When you ask around, people answer that they no longer exist. The children of the sewers are a legend, they say. But Chris is here in front of me. He’s real. I met him ‘above ground’, in the park in front of Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s major railway station. Chris is one of the thousands of people who still live in the underground tunnels of Bucharest, beneath the streets of the capital.
I’m in his ‘home-garden’, as he calls it, surrounded by low and dark clouds. He’s nervous and he keeps looking around, as if he is scared that someone will see us. He takes a look at the drawings on my wrist. I try to break the ice by showing and explaining the meaning of some of my tattoos. I then ask him whether his represent anything. They are not exactly drawings. In fact, his arms are full of scars. He explains that he made them himself with pieces of glass.
“I was trying to forget the pain with a new type of pain. The simpler way to overcome the trauma of the dark past I had. But those wounds, however, disappeared quickly with time, letting that deep pain came back to visit me again”.
At regular intervals, he inhales deeply from the bag he holds in his hand, which swells like a big balloon. He’s addicted to Aurolac, a powerful solvent that stuns and kills. A metallic glue-paint that is inhaled after heating it and placed in plastic bags. It is the most widely used drug because of its price. It suppresses the symptoms of cold and hunger, giving a strong sense of high. However, it has devastating effects on the brain causing irreversible damage.
“When I sniff this stuff everything makes sense to me. Objects move slower, things turn from grey to bright colors, noises become music. I go into a world where I find myself more at ease and where I’m not scared anymore”.
Chris had a troubled and unstable childhood. His physical and mental health were in a terrible state and he faced several surgical operations. He doesn't remember much about his childhood, or perhaps he doesn’t want to talk about the people who left him alone forever in the world.
And maybe he doesn’t even need to say anything. His eyes tell already what he cannot express with words. Since then, after four years of living rough, in and out of crowded orphanages, he ended up being homeless on the streets.
He, along with thousands of others, is an orphan to a family who could not afford to keep him. The legacy of a policy that aimed to increase the country’s workforce and reverse the low birth and fertility rates. An economic momentum to support this sudden population growth that never materialized. Many of them, not knowing where else to go, took refuge in the disused sewers of the city, where they could keep relatively warm using the heat coming from the pipelines. A sort of shadow kingdom, defined by rules and laws that are valid only there. Taking care of them, almost exclusively, are volunteers from a few NGOs that provide them with assistance, food and school supplies and school placement programs. Among them is Parada, on the front line, that since 1996 has assisted almost two thousand street children, less than half compared to the 90’s. Chris lives down here. In the sewers, to be exact. It is one of the few sewage channels that have remained in the central area. The majority of the homeless have been forced to move out into the suburbs, making the invisible even less visible.