publicity in the early 90’s and subsequent periodic media coverage, a light has yet to materialize at the end of the tunnel. Romania has no national job or housing assistance programs, and still provides no formalized skill-training program or post-departure support for the countless who leave the government’s care every year. Aid organizations provide the bulk of help, but many are drawing their shutters in the face of ebbing foreign donations.


More positively, Romania signed the Country Program Action Plan for 2013-2017 Partnership between the government and UNICEF in August of last year. The document sets out the lines of action to be taken to improve children’s rights, including decreasing mother-to-infant HIV transmission, the number of children in residential care and child mortality rates, and focuses particularly on ensuring adequate provision and protection for vulnerable groups such as children with disabilities and children from impoverished backgrounds. One hopes that these efforts, in conjunction with Romania’s comparatively improved economy and betterment in standard of living, will lessen the number of children who run away from violent homes or institutionalized care.


But this comes too little too late for those in the tunnels, many of whom have lived there their entire lives. It seems that there is little, too, to prevent their children from suffering the same fate.


“We’re the scum of society, aren’t we?” Bruce Lee, who grew up in the sewers, muses. He is an interesting fellow, toting kittens and puppies, decorative chains and padlocks, a patchwork of scarring from years of self-harm, an adopted son (himself an entire tragedy; at 17 his body, scrawny and ravaged by drugs and disease, appears as one of a child closer to 12), a thriving drug trade; and, as incongruous as it may seem, a revolutionary’s soul as well.


 Bruce Lee is King of the Sewers in Romania's Tunnel Underworld | Living in the Dark | The Flounce     Bruce Lee,  leader of Bucharest’s underground, cuts a complex and charismatic figure


“I try to organize them. To become a power, to become self-sufficient, a family. To show people that they are wrong. That we are people as well.”


So says the man supplying eager junkies with their next black bag for 80-cents a pop. Yet, it seems, he is also the man paying outside gangs for protection, shielding his youngest residents from sexual predators and keeping the junkies from harm, at least from the outside elements, with a warm place to sleep and some semblance of safety. He is the man who, after rescuing his adopted son from full blown AIDS last year, forbids him from injecting but allows him to continue huffing aurolac. Lying on his thin mattress,  he addresses the camera earnestly and it is plain that, in all his duality or hypocrisy, he cares for these people. If not completely blameless, he is as close to a protector as they are likely to find.


And for those already neck-deep, who else is there?


 Drug Addicted Homeless in Romania's Tunnel Underworld | Living in the Dark | The FlounceFamily– Bruce Lee and his adopted son Nicu





How to Help: Founded in 1995, Casa Iona is a shelter for homeless families and individuals that aims to provide temporary accommodation and psycho-social support services to get their clients back on track and reintegrated into Romanian society. Another organisation, Health Action Overseas (HAO) was founded in 1990 by an Irish camera man who visited Romania to film the TV program “Post-Ceausescu”. Shocked by the treatment of disabled children in Romanian orphanages, he was determined to support the disabled orphans of the post-communism generation. Today, the charity continues to support the children from that time — now adults — and also provides therapy and training to disabled children currently leaving institutions, helps them find apartments and to begin a normal life.


 All Photographs Courtesy of Radu Ciorniciuc, Casa Jurnalistului

Elizabeth Liew
Everything worth knowing about her is in the words already. The rest are just the details. She was born in Singapore, lives and studies fashion design in Florence, Italy and dabbles in art and food. She writes for women and to celebrate women- our stories, our achievements, our passions, our diversity, our beauty, our bodies, and the freedom to be our truest selves. If you want to know anything else, please ask! And come be twitter buds @elizabethliewxe (or just click the icon above, duh) and elizabethliewxe on pinterest.
  • AlexisO

    I had no idea this was happening, it’s hard to believe an underground system such as that exists outside of apocalyptic books or movies. Thank you for writing this and bringing attention to it.

    • lizliew

      In the European Union, in the 21st century. We should all be ashamed.

    • Tommy6860

      There are many underground areas in the US (as an example) where people live just like this. As humans, we shouldn’t think so much in terms as this happening in regions where we least expect it, as much as that we should not allow this to happen at all.

      • Jen Pink

        “Mole People.” I think NYC has several thousand homeless living in their abandoned subways, etc.; but it’s hard to deny how compelling the “orphanage” issue in Romania is, it’s not a narrative I was familiar with anyway. The “family” dynamic here is fascinating, too.

        • lizliew

          The conditions in Romanian orphanages were part of a big exposé in 1989/90, and it led to a huge rush of international adoptions. They closed the foreign adoptions about 10 years ago- for various reasons, some more reasonable than others- it essentially meant that the vast majority of orphans in state care left the system without ever finding a family. The leavees almost unanimously have little opportunity for a decent life and when they have children, those children are then taken away by the state and, like their parents, never adopted. Domestic adoptions are rare, the red tape is ridiculous and the whole situation is a frustrating rigmarole that least benefits the children.

      • lizliew

        I think when we’re confronted with something like this, we try to make sense of it as best we can. This is all the more horrific because we cannot point to its continuance as being the result of a lack of resources in the immediate vicinity or some dramatic set of circumstances we cannot affect. This can be resolved. This must be resolved. And yet, here they still are.

        • Tommy6860

          Regional or even ethnic tragedies such as these sometimes get attention because, maybe the images or the personal stories and history is more available to us. But, I don’t want to diminish that those who suffer under similar circumstances deserve less attention. While Nicolae Ceaucesu was a horrible person and was cause for Romania’s ensuing problems, equally horrific situations are abound in China, North Korea, etals, where those whose instincts to survive place them is all too many similar circumstances.

          Drugs to ameliorate the living conditions are not needed for many to have to survive the situations in which they live, drugs just happen to be that pain killer that is available for those who do live that scenario. Hell, even look at the situation in the Central African Republic, which is deplorable at best.

          We tend to think that because this happens under societies that have the means to take care of these people, that they should, is not being realistic. Taking care of these people should be made by allowing for an infrastructure that doesn’t allow for those to fall through the cracks of a privileged society. This may sound socialistic, but we are a socialistic species and it’s time to wake up that aspect.