Everyone is actually already dead. Their hearts are beating and they walk around among the rubbish and try to fight their demons, but actually they are already dead. It just takes some people longer and more suffering to get there. To the only guaranteed route out of Livezilor Alley. Death.
It is the same day that they stole the balcony. They took it down and sold it as scrap metal. 60 kilos for 65 bucks.
“Why the hell didn’t you say you hadn’t shot up in a while?”
“Suck my dick, you prick, how could you miss it?”
Marin swears in a panic. The heroin is rushing through his bloodstream but he is not able to relax with a cig like he usually does. The guy he is shooting up with has collapsed onto the bed, his face white face and his lips blue.
With hands as practised as an A&E nurse, Marin finds a new syringe and fills it with citric salt and water.
His partner Ana holds the guy up with one arm. They have dragged him down onto the floor, slapped his face and splashed water on him. His lips are no longer blue, but he is shaking uncontrollably. His legs have folded beneath him, as if he was paralysed.
“Make sure he doesn’t collapse,” orders Marin.
Ana prods the guy’s cold forehead and chin, “Oi! Wake up. Come on, open your eyes.”
“And I wanted to give him a higher dose. Fuck him, he’s not going to die.”
He is already in hell. The address is Livezilor Alley, Ferentari, Sector 5, Bucharest.
A stinking alley with big fat rats that thrive in the flooded cellars and dilapidated five-story buildings that would even make their creator, Ceausescu, turn pale with fear. There are downpours of rubbish and needles falling from the darkened windows. Decaying human souls enslaved by their inner demons, Roma mafia and corrupt politicians. The children take drugs, have HIV and take their own lives.
When Marin came home to his 13 m2 ground floor flat and took out his heroin, his five-year-old son Antonio started pacing about on the brown floral carpet between the bed, bookcase and toilet door.
That is how Antonio usually reacts. He gets more active. Those five to ten times a day that this happens.
The powder that is poured out onto a bit of paper, the filter that is removed from a cigarette, rolled up into a little ball and placed over the needle, the burning beneath the snapped glass tube and the brown liquid that is sucked into the syringe… He is used to that.
That is not what gets him stressed. It is the change in Daddy’s behaviour.
Now that the claustrophobic room is sweaty with anxiety, screaming and bodies, Antonio huddles tensely into a ball. His face is red, he is mumbling to himself and he is fighting the urge to cry.
Marin leans over the guy on the floor and tries to see, in the muted daylight coming through the window. He finds the same vein as last time and injects the citric saline solution.
It dilutes the heroin. Marin gets a glass and forces water into his mouth, but it comes back out again, onto the wall. He drags him up into a standing position.
It works. The guy remains in hell.
“I’m the best damn doctor here!” rejoices Marin and lights a cig.
The resuscitated patient straightens his clothes and staggers out into the alley. He is about 20 years old, a university educated structural engineer, but runs a music studio. He has been taking heroin for over ten years. He hardly remembers why he began, when he was little more than a teenager.
“All my friends did it I guess,” he manages to say and disappears.
He is just one of the people who visits Marin’s neighbourhood for a refill.
Ana lies back down on the bed. There is mould growing up the patchy blue wall above the headboard. Antonio quietly creeps up beside her. Marin goes up to the workbench by the window, the sheer grey curtains are drawn, and starts all over again. Powder, pipe, burn, syringe. Among his tools are a knife and a teddy bear. He uses the mirror in the bathroom to inject himself in the neck. If he injects in the wrong place he will die. But he gets it right. Blood is drawn up into the syringe and mixes with the heroin. With a combined look of pleasure and pain, he injects it all.
When Marin has heroin at home. He takes it. Until it is all gone.
And today he has stolen a balcony and sold stolen shorts, so he has heroin. Unusually strong it is too.
He goes outside and sits on the stone porch in the scorching sun. He hangs his head with his eyes shut. Gazing inwards into his own world. The soft opiate world. He has plump lips, dark eyebrows and his stubble frames his features. Beyond the broken, it is beautiful. After a while I give him a shove.
He looks up with one eye.
“Have you ever seen the devil die? Ha, ha!”
Marin is 27.
“How long do you think you will live if you carry on like this?”
“As long as God wants,” he answers as quick-witted as ever.
And then adds, “We’ll go to the barbers in a while. I need to get a haircut.”
On an identical porch across the street, Elena is sitting on a wooden pallet. Her face is a treasure map of wrinkles, her body is bony. She hopes God will not let her wait much longer.
She wants it to come now. Death.
Elena is 78. The only thing she regrets is not going to work at a bakery in Germany when she had the chance. Otherwise she does not feel that she has done anything stupid. She has worked at the canning factory and was a member of the Communist Party.
She stubs out her cigarette, picks up the pallet and, in her sandals with pink flowers on, she walks slowly back into her stairwell. It is so dusky that her steps are more audible than visible.
“Under Ceausescu, military staff lived here, so there was order. There were rose bushes between the buildings. Now it’s just the laziest, the poorest, the people who don’t want to work and the drug addicts who live here,” she hisses angrily, the way only she can.
She has written her name above the door with a marker pen. Surname first: Stancu Elena. With a sad voice, she continues, “One day when I had been food shopping, I stood here with my key, about to unlock the door, and a gypsy came up and ripped my money out of my hands.”
Her flat is 13 m2, just like Marin’s. It is her old workers’ housing from the Communist era. Her bed is on the left and on the right is her coffin. Hanging on the bathroom door are the clothes she wants to be buried in. Along one of the walls is her gravestone. The last digit of her date of death is the only thing missing. 1936-201_.
Along the other wall are rows of clocks and dolls. Time. Loneliness.
She has no children, her husband is dead and so are all of her eight siblings.
With a shrewd smile she takes out a perfume bottle. It is not the scent that seduces, but the name, “Far Away”. Far away from Livezilor Alley.
When you want to say that something is far away in Rumanian, you say that it is “la mama naibii” – with the devil’s mother.
That is what the perfume smells like. Like the devil’s mother.
“Elena, what is it that will happen when you die?” I wonder.
“That’s when I get to heaven! Close to God, above the clouds!”
A man we will call George also wants to go to heaven. He is one of Marin’s uncles. But his heaven is not close to God, above the clouds.
It is in Sweden.
“I’m going to go there and work and find a woman. Might get married to a hot Swedish woman. A new life!”
He stands outside the corner shop at the edge of Livezilor, surrounded by children who have not been fed and who want SEK 5 for chocolate. The few teeth he has left are golden brown. His stubble is grey, a red and green ink dragon curls around his bicep and there is a bandage wrapped around his swollen, black shin. Since George quit heroin, his blood does not want to flow properly.
He is 46 and has already looked for that new life in Italy, Germany and Spain. His buddies are now saying that Sweden is the place to go.
“There are so many people here who’ve been to Sweden but they aren’t going to tell you what they did there, that they’ve been there stealing.”
“What are you going to do in Sweden?” I ask.
“I’m going to steal! I would never beg, I want to work or steal. And meet women, there are a lot of single women there, that’s what my friends have said.”
“They might be single because they want to be.”
“No, no. They are single because there aren’t any real men in Sweden!”
He laughs scratchily and wonders whether he can move into my apartment in Stockholm.
“If you and I were together in Sweden, you could help me get new teeth.”
A man and a woman hear us chatting and stop in the street. They have a young son and are married, both to each other and to the heroin. The woman, who looks like she could snap in half, scratches at a wound on her leg with her nails, and raises her chin, “We’ve been to Stockholm and stolen. We drove on the off-chance, stole wallets and hoped to find money in them. It went well. Could get SEK 3,000 in one day.”
Even after they had paid protection money, the earnings were decent. The other method is to first see how much money people have in their wallets, by keeping an eye on them when they pay for something. George puffs out his chest, so the tiger on his t-shirt is staring at me, “Being a thief is a profession that requires skill. And I don’t steal from poor people, I just take mobiles from people who look like they can buy new ones.”
“But a lot of people have photos in their mobiles. Perhaps pictures of their children, which can’t be replaced. And all their telephone numbers. Don’t you think about that?”
“Nah, you don’t think about stuff like that. Stealing is like sex, when you’re doing it you don’t think about anything else.”
George has already saved up for the petrol. He is going to Stockholm in a BMW with his mate, who we will call Robert. His entire body smiles when he talks about it.
“First, we’re going to spend a few weeks in Germany, stealing, and meet a Romanian who works in a nightclub there. Then we’re going to Sweden!”
Robert the thief has the ability to always slip away. You see him standing on the street or sitting in his car and the next minute he is gone.
One afternoon, he picks up a girl with cats’ eyes and her hair pulled back into a ponytail to go stealing in town. He has a reputation for being the best at it in the entire ghetto. One evening, he is drunk and wants to kiss me.
But one morning, when the skies are an innocent shade of pale blue, he’s just leaning against the railing outside Elena’s door in striped turquoise shorts and a white YSL vest. His head and cheeks are shaved, his eyes are scrutinising, narrow lines. He draws on a cig and talks about the trips to Stockholm.
“The first time, I stayed in a tent. Last time, in a hotel at Mariatorget.”
“What? But that’s really expensive, you can’t afford that,” I burst out.
“Ha, ha, yep…”
“So you didn’t steal then?”
“I stole to pay for it, and you can steal a lot of money in Sweden.”
Robert inhales the last of his cig and throws it away.
“Why Sweden?” I wonder, curiously.
“We go where we hear things are good. Spain, Germany, Austria… Now Sweden’s good. Swedish people are kind, have money and the punishments are mild. And they have nice prisons.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve spent four months in prison in Sweden. It was good, better than living here.”
He nods his head towards the spooky concrete and the desperate addicts searching through the rotting rubbish that covers the ground for things to sell. If they do not find anything, they might pick up other people’s old needles, scrape together the leftovers and inject it. An explosive lucky dip of drugs, HIV and hepatitis.
Others send their children out to collect used syringes. They can swap them for new ones through the needle exchange programme. New needles are a currency here.
A guy with a long knife in the back pocket of his jeans shorts climbs out of a taxi and pays the driver in needles. He moves about nervously. A few nights ago he stabbed his knife through a man’s stomach. Now he is worried that the police will come and get him.
The sunshine pokes Robert in his sleepy face. He frowns, and his eyes grow even smaller. I step a bit closer and ask, “You said that Swedish people are kind, what did you mean by that?”
“If they catch you with your hand in their bag, you can talk to them and explain why you steal, and then they understand.”
“And why did you stay at Mariatorget?”
“Mariatorget’s good because young women go there in the evening and get drunk, so it’s easy to take their mobiles.”
This time, he and George will be meeting up with two of Marin’s acquaintances who have “established themselves” there.
“They have an ATM business. They watch people enter their pin code and then steal their cards.”
“But the people who beg in Stockholm, who are they?”
“They’re people who aren’t intellectual, but they are streetwise and they earn their money that way. By begging, or begging and stealing.”
Robert stretches, and is about to slip off again, but he wants to know something first, “Why do Swedish people walk around with bags of vodka bottles in the middle of the day?”
Marin dozed off slightly at the barber shop, beneath scissors and blades, rocked to sleep by his heroin. But now he is trimmed and shaved. A relative is getting married next week and he wants to look tidy for the wedding. He has promised me that there will be a big street party.
“You’ll have to take it easy Magda, otherwise you’ll end up taking cocaine with us!” he laughs loudly at me.
He jumps onto the tram into town to do his job. “Free shopping” he calls it. It is 32oC outside and even more baking inside the overcrowded carriage.
Outside, Ferentari rolls past, the neighbourhood that Livezilor Alley is part of. Notorious for being the most dangerous in Bucharest.
Round every corner there are depressing high rises and carwashes, a business that seems to work well with the hard up. But these carwashes are also mafia money laundering operations – this is where they launder their organised crime money, through a 90o white wash.
At a carwash near Livezilor, addicts can wash cars and get paid in heroin. The owner drives a black Mercedes with tinted windows.
The Mayor of Bucharest has been arrested for corruption. His driver has been charged with drug trafficking. His wife owns a carwash that is both a money laundering operation for the feared Camatari mafia and the same carwash to which the Mayor awarded a contract for washing the city’s police cars.
I wake Marin up once the tram has shaken its way to Unirii, a gigantic roundabout where neon signs, bearing names like Zara, Bershka and H&M, lure customers with a bit of glamour amidst all the Eastern Bloc greyness.
“I can lay down there and sleep,” yawns Marin, pointing at a patch of grass next to the tarmac.
“Have you taken more than usual today?”
“Yes, I bought almost 500 bucks worth. I’ve probably taken nine doses.”
He does his usual round of the shops. Tries on jeans in the changing rooms and keeps an eye on the security guards. He has a small knife in pocket of his shorts, for the alarm.
“This is not a good time, between 1 and 2 pm is best, that’s when the guards change shift,” complains Marin.
It is now 6 pm.
Everything has been delayed by the volume of heroin and the overdose.
If you are going to steal in Rumania, you have to stick to your plan. The risk is too high to be careless – you can get three years’ in prison for stealing a Snickers.
When, one evening over dinner, I tell a university educated man about sentencing classification in Sweden, he admits, “Do you know what my first thought was, when you told me that? I thought, ‘Why don’t I go to Sweden and steal?’”
“Wouldn’t you feel bad about that, though?”
“Magda, I’m Rumanian. We grew up like this, it’s about survival. Taking what we can.”
Another day, we talk about all of the mayors who have been arrested for corruption, and the Prime Minister who is being investigated for fraud, tax evasion and money laundering. The man questions this, rebelliously, “How are people expected to be better than their leaders? The worst thieves in this country are the politicians. Give me a billion Euros and I’ll open the world’s first prison for politicians. That’s the only thing that can save this country.”
A doctor in Ferentari earns SEK 3,000 a month and receives bribes from the patients, just to put food on the table – the Mayor of Ferentari has stolen SEK 176,000,000 from public funds.
When I bring this up with Marin, who is standing trying on sunglasses in a discount shop, he turns to me in aviator glasses, “They found all those millions in the Mayor’s house, and what’s he done for us? He put out a couple of fucking rubbish containers. If I was to go up to his office and ask for help with something, they’d throw me out.”
He shoves the shades up onto his forehead.
“I got 65 bucks from a campaign worker for voting for the president, he hasn’t done anything for us either.”
Seconds later, Marin has left the shop. With five pairs of sunglasses in his hand. He needs money for his evening fix too. Otherwise he will wake up at five, crippled with pain and feeling sick.
Marin is Roma. Ferentari has had Bucharest’s highest concentration of Roma people since the 19th century.
They are still over-represented in the various ghettos around here, but Livezilor Alley is an ethnic mix. Here the people are low income, unemployed, widows, pensioners, handicapped, addicts, mentally ill, homosexual, immigrants, criminal and prostitutes.
The factories in the area were closed down after the revolution in 1989 and a lot of the workers’ and military housing was vacated, so the social outcasts occupied the flats.
Marin has lived here since he was eight.
“If I could, I would give all the poor people a week of living like the rich people, so they could feel what it was like,” he dreams longingly and pours out two doses of his brown powder onto a bit of paper.
His neighbour stands beside him, impatiently flexing his prison-tattooed arms. His body is angular.
“I’ve been to prison in loads of countries. England was best. I’d like to go to prison in Sweden too, it’s probably even better,” says the neighbour.
The teddy bear is lying on its back on the workbench. Five-year-old Antonio never touches it. He is now sitting on the edge of the bed in his underpants, with clenched fists and a clenched jaw. Ana is lying down, at the bottom of the bed, with one arm across her eyes. She hides her tears. She suddenly roars at Marin, “Switch the telly on for Antonio!”
First she says that she is sad because she has not had any coffee. Then she says she is tired of it all.
“I’m so done with this. Eight years and he still takes drugs. But he’s my first and only love. I was a virgin when we met.”
Ana is 26 and has never tried drugs.
The two syringes are filled. Marin jabs the first one into the neighbour’s arm and empties it. Then he goes into the bathroom and jabs the other one into his neck. There is a bowl of laundry on the floor. He put it there to soak this morning.
When he comes back into the room he moves with a new energy. As long as he does not take too much, the heroin is an upper for him.
He goes out onto the steps for a smoke. Elena is sitting in the same place as always, on the steps across the street. She is smoking too. She does not want to smoke indoors, because the coffin is in there.
Marin’s uncle, George, and Robert the thief are further down the alley. It will not be long now, till they leave for Stockholm.
But first there is the wedding.
Then they will leave.
Away from the ghetto.
Almost all the girls who grow up here start selling sex, and nine out of ten guys end up in prison.
Like all the other men, Marin has knife scars on his arms and stomach. Self harm scars. He got beaten up in prison, and cut himself to get into the infirmary. He got three years for trafficking five grams of heroin, which he claims was for personal use.
He got clean inside. But as soon as he got out, his blood brother was waiting for him in the ghetto – the heroin he has been injecting since he was 13.
There are teenagers in Livezilor who started taking heroin when they were eight. One injected himself in the groin when he was ten. All his other veins were too scarred to use.
Almost everyone who injects get HIV and hepatitis C. The next stop after that is death.
One to three children die each month. From diseases, overdoses, beatings or suicide.
Being left alone in the ghetto, when their parents go abroad to beg or steal, can also be a death sentence. During the winter months, when life is particularly harsh and cold, the suicide rate goes up.
Some police officers in the area fabricate fake charges against children before the first snow falls, so they get sent to a home or juvenile prison. It is all they can do to save their lives.
One day, a young man came cycling through the alley. Marin’s cousin, Adin. He has curly hair, shaved into a Mohawk, and a calm face. He was the person who gave Marin his first ever dose of heroin.
Adin lives in Belgium, cleaning bars. He has come over for the wedding.
“How does it feel to be the one who gave Marin his first dose of heroin?”
“It doesn’t feel great, really. But if I hadn’t done it, someone else would have. Everyone in our gang was using.”
Marin says that he had already quit school by then.
“My teacher told my mum, ‘He’s stupid, take him to a special needs school.’ So I quit.”
At home, things were not much better.
“If I didn’t come home with money, they made me sleep outside.”
He ran away and moved in with one of his uncles, who was good at boxing and a clan member. When Marin began using and stealing, he helped his parents financially. His mother said that if he could not make money any other way, then he could sell drugs. Then when he ended up in jail, she did not help him with Ana and Antonio. He felt betrayed.
“When I got out, they had lice and Antonio didn’t recognise me.”
Today his mother, sister and brother-in-law live in Spain. I ask what they do.
“What can they do? They steal! My sister and her husband went there to steal, and Mum followed them to look after their kids.”
Marin grabs a mop bucket and leaves with his cousin. They have to get the wedding venue ready for a party.
The wedding day is chaotic and sad. The groom’s father died of a heart attack the night before. Eventually the family decide to hold the wedding anyway, as it would be a bad financial decision to cancel.
Marin paces about his tiny flat wearing Ana’s floral sandals, his face contorted and his hands clutching at his stomach. That cocaine he warned me I would take if I was not careful, he took it. Mixed it with heroin, and injected it. His throat is painfully dry and he has vomited.
Ana has put on her make up but does not want to go anywhere any more. She is angry because Marin has not organised a wedding outfit for Antonio. He has borrowed a couple of shirts, but she does not like them.
“All the other kids will be wearing nice outfits. We can’t arrive like this.”
The immediate family parade along the alley with the groom. The women’s heels are higher than 10 cm, the dresses are pink, red and golden creations. They stop outside the detached house of a family member, a few streets away. They have several houses. Marin is not allowed to live in them because he takes drugs.
Out in the street, Champagne is being poured over smouldering dry ice. Two men, who are both taller and broader than everyone else, stand facing the crowd with expressionless faces. One has the same sort of shoulder bag that plain-clothed Balkan police officers keep their guns in. Men with fiddles, accordions, pianos, drums and clarinets play manele – Roma folk music.
The bride comes out, with flowing black hair and wearing a white princess wedding dress with ruffles that fill half the courtyard. She is seated on a chair and a manele singer sets the tone.
There is dancing, eating and drinking. People shower the singer with large banknotes. You have to look like you have money, even if you do not.
No one seems happy.
The next morning, the groom’s father is on display in an open casket.
Autumn has arrived in Livezilor Alley. Marin and Ana are curled up under a blanket, watching television. They have made egg sandwiches. Antonio is playing with a plastic bow and arrow.
Marin sits up slightly and says that he has seen a show that Rumanian television made in Sweden.
“You’re the ones who are racist and are discriminating Roma people,” he accuses me.
“What do you mean?”
“The Swedes in the show talked about us like we were all beggars. We’re not. There are loads who work and have their own company and do all sorts of things.”
I go out for a walk with a guy called Larry. He has tuberculosis and I usually accompany him to the hospital for his daily antibiotics injection. I ask him what it is like to be Roma here.
“I’m proud because I’m a gypsy,” he says in his lighthearted voice.
He has lived here all his life. His wife got him started on heroin, but that is over now. Both with the wife and the heroin.
Larry had a construction job that paid well, but now he cannot work because of the tuberculosis.
He believes that everyone has it just as bad here, regardless of ethnicity.
“What’s good about Livezilor?”
“Nothing. Friends steal and deceive each other.”
“What will happen to the children?”
“Same thing as their parents.”
Livezilor Alley transforms every evening. It is like life is upside down here. Sleepy during the day. Noisiest at midnight.
One evening, tables have been set up out in the street. People are drinking. Robert the thief is standing next to his car, distraught. At first I do not understand why.
Then I get it. He has taped a photograph onto the windscreen of his car and one onto the rear windscreen.
It is the same photograph. A photo of Marin’s uncle, George. Underneath he has written, “We’ll never forget you.”
George never made it to Stockholm. The blood did not want to flow any more. It clotted up and sent him off down the only guaranteed route out of the ghetto. Death.
Marin gives me a memorial beer.
“Have this. In memory.”
“I don’t drink.”
It is time for me to leave Livezilor. The hell that turned out to be a place where you share your life with everyone, with no room for façades or closed doors. Leaving this place no longer feels straightforward.
I go over to Elena and tell her that I am leaving.
“Good,” she mutters and stubs out her cigarette.
“Why is that good?”
She gazes silently out over the dilapidated buildings. The ones she never left when she had the chance. She gets up and picks up her pallet to go in to her coffin.
“What are you going to do here? There is nothing here for you. I would leave this place too if I could. This is a place for the living dead.”
They made the journey to beg. And they ended up in the black economy, under forms similar to slavery – organised by Swedes in the county of Sörmland. How did it turn out that way?
The story was only uncovered by accident. We’re driving through the Romanian countryside when we catch sight of a Ford Galaxy with Swedish plates parked on a farm.
“Sweden, yes! We came home a week ago.”
Mother-of-four Cristina Gaman, 33, opens the red wooden gate and invites us into her house. She’s boiling a couple of fish on the gas stove. The bedroom and living room are cosy, with rugs and tablecloths. There’s a fridge and cable TV. Water is on tap outside but hasn’t been plumbed into the house.
Cristina and her husband have been in Strängnäs and Mariefred. They drove home to the village of Crovu in the Ford they bought in Sweden for 5,000 Swedish kronor.
Their daughters Catalina, 9, and Sara, 13, are folding clothes on the floor beside the tiled stove. The youngest child, Daria, 2, is running around among the piles of clothes on her short legs.
Cristina tells us that her husband, Marian Gaman, 36, and son Daniel, 14, are out working. They’re doing casual work in the village. Today, they’re chopping wood.
This makes us wonder: Why did they travel to Sweden to beg if they have a house and job here?
Cristina doesn’t take offence, explaining instead the reality of their life in Romania.
Marian previously had a full-time job in a factory in Crovu but it was closed down when the financial crisis hit Romania. Since then it’s been more difficult to find employment, and wages have fallen.
When Marian lost his job, they borrowed money from the bank – a loan that’s increased to 56,000 kronor because they haven’t paid off the interest for several years. Cristina doesn’t think that their poor finances are due to them being Boyash – a minority people who, like the Roma, were slaves in monasteries and in people’s homes until the mid-1800s and are somewhat carelessly called Roma – but due to unemployment.
“It’s not about discrimination – it’s the same for everyone living here. Romanians don’t have jobs either,” she says, referring to ethnic Romanians.
One difference that Cristina mentions is that to a greater extent, ethnic Romanians own farmland – land passed on from one generation to the next that can provide them with a little income. Also, due to their history, many adult Boyash and Roma are illiterate, thus making it more difficult for them to compete in the job market.
But the richest man in the village is a Rom, a building contractor who lives further down the street, in a kitschy house with a shiny silver gate and an equally shiny car. “That’s what everyone’s dreaming of,” says 14-year-old Daniel when he and his father Marian arrive home. A nice house and a nice car.
Daniel left school two years ago. His parents didn’t think they could afford to let him continue. It’s free for everyone to go to school in Romania, but books and pens cost money – and if Daniel worked instead, the household kitty would be in the black rather than the red.
Also, changing your life by getting an education takes a very long time and can feel less secure than making money in the here and now, which the heavily indebted family saw as necessary.
Despite this explanation, we can’t help asking:
So you could afford to buy a car for 5,000 kronor but you can’t afford to let your son go to school?
“Yes,” Cristina Gaman confirms.
Her daughters, Catalina and Sara, go to school here in Crovu. They take pictures of us with their smartphones – iPhone and Samsung. Just like Swedish youngsters, they want clothes and gadgets.
When the Gamans went to Sweden, the children were left alone under the supervision of their grandmother, who lives on the same farm but whom the family has fallen out with. Both the grandmother and grandfather are alcoholics. Many children who are left on their own when their parents travel abroad don’t manage to get themselves to school and are left with an emptiness inside them that can be filled by destructive behaviour.
For this reason Cristina and Marian would prefer to move away with their children. This was part of the impetus for going abroad to try to improve their finances.
Marian went first. He’d heard from other people that there was money to be made in Sweden. Relatives of his had spent time in Mariefred and managed to make 300–400 kronor a day through begging. Begging six days a week can bring in a net income of 7,200–9,600 kronor each month.
“We can never earn that much by working here,” says Cristina.
The average wage in Romania is 3,880 kronor after tax.
The Gaman family pays 215 kronor a month for electricity and 43 kronor for cable TV. They own the house so they pay no rent, but they need to pay off their loan and buy food, clothes and school materials for the children, along with wood during the cold months. The family preferably needs to make around 4,000 kronor per month. The winters are particularly difficult as there’s less casual work around then.
After a meagre winter last year, when the family got by on odd jobs and child benefit, Sweden looked like a promising option. To pay for the bus journey going north, the family borrowed money from a relative who had already been in Sweden.
Marian Gaman came to Strängnäs in March 2015. A lot of people from Crovu had come to this small town in the county of Sörmland, and there were no spaces free for beggars.
“You don’t dare take a spot from someone who’s been there for a long while. In other Swedish towns, I’ve heard that the beggars pay Romanians for spots, but in Strängnäs and Mariefred, you just have to find a space somewhere,” says Cristina.
Marian was standing on the street when a woman showed up and said:
“Come, we don’t want you standing outside in the cold.”
The woman’s name was Angelica Andersson and she was the cook for “a religious sect”.
That’s how things all started for Marian. But what he’d got involved in had started a few months’ earlier.
“The sect”, as Cristina and Marian call it, turned out to be the Pentecostal church in Strängnäs. In the winter of 2014 Pentecostal pastor Fredrik Olsson invited interested parties to a meeting to discuss what to do with the beggars who had come to the town.
They concluded that they needed a roof over their heads during the cold months of the year.
“I suggested that we should give them the key to the church. There was spontaneous applause,” says Fredrik Olsson.
But there were strings attached.
“We put pressure on them to make changes. We said that we didn’t want them to beg – instead they would have to earn their keep.”
One of several projects launched was making wooden spoons and nesting boxes. These were made in January and sold primarily between January and April via Facebook. This generated around 1,500 kronor per person per month.
The Pentecostal church also checked up on those who had come to beg by registering them on the streets and then asking social services in Crovu what they needed – a registration process that is still used for new people who come.
“There are limitations – we can’t help the whole world,” says Fredrik Olsson.
The answer from the authorities was that everyone who had been begging was in need of financial support from social services. This is common in Romania – the second poorest and third most corrupt EU country, with around 20 million inhabitants. According to a report published in spring 2015 by the aid organisation Caritas, the proportion of the population who risk living in poverty or social exclusion is 40 percent – that is, eight million Romanians.
A parish member of the Pentecostal church, Ingela Almqvist, who runs mission projects in Tanzania and is a hotel manager in the safari city of Arusha, gave twelve Romanians work.
They had to stand outside supermarkets like Coop and sell necklaces and cloth bags made by Maasai women in Tanzania. According to Marian they were promised 20 percent of the money they made. Eighty percent was to go to the Maasai women.
The Romanians were persuaded to accept this after being told they would earn 10,000 kronor each in less than two months.
Marian worked six days a week, five to eight hours per day, depending on the weather. The products were hard to sell, and he started to wonder how much money he would actually get.
After a few weeks, five people from the group dropped out because they didn’t dare to wait any longer for money that might not materialise – they needed money for day-to-day expenses and to send home to their children in Romania.
This was around the time when Cristina Gaman came to Strängnäs. A Swede paid for her flight.
“I came to Sweden because I was also going to sell handicrafts from Tanzania,” she says.
In total Marian worked for six weeks and Cristina four.
“We didn’t get a krona,” claims Marian.
“We didn’t get any wages – we don’t know how much money came in or what Ingela did with it.”
When they started working with the project, the Gamans had to live in a caravan in Ingela Almqvist’s garden, along with some relatives from Crovu. Considering how much space they have in their house at home, we wonder how they found it.
“Life in Sweden was very hard indeed: we got one meal a day, and the rest was scavenged from the bins behind Coop in the evenings. The food in the shops was far too expensive for us,” says Cristina.
Alongside selling handicrafts from Tanzania, the Romanians provided domestic services to the residents of Strängnäs – cleaning, gardening, demolition, painting and final cleaning when people move house.
Cristina worked in people’s homes for one to three hours a day during the weekends, earning around 70–75 kronor an hour. Sometimes she got less.
“A woman paid me 100 kronor for three hours.”
The Romanians weren’t given the right to decide what happened to the money they earned either.
“Ingela said that we should have a joint account – we didn’t like that,” says Marian.
During the spring Marian got a job as a sheet metal worker with a smith by the name of Ulf Haake. He worked every day for two weeks and earned 4,800 kronor, but only got to keep 800 kronor.
How could you get as little as 800 kronor for two weeks’ work?
“Well, I had to share my wages with five others, who hardly worked at all. Only two of them did some gardening for a couple of days.”
Ulf Haake praises Marian’s skills as a craftsman and understands that he was disappointed about his money being shared, but it wasn’t Ulf who did this: it was Ingela Almqvist.
For all the work they did in March and April, Marian and Cristina made a grand total of 4,000 kronor. Even if you make a conservative estimate, that’s a lot less than they would have made from begging.
Marian struggles to find the words when we ask how this felt for him. Finally, he says:
“It didn’t feel good – I didn’t like it at all. I did almost all the work, I know a little English and have professional skills. I was the only one who got up at five in the morning.”
Pastor Fredrik Olsson says that each Romanian made 20,000 kronor in ten weeks working for Ingela Almqvist and doing work on the side. He claims that the commission on selling handicrafts from Tanzania was 40 percent.
Ingela Almqvist herself says it was 25 percent.
According to the Romanians, the commission was between 10 and 20 percent. Four of them say that they didn’t get paid at all for selling Tanzanian handicrafts. All of them feel that they were exploited.
Romanians have also been exploited where domestic services are concerned. The recommendation has been to pay 75 kronor an hour but that payment may be made “depending on ability and the collaborative relationship”. One Romanian says that he worked for six days, morning until night, doing demolition work and receiving 30 kronor, a packet of cigarettes and a little food.
The Romanians’ version of events is confirmed by Angelica Andersson, who cooked food for the Romanians more or less on a daily basis, both in the kitchen of the Pentecostal church and in her own home. When she realised that they wouldn’t be getting paid anywhere near the amounts they’d been enticed with, she dropped out of the Tanzania project.
“I think that they were exploited. They couldn’t possibly have received 10,000 kronor each when they were only bringing in 500–600 kronor a day in sales. That’s when I got out – because I have a good relationship with all the Romanians and didn’t want to be part of the mess when she paid out their wages,” says Angelica Andersson, who is not a member of the Pentecostal community.
She also says that the Romanians didn’t know what percent meant. One day, she held up a hundred krona note and explained how many of them would be sharing it. They then realised that they would never earn what they thought they’d been promised.
Now, Angelica Andersson is no longer allowed to cook food in the church, hours for which she received activity compensation from the employment service for impaired capacity to work. She exclaims:
“I’ve been fired from my job.”
“Because the Pentecostal church doesn’t want me to tell Expressen the truth about the Romanians’ wages.”
Pastor Fredrik Olsson confirms that he has called Angelica and told her not to spread a story “that makes the church appear to be slave drivers”.
“We open up our church for volunteers to cook food. She’s one of these volunteers … we make no money out of this. We want to do it because we’re Christians and think that you should help your fellow citizens. If this is presented as us exploiting the situation, then I don’t think the people of Strängnäs will bring food to the church any more. And the Romanians are the ones who’ll suffer.”
Fredrik Olsson admits that Ingela Almqvist seems to have misjudged how well the handicrafts would sell, but he defends her nonetheless:
“Ingela’s a member of our church. We support her and think what she’s doing is great.”
When we ask the pastor how he views the Pentecostal church saying to the Romanians that they have to work to get a roof over their heads and then giving them jobs cash in hand, he replies adamantly:
“You can’t make that connection. And no-one’s been working cash in hand.
What we’ve said to residents is that they can engage the services of an individual for a maximum of 999 kronor per year without declaring it for tax. Then their wife and their neighbour can do the same, and so on.” This is Fredrik’s argument to prove that the domestic services provided are legal and above board.
But according to the Swedish Tax Agency, the 999-kronor rule has nothing to do with taxes and social security contributions; the rule simply says that employers are not obliged to submit a statement of earnings and deductions up to that level.
How taxes and social security contributions are to be paid depends on whether the person hired is taxed at source or pays SINK tax (special income tax for persons resident abroad). If SINK tax is applicable, both tax and employer contributions must be paid from the first krona earned. If you’ve worked in Sweden for longer than six months, which may be the case for several of the Romanians, you are obliged to pay tax in the same way as Swedes and file a tax return.
The next question concerns how the Romanians would be able to pay taxes and social security contributions on income as low as 75 kronor an hour. There wouldn’t be very much left.
Johan Ingelskog, unit head for labour law and collective agreements at Kommunal (the Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union), fully opposes the way in which the Romanians have been given work.
“In this case it’s a question of people wanting to do something out of the kindness of their hearts but having completely lost the plot. I’m sure their intentions were good, but when the recipient doesn’t see it that way and doesn’t think they’ve been treated fairly, it’s not OK. Exploiting Romanians in this way, taking advantage of the fact that they’re dependent on help, is something I see as distasteful.”
He compares it to a similar case concerning foreign berry pickers, which attracted widespread media attention.
“The way we see it, this is pure labour trafficking. Where berry picking is concerned, we’ve managed to sort it out and sign collective agreements, raising the salary level to a minimum of 17,000 kronor a month.”
Ingelskog also thinks that recommending payment at an hourly rate of 75 kronor constitutes wage dumping and undermines labour legislation.
“What’s serious about this is that you’re pricing companies out of the market that want to conduct business in domestic services in a professional way, companies that pay salaries in line with collective agreements and social security contributions so that those working are entitled to sick pay and pensions. These people are here with no rights whatsoever, and the competition is unhealthy.”
Could this case be taken to court?
“Yes, if these people joined Kommunal, we’d be able to fight their case despite there being no collective agreement, because those in a stronger position have to make sure they are not exploiting that when offering jobs to people in a vulnerable position.”
Despite the criticism, Ingela Almqvist defends the model.
“It’s an excellent means of helping people in need, of helping them to stop begging. We can’t give everyone a job. My aim wasn’t for them to stay in Sweden.”
Her plan was for the Romanians to earn 10,000 kronor each and then go home. Ingela Almqvist is adamant that the money should last a year, despite being just half the statutory minimum wage in Romania.
Several Swedes say the same thing – that they thought the Romanians needed to make enough money to buy something they said they needed when they were begging, and then they would go back home. But when you talk to the Romanians themselves, they have a different goal: to earn money, raise their standard of living.
According to Ingela Almqvist, in the end, each Romanian took around 2,500 kronor home with them once they’d paid for their ticket home, which she doesn’t consider too little for six weeks’ work. This amount takes into account all the wages divided between the group, regardless of whether they sold handicrafts or did gardening work.
In Marian’s and Cristina’s case, this is the equivalent of just under ten kronor an hour.
Do you still think the collective solution was a good one?
“Yes, I still think it was a good way to do things, because they need to learn to take care of each other.”
Why should you be the one who decides how they run their lives?
“I want them to work in a team, because you’re strong in a team. They were from the same village and just as poor as each other. If I just give one or two people a huge amount of money, this will just cause more problems.”
Almqvist claims that it wouldn’t be good for Marian to get a higher salary, naming 20,000 kronor a month as an example.
“If he comes home and can earn 20,000 kronor a month, I don’t think it’s so easy to come home when everyone else is still poor and in dire straits. It’s not fair on him, nor is it fair on others.”
This group of Romanians is not the only one travelling abroad to earn money. On the contrary, a large portion of Romania’s working population earns a living in this way. As many as 3.7 million Romanians are estimated to work abroad. Their jobs run the gamut from cleaners to doctors, and they earn much more than they would have done had they worked in Romania.
Many people have described Marian Gaman as driven and self-motivated. In the spring he obtained a Swedish personal identification number so that he could work within the system. In May Marian and Cristina went home to Crovu for a short visit. In June they were back in Sweden. During the summer Marian worked for a couple of months for Ulf Haake at an hourly rate of 100 kronor – taxed – and received a gross salary totalling 14,035 kronor, which he didn’t need to share.
Five thousand kronor was spent on buying the old Ford. The petrol to drive it to Crovu cost 3,000 kronor.
Marian and Cristina are now sitting in their living room in the Romanian countryside and say that they want to send their 14-year-old son Daniel to Sweden to earn money but they know it can be difficult because he’s under age.
We wonder if it wouldn’t be better if Marian worked for Ulf Haake again.
“Ulf’s kind – he’s like my brother. But no, I don’t want to go back,” Marian replies, after a lengthy silence.
“Because in both Strängnäs and Mariefred, they have projects for Roma. I don’t want to be part of some Roma project. That’s not why I went to Sweden.”
The hardest thing you can do is help people. These are the words of Rickard Klerfors, aid director at the charitable organisation Hjärta till Hjärta. He thinks that even collections made by private individuals can pose problems. This was precisely the case with a collection made at a flea market in Mariefred – just one of the residents’ many initiatives.
A woman who had been begging in Mariefred had said that she needed 15,000 kronor for her son’s jaw operation. Pastor Fredrik Olsson and Anna Löfving, editor-in-chief of local newspaper Mariefreds Tidning took the opportunity to hand over the money in Crovu in March 2015 when they were there on a visit.
It all turned out to be more complicated than they’d thought. It wasn’t possible to pay the money directly to a hospital and get the operation done, which Anna Löfving says is what she naively had thought. She wanted to come home and tell everyone in Mariefred that the money had been put to good use, and turned to Hjärta till Hjärta for advice.
In the end the money was presented to Hjärta till Hjärta’s area director in Crovu, who contacted a dental surgeon and discovered that the mother had exaggerated the cost of the operation – the price was 4,300 kronor. The Swedes suggested that the rest be paid to Crovu municipality to cover half the cost of installing electricity in the homes of five families. The municipality promised to foot the bill for the other half. They subsequently backed out, saying they didn’t have enough money in the budget.
There were also problems with the dental surgeon. The last that was heard from him was that he wanted to do the operation for 2,150 kronor in cash – straight into his own pocket and with no guarantees. Since that time Hjärta till Hjärta has not managed to reach the boy’s mother – they think she may have gone back to Sweden.
To date, only 236 kronor of the 15,000 have been used – to pay a driving school because Anna Löfving wanted a Romanian to get his driving licence. She didn’t know that he didn’t have a licence and had let him drive round delivering newspapers. And even getting a licence was a non-starter – he was illiterate and unable to study for the theory test.
Newspaper owner and editor-in-chief Anna Löfving has been praised for her commitment to giving beggars jobs. She’s been nominated for Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet’s “Svenska hjältar” (Swedish Heroes) award, and the Mariefred model to counteract begging was nominated for “Årets mångfaldsbragd 2015” (Diversity Achievement of the Year 2015).
We talk to Anna Löfving for several hours about all the twists and turns regarding Strängnäs and Mariefred. She calls the Romanians her friends, saying she has only ever wanted to do good and thinks it’s positive that people are looking into everything that took place.
She now wants to ensure the jobs are above board and has plans to start a staffing company known as Crovu Creation. According to an advert already published in Mariefreds Tidning, it will still be possible to hire Romanians for domestic services at “low rates”.
In actual fact, a form of staffing company has been in place the whole time. A Swede receives job offers via Facebook, distributes them among the Romanians and makes sure they’re picked up outside the ICA supermarket in the mornings. Swedes’ bank accounts, including Anna Löfving’s, have sometimes been used to deposit the Romanians’ wages. They haven’t received any pay slips or receipts.
Regarding the union’s view that everyone in Sweden should work within the tax system and in line with agreements, Anna says:
“This is a big and complex area, and it’s difficult to know how you can help and follow these rules. The services provided are very simple – cleaning out wardrobes and doing gardening. No social security contributions or taxes or anything like that have been paid for this work. If they have to work under collective agreements, how will we get Swedes to hire them for those wages?”
Why isn’t that possible?
“Partly it’s down to terrible prejudice – people looking down their noses at them and thinking that they’re incapable of anything. Partly it’s because they don’t speak Swedish, they can’t read and write, they don’t have a driving licence. This can make things difficult in the beginning for those who hire them – you have to gesticulate and translate – and they’re not trained painters or cleaners, either. I guess that’s one reason why they can’t get paid as much as Swedes. And then people have got used to the 75 kronor an hour that we’ve recommended.”
These are things that you can often hear in Romania, the county that is considered discriminatory, about why Romanian Boyash and Roma are paid less than ethnic Romanians.
It says in several items in Mariefreds Tidning that the Romanians available for hire “are insured and comply with existing rules and legislation”. Is it true that they’re insured?
“We thought they were insured – we assumed that they had their EU insurance cards with them. But we’ve subsequently understood that this wasn’t the case. But if you have home insurance, you can claim on that if something gets broken at home.”
They recently scraped the paint off a whole house. What happens if someone falls off a ladder?
“In the county of Sörmland the same rules apply to EU citizens as to us: that they pay 100 kronor if they need to go to the doctor’s, for example.
But going to the doctor’s or the emergency ward is one thing. The question is: how they would be compensated for work-related injuries or any future disabilities when they work cash in hand?
“Yes, that’s a good question.”
A month after Marian Gaman sat at home in his living room in Crovu and said he didn’t want to return to Strängnäs, we find out that he’s done just that.
He explains that his father has died, that his mother has cirrhosis of the liver and that he needs money. He’s living in his Ford Galaxy, trying to get a job on his own in Strängnäs and Mariefred. According to the Swedish Transport Agency, the car has not been inspected, has been deregistered and is banned from use on the roads.
The entire group in Mariefred is related to Marian – four brothers by the name of Tudor who are his cousins, a Mrs Tudor and a sister-in-law.
Anna Löfving does not doubt what Marian is saying but says that on two occasions Romanians come running to her, saying that they had to travel home urgently because their mother was dying of cancer. The first time, she paid for their flights, and then they came back and worked for a while and said the same thing again. They then had to pay for their trips home themselves. Anna Löfving has wondered whether they were playing on their mother’s illness to get tickets a second time and whether she should really have paid for them the first time.
A Swede who paid 9,200 kronor to renovate and insure Marian’s car feels that in retrospect, it would perhaps have been better to spend the money on some other form of help.
“A lot of things were probably wrong in the beginning, when all of this was new and we didn’t know any better, but you have to make mistakes before you learn to do things right,” says Anna Löfving.
When we check how things are going in Crovu, it turns out that Marian Gaman’s father has died and his mother is in hospital. Marian borrowed 5,400 kronor from a neighbour for the funeral. This is one of the reasons why Marian went back to Strängnäs.
Marian’s only plan for the future is to improve the standard of living for his family. He is arguing with his mother and siblings, who he has to buy out to be able to sign over his father’s farmland to himself. He now thinks it might be better to leave everything and move to the country in the north. But everything’s so expensive there. So he’s wondering:
“What do you need to get income support in Sweden?”
/// ADDENDUM ///
Salaries and benefits in Romania
The statutory minimum wage is 1,670 kronor after tax.
The average wage in the country is 3,880 kronor after tax.
The average wage in Bucharest is 5,550 kronor after tax.
An adult who is unemployed and thus has no health insurance can take out such insurance for 125 kronor per month.
Health insurance is required in order to be eligible for a European Health Insurance Card.
Emergency healthcare is free for everyone in Romania for the first three days.
Child allowance is 430 kronor a month up to the age of two, and then 180 kronor up to the age of 18.
Those who are ill for a long period are entitled to sickness benefit.
People with disabilities can get a sickness pension and financial support for a personal assistant.
Income support is needs-tested based on the number of family members, other benefits, and income from farmland and animal husbandry.
For a family of two adults and four children, they amount to 1,210 kronor a month.
If you receive welfare benefits and are fit for work, you are obliged to do community service, for example, work in a park, for a certain number of hours a month.
There is information on recipients of welfare benefits who have been abroad to beg being crossed off the list of recipients because they are considered as having undeclared income.
This is Crovu
Agricultural community sixty kilometres west of Bucharest.
1,441 inhabitants (according to 2011 census).
Around 400 of these are from the Boyash minority.
There is a modern school that is free of charge and welcomes everyone, regardless of ethnicity.
The local authority has made land available for the poorest citizens to live on.
The statutory minimum wage is 1,670 kronor after tax.
The average wage in Romania is 3,880 kronor after tax; in Bucharest it is 5,550 kronor.
Those who are unemployed and have no health insurance can take out such insurance for 125 kronor per month.
When you have health insurance you are entitled to a European Health Insurance Card.
Emergency healthcare is free for everyone in Romania for the first three days.
Child allowance is 430 kronor a month up to the age of two, and then 180 kronor.
Rickard Klerfors, aid director at Hjärta till Hjärta, an organisation with extensive experience of Romania, says the following about the model used in Strängnäs and Mariefred:
“The solidarity doesn’t extend further than cheap domestic services. In their blue-eyed idealism, they don’t realise that they’re actually part of the problem. If we’re serious about showing solidarity, we should take great care to ensure that everything is above board and that the migrants are given a proper chance – by working and paying taxes – to make lives for themselves in Sweden.”
Rich Roma who marry off their 12-year-old daughters, well-educated ones working in banks, poor ones who are discriminated against and a clan leader who was born in prison.
This is a journey through exclusion. It shatters dreams of a life within the majority society. It creates parallel societies with their own norms and laws. It doesn’t always welcome visitors.
“Omertà” prevails in Buzescu. Silence. A code of honour within the mafia. Intricately wrought silver gates are pulled shut. Heavy doors with lion’s head knockers are closed. Steps fade away across the marble.
What is left are the mansions and the cars. Low-slung sports models. SUVs with tinted windows.
I’m here without permission. It looks empty.
I met him in his orchard. The leader.
He informed me of his decision, without having shaken my hand and without meeting my eyes even once.
“I can take you to the street and give you information – it’ll only cost you 500 kronor.”
“No way – it’s a public place and I never pay for interviews,” I said and walked out.
His authoritarian face started to boil. I could hear the sound of angry footsteps behind me as I quickly jumped into the car. He shouted:
“You can’t go there! No-one will talk to you!”
The leader was wrong.
An unshaven man in a black leather waistcoat, sitting on a bench outside his pink palace – shaped like a cake with columns, turrets and terraces – speaks to me.
“How old are you?”
“39,” I reply, sitting down.
“Are you married?”
The man leans closer in his broad-brimmed hat, exposing two rows of gold teeth.
“But how can you have lived your whole life without men?”
“That’s not what I said,” I reply, startled and surprised.
“But if you’re not married, you must be a virgin. Are you a virgin?”
I cross my arms across my chest protectively.
“That‘s not respectful, asking a question like that.”
“We’re gypsies, this is how we talk,” snaps the man, leaning backwards.
Neither of us says anything for a while. He wrings his hands. His fingers are weighed down by gold rings; around his wrist is a Rolex made of gold and diamonds, around the collar of his shirt a gold necklace as thick as a bicycle chain with a gold emblem that spreads across his chest.
He looks at me from behind wrinkled eyelids.
“If you aren’t a virgin, you might as well give your vagina to a lot of men so that they can enjoy you because you’re already damaged goods. Here, we marry off the girls when they’re twelve.”
“Because they like it. They want to start having sex then. I was 20 when I married my wife, who was 12.”
I look at him with curiosity and change the subject.
“What’s the secret of your success?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Aren’t you proud of being successful?”
“No, I’m not proud.”
He moves further away. I open my mouth to ask again. Then he gets up. Disappears behind his Porsche Cayenne, opens his gate and says:
“You have to leave.”
Buzescu is a Roma village an hour west of Bucharest. The only ethnic Romanian who sets foot here is the postman.
I go back there with two Roma men, a banker and a craftsman, thinking it will open doors.
This time, a wedding is being held in the street. The families try to drive us away. When this doesn’t work, the leader himself – the Roma representative in the area – turns up and starts waving his fists around, threatening to call the police.
“We can’t stay here,” says the banker, wanting me to hurry up and get in the car.
As the last columns of Buzescu start to vanish from the rear-view mirror, he explains that there are two professions in this town of mansions:
“You’re either a thief or a pimp. The pimps say to the girls, ‘You’re living with me, you’re my wife, you live here and you eat here but you’re a whore on the streets and we’re both going to make money’.”
Regardless of the reason for taking a wife, the rule is that the daughters are married off – for money, when they’re young virgins.
“It’s hard to change this tradition as long as they stay in the community. Like there – there were only Roma living there, no Romanians. According to them, a 15-year-old girl is someone who has children, who’s a mother,” continues the Roma banker.
“How much do they pay for a wife?”
“They pay as much as they can afford. From 500 to 20,000 euro.”
I do a rough calculation in my head: almost 190,000 Swedish kronor.
The craftsman and the banker discuss the amounts and laugh in the front seat.
“It depends on two things: how wealthy the family are and how beautiful the girl is!”
“Don’t they want to integrate?” I ask, interrupting him.
“The girls who live there don’t marry Romanians. Roma boys can sometimes marry Romanian girls, but they take them to the village.”
“So they’re not interested in living in a mixed community?”
“No, not the ones living in that area.”
We turn off slowly into the neighbouring village of Alexandria. It’s just a few streets away and is also a Roma community. Through the car windows I can see horses and carts, simple wooden houses with fences of corrugated metal. The contrast is astounding.
“Do the rich Roma help the poor Roma?”
“They don’t give them a penny,” says the banker.
“They don’t even look at the poor,” says the craftsman.
No doors are closed in Alexandria. An old man, his hands showing the marks of age, has a metalworking shop in his yard. He makes equipment for illicit alcohol stills. At harvest time, when people make spirits from the fruit, he can make sales totalling just under 2,000 kronor a month. This figure sinks to less than 1,000 kronor off-season. His wife bakes cakes and sells them.
The man proudly tells us that one of their children is married to an ethnic Romanian.
Other craftsmen in the area make silver jewellery, drainpipes, horseshoes. But most of their tools are packed away. They take them out and show us slightly wearily how they’re used. They make products that aren’t competitive in a society where there are bargain stores.
A silversmith smacks a puppy lying in front of his tools.
Another gets up from a long table full of beer bottles and stumbles his way out into a field with his toolbox.
The air smells of drink, grass and hopelessness.
The sun is high in the sky.
The working day has only just turned into the afternoon.
And the odour of hopelessness can be exploited.
The BBC has revealed that Roma gangs have tricked poor Roma families into going to Spain and Italy, forcing the children to beg and steal – and made a fortune. Each child was able to make 112,000 kronor over the space of a month. Multiply that by the 50 children used as slaves and it turns into an astronomical amount: 5.6 million kronor per month.
Over 67 million kronor a year.
The police investigation into child exploitation led to Buzescu and to Craiova, a town around three hours west of Bucharest. Another hour away lies Strehaia – yet another town of Roma mansions.
In the wealthy part of Craiova there are luxury cars with number plates from all over the EU. They belong to Romanian Roma who work abroad but who are at home on holiday. The women have laid out rugs on the pavements, where they sit and chat.
By telling them I’m a tourist who’s lost their way, I get let into one of the mansions. On the driveway are two sports cars. Inside the house are broad marble staircases going up several floors, gold wallpaper, heavy wooden furniture and a ceiling that is approaching the sky.
“How did you afford such a beautiful house?” I ask the owner, who’s wearing a polo shirt.
He freezes in the middle of one of his elegant gestures.
I repeat the question.
Finally, he answers me.
“I have a butcher’s shop in Dublin.”
Five minutes away 65-year-old Maria Dumitru is breathing through a oxygen tube. She’s living on benefits – amounting to 330 kronor a month.
“Life’s really hard – I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” she pants with no little effort, her hair grey and a flowery blouse hanging loosely over her ample bosom and stomach.The oxygen tank is inside the shack where she lives. She has run the tube out through the window so that she can sit behind the shack, in the shade.
That’s as far as she can go. Up to her own patched-up outer wall.
A naked grandchild cries in a pram in front of her. She hardly has the strength to give it a bottle.
“It was much better under communism – at that time I had a house in town. I was paid to have children, 1,100 kronor a month – that was a lot of money back then,” she pants.
Ceausescu forbade abortion and encouraged women to have many children, who were to become factory workers in the future. After the dictator was executed in 1989, the factories were closed. Those who worked there were laid off.
Maria Dumitru’s job as a “Mother Heroine” was no longer seen as work. So when she contracted lung disease she was not eligible for sickness benefit, which in Romania is based on previous income.
The only thing she got was a tiny benefits payment.
She lost her house. It was situated on land that had been confiscated by the Communist government and distributed to the landless. After the fall of Ceausescu the former owners demanded their land back. Maria Dumitru and many others with her were banished to this ghetto. A gravel road full of potholes, flanked by hovels.
Her grown-up son Ionel staggers drowsily out of the shack. He didn’t become one of the workers of the future. None of her ten children did.
Ionel has a dream etched in ink on his flat chest. A palm tree. A sun. A woman.
In front of him is what became his reality. A plot of land. A meadow full of rubbish. A washing machine in the middle of the yard, its pipe stuck into a water container.
Maria got the water from a neighbour. She picks up her grandchild, whose name she’s forgotten. The only hope she has is divine intervention. Half-suffocating, she straightens out her oxygen tube and wheezes:
“I believe that God will help the poor in the end.”
Nicolae Artur “Brilliant” Miclescu is head of the family in a clan of thieves and Roma leaders in Craiova. His cousin and his brother-in-law have both been Roma presidents. His father was something known in Romanian as a “stăboi”, which he explains is a “gypsy judge”. He himself has several companies: one that rents out accommodation, a market where Roma sell second-hand clothes, a marriage agency and something he calls the “gypsy council”. He also gets paid to pass judgement in what he calls the “gypsy court”.
Brilliant struts around in his black and white patent leather shoes, a white shirt and black scarf on the ground floor of his magnificent residence – a hall with a pool table, a dining table that could accommodate a conference delegation and walls covered in family photographs.
Out in the yard, a lamb is being roasted whole. His daughter Perla is tall and beautiful, dressed in white. Brilliant took her out of school when she was 14 so that she wouldn’t fall in love with any of the boys. One of his sons is called Diamond.
When Brilliant was little, his parents and grandparents made a living from begging and stealing. Brilliant was born in prison, spent his early years in a children’s home and then lived with his grandmother, a fortune teller. He recalls how he went around barefoot in the winter. When he went to fetch some semolina pudding from the children’s clinic, where one of his brothers was an in-patient, he couldn’t resist eating a little at a time on the way home. When he got home, he said he’d fallen over and spilt it.
He then got a beating.
I observe the man who has made a long journey in terms of climbing the social ladder and who carries himself like a character in a film.
“Why are Roma over-represented among the poor of Romania?” I ask him.
Brilliant sticks his sunglasses into the opening of his shirt and guides me across the courtyard to his office. It’s painted bright yellow and decorated with flowers, a map of the world and some statues. He makes himself comfortable and starts to talk.
“Gypsies have more children than Romanians, and after the Ceausescu period, not all gypsy families have managed to send their children to school because they haven’t been able to afford school bags, uniforms, lunches and the like for all their children. So many of them are illiterate and can’t get a job. That’s why many of them have turned to begging, theft or working on the black market.”
Perla comes in and serves us drinks from a platter. Brilliant continues:
“In Romania discrimination against Roma is a big problem. Even if you’re qualified for a position, you won’t get a job in workplaces where Romanians are the majority. Only a few Roma have been allowed to work in such places and they’ve had to prove that they’re over-qualified.”
Brilliant speaks without pausing and holds his palms out in a gesture of honesty.
“The truth is that we also in some ways do things that don’t put us in a good light.” He’s referring to stealing, for example, which he considers acceptable to make a living but says that you shouldn’t overdo it because you can then be arrested, which would mean splitting up your family – something he thinks others would take advantage of.
“They’d kidnap my daughters, who would have to marry just anyone, but as I’m present in my family, I decide who my daughters marry. Among us there’s a sense of pride – it’s not acceptable for the woman to talk to another man, the woman must respect the man, a girl who gets married must be pure and innocent, and she must be with her family and behave properly towards them.”
Increasingly, I can’t believe my ears. When I get the chance, I ask:
“What’s a clan?”
“It can have two meanings. It can be a family, and in that case the size of the clan depends on the size of the family. Or it can be a group that has joined forces and does bad things. Like lending money with interest and if the money isn’t repaid they hurt you, terrorise you.”
Reports of prostitution among Romanian migrants are widespread in Sweden. The proportion of women selling sex on the streets has increased in Malmö, with the majority coming from Eastern Europe, and there are suspicions of trafficking.
When asked whether there are clans whose activities are based on prostitution, Brilliant replies:
“Yes, in most towns there are people who’ve sent people to other countries and get money sent home to them. Either they send men there too to monitor the girls or they trust the girls, who then send the money home themselves.”
“Does organised begging also take place?”
“To a minor extent. Many people beg because they have to – they have children and don’t want to steal. But there are also those who are organised and gang up together, exploiting others to beg to make money for themselves. They need more people to travel to other countries and beg on their behalf. We need to address this because it gives us a bad reputation as an ethnic group.”
“Are the thefts organised?”
Brilliant drinks a little Red Bull and says:
“There are people who travel abroad and beg and if they don’t make enough money, they start to steal. And then they go to prison. And in prison they discuss with others how to steal. And when they’re released, there are those who group together and steal together. But I hope that people understand that not all gypsies steal. Some people are forced to beg or steal because of their situation, and if they do it to provide for their families, we’re OK with that.”
“How can Swedes help those who are begging on the streets?”
“I don’t know whether gypsies are given housing in Sweden but in any case, the key to integration is that the children go to school. Pay benefits to the parents who send their children to school. And if they still don’t do so, don’t give them any more benefits and send them back to Romania. If they carry on begging despite being given help, they don’t want to improve their lives.”
When we stand there chatting before I leave, Brilliant comes up with an idea, turns to me and suggests the following:
“Maybe it would be best if I came to Sweden and talked to the beggars?”
One person who doesn’t care one iota about the beggars is the taxi driver who drives me through central Bucharest and crosses himself every time we pass a church.
Over 80 percent of Romanians are Orthodox Christians. What will be one of the biggest cathedrals in the world is being built behind Ceaucescu’s parliamentary palace, the second-largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon and one of the most expensive buildings ever constructed.
When a nightclub burned down in Bucharest at the end of October and the hospitals collapsed when the around 200 injured needed emergency medical care, thousands of Romanians protested against corrupt politicians who would rather put money into churches than into hospitals. The fact that no funds are made available for minorities and the vulnerable usually meets with the same criticism.
The disastrous fire took the lives of 32 people and the prime minister, who was suspected of corruption, was forced to resign along with his government.
The taxi driver smokes and crosses himself constantly. He thinks that the money should continue to be spent on the church and on the struggling middle class, which hardly exists. His joy in life is singing in an Orthodox choir.
He glances at me through the cloud of nicotine.
“What are you doing in Bucharest?”
“I’m a journalist, I’m here to write about the Roma. Some of them come to Sweden to beg.”
There’s a confused silence in the driver’s seat. Then he exclaims:
“Oh right, you mean gypsies? I don’t like them either. You do know that they’re not Romanians? They’re a people from India, they’re everywhere in Europe – in Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, Serbia … they live the same way everywhere. They’re lazy, dirty liars. They don’t wash their children.” He tosses a cigarette butt out of the window. I catch his eye in the rear-view mirror.
“Don’t you feel sorry for those who are begging on the streets?”
He looks away. I don’t get an answer.
After driving several blocks, he explains:
“What I mean is, they’re not Romanians. They’re embarrassing us. When I go abroad and say that I’m Romanian, people look askance at me.”
There are ghettos squeezed into every available space in Bucharest. Most of them are ethnically mixed. One lies next to an exclusive tennis club.
They’re described as “pockets” – areas of severe poverty that you can never clamber out of again once you’ve fallen into them.
In the infamous southern suburb of Ferentari, there’s an illegal Roma camp in a disused industrial area. Wooden hovels and caravans are squashed into a rectangular space between washed-out apartment blocks and hideously winding heating pipes. The men sit on one side of the camp. On the other, the women take care of the children.
Compared to the homeless who crawl in under the pipes to sleep, those living in the camp have a relatively well-ordered existence.
At first they don’t want to let me through the gate. The camp has been demolished three times and they’re scared it will happen again.
But the municipal authorities have also provided some help. They’ve installed water that the residents get for free and electricity that they pay for. The children go to school free of charge just a short walk away.
“Mother Heroine” Ana Cozac doesn’t think this is much help. She spreads her bulk over one of the sofas lying around the camp and complains vehemently, vocalising 64 years of discontent.
“Romania is a bad country. There’s nothing anyone can do about it!”
She laughs, as if it were a worn-out joke.
“In a hundred years’ time, everything will be exactly the same! The politicians steal and buy big houses and fancy cars for themselves. And we just eat potatoes! And have no jobs!”
A few minutes later one of her sons returns home – from his job on a building site. Ana Cozac doesn’t think it’s much of a job.
“He makes less than 100 kronor a day!” she clucks.
This is slightly more than the statutory minimum wage in Romania. After the financial crisis in 2008, many people lost their jobs and wages were cut for those still in work. Both Roma and ethnic Romanians were affected, and millions decided to go abroad – those begging are just a small minority of all Romanian migrants. Ana dreams of the old days of communism:
“Everyone had a job back then and somewhere to live. I had a flat!”
“Where was your flat?”
“There!” she exclaims, pointing decisively towards one of the apartment blocks that tower above the camp.
“What happened to it?”
“My daughter lives there now. There’s no room for us there any more.”
“Us!” says Ana, nodding towards the hundred or so people in the camp.
“Are you related?”
Ana’s face lights up lovingly:
“All of them are my children – 13 children, 46 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren!”
If you follow the dreary apartment blocks a kilometre to the west and meander onto a quiet backstreet, you come to the residence of the Camatari brothers, the Roma mafia. The walls are so high that not even the roof is visible. A guard stands outside.
The Camatari mafia are those ultimately in charge of the drug trade in the area. They also make money as loan sharks.
Another couple of kilometres to the west lies a ghetto where a woman, who we can call Dora, is on the verge of going under. Her family makes money from buying and selling second-hand clothes.
Sometimes this money isn’t enough.
Dora’s children were found on a rubbish dump, collecting scrap metal. Work that some Roma have been making a living from for decades.
She was suspected of exploiting her children. The little ones were taken away from her and put in a children’s home, where she worries that they’re being beaten.
She is so anxious that she says she’ll kill herself if she doesn’t get her children back. She thinks that the police and social services are discriminating against her.
One day, as I walk with Dora from the bus, a lady taps me on the shoulder.
“You can’t walk with that,” she warns.
She says “that” as if Dora were an animal.
“It’s OK, she’s a friend,” I reply.
“No, not OK. Watch yourself,” the woman insists.
A few weeks later I place a hidden camera on Dora and we make our way to Uniiri, a shopping centre in the middle of town, to find out whether she is a victim of discrimination in Romanian society. I’ve been here previously with a young Roma man without provoking any reactions.
But as soon as we get on the tram, things go off the rails. An ethnic Romanian sitting nearby implies that Dora and the young relative accompanying her may want to steal from me. When we get to the shopping centre, two lads get up from where they’re sitting on a staircase and ask:
“Has she taken anything?”
When Dora enters a shop to look at dresses, she’s asked to leave.
“Please go out of the shop, and make sure you have a wash now and again,” urges one of the shop assistants.
“We don’t wash?” Dora quizzes her.
“I smell? Where?”
“I don’t know. Get out!”
In a hipster store she gets no further than the doorway, where she’s stopped by a girl in a leather apron.
“The manager’s said that you have to stay outside.”
“I want to buy something. A bag.”
“You can’t buy anything here. We haven’t got what you need.”
“So we can’t we look at anything you have here?”
When I tell a police officer what has happened, he says that this type of discrimination is prohibited and that the shops must be fined.
“We’ve had a problem with discrimination in Romania but it’s better now. Today there are Roma in all professions, even in politics and the police force,” he says.
One hot morning I run into Dominic Teoderescu, a cultural geographer from Amsterdam who’s researching the Bucharest ghettos. He’s a guest student at Uppsala University and well acquainted with the discussion about Roma in Sweden. According to him the vulnerability of impoverished Roma is not solely an issue of discrimination.
“There are a lot of poor people in Romania – it isn’t just Roma who live in the ghettos, but they are over-represented. Their history means that they aren’t equipped to compete in a liberal market economy.
Just like African-Americans in the US, Roma in the Balkans were slaves until 1865. A remnant of this heritage is that many adult Roma are illiterate, making it difficult for them to enter the labour market – regardless of whether they are discriminated against or not.
Dora, for example, is illiterate and does not speak Romanian, only Romani. Dominic Teoderescu throws out his arms and says:
“We won’t be seeing an IT engineer from a Romanian ghetto, so don’t hold your breath! What we can try and do is to reduce poverty, and the only way I think this can be achieved is through a policy of wealth redistribution.”
He considers the EU funds and aid organisation projects to be worthless, merely providing salaries for those working for the organisations.
“They get money to teach Roma some traditional trade. They say, ‘Your grandfather did this and now you’re going to learn to do it.’ Then the Rom’s sits there with his rusty pans in his garden and still doesn’t have a job.”
Many Romanians reason along the same lines. Paul, a journalist, thinks that the poverty stems from slavery and is maintained in a vicious circle that no-one can put a stop to.
“It’s not discrimination that’s the problem in the ghettos – it’s that children are seeing adults steal, beg or fall foul of alcohol or substance abuse, which means that they have no role models.”
He passes the issue of responsibility onto me.
“The ghettos and poverty are no longer a national issue, so what are you in Sweden doing about the Roma? Have you managed to integrate them better than we have? Isn’t it easier for you to help them because you have such an extensive social safety net?”
“But the solution can’t be to move all Roma to Sweden, can it?” I return.
“No, of course it’s not the solution, but if a Roma child starts going to school in Sweden and has a better life there, then that’s definitely a good thing.”
The banker who accompanied me to the mansions of Buzescu and explained to me how those living in Roma communities marry off their young daughters is an integrated Rom, one of many I meet without being able to identify them as Roma.
If you count the number of Roma who say they have had a child with an ethnic Romanian, you come to the conclusion that 80 percent of all Romanians are of Roma ancestry.
But few wish to “come out” as Roma as they fear that this may impact them in a negative sense.
This makes me think about what things were like in Sweden not so long ago, when many people from immigrant backgrounds changed their names to more Swedish-sounding ones so they could get a job more easily. Even today there are areas with a large immigrant population that have poorer school results and higher unemployment, just like in the areas in Romania with a large Roma population.
It’s a warm evening, and I’m sitting outside, having a cocktail with the banker in one of the city’s hip bars. Tables and hammocks are spread out under the greenery like an oasis.
He says that education turned his life around. His parents told him that he had to study. This gave him the key to the majority society. But his heart is still with those living in exclusion.
“The reason that people sit at home and don’t work or don’t send their kids to school as they don’t think there is any point. There are no dreams and no hope.”
“What can we do, then?” I want to know.
“What you in Sweden can do is never give money without demanding something in return. Begging is no solution. Help them with housing and work if they let their children go to school.”
“But we have both a housing shortage and unemployment in Sweden, and there’s huge competition for even low-qualified jobs. How are we supposed to do it?”
The banker looks sharply at me across the table.
“We live in a globalised world. You open IKEA here and all the small businesses go bust, and then you say there’s no housing or jobs for beggars in Sweden. You can’t have your cake and eat it.”
Roma in Romania
There are between 1.2 and 1.4 million Roma in Romania.
If you include children with one Roma and one ethnic Romanian parent, there are over two million Roma in Romania.
If you count all Roma who have ever had a child with an ethnic Romanian, 80 percent of all Romanians have Roma ancestry.
Without an address you become paperless in your own country because you need a tenancy agreement to apply for an ID card. This problem applies to both Roma and ethnic Romanians, but Roma are over-represented among the paperless.
Half of Romania’s Roma – 600,000–700,000 people – live in absolute poverty.
Forty percent of all Romanians, i.e. 8 million of the country’s approximately 20 million inhabitants, risk living a life in poverty or social exclusion.
Source: The Policy Center for Roma and Minorities and Caritas
Why Roma come to Sweden
Many Roma live in exclusion in Romania, partly due to discrimination and partly due to exclusion that they have themselves chosen – not wanting or daring to believe that they can make something of themselves in the majority society.
The financial crisis hit Romania in 2008, resulting in many people losing their jobs. Due to a lower level of education and not being as well equipped for competing in a liberal market economy, Roma were particularly severely affected.
Instead many Roma and ethnic Romanians moved to other countries to find work. Today, 3.7 million Romanians work abroad.
The Roma mainly chose Italy and Spain, where they can understand the language.
The crisis hit southern Europe in 2010, making these countries no longer attractive for begging or seeking employment.
Instead the Roma headed for northern Europe. Sweden is one of few countries that has not prohibited begging and is relatively tolerant of its practice.
The rumour spread that Sweden was a good land for begging, which is why increasing numbers are making their way here.
The history of the Roma
Roma were slaves in Romania until 1865.
During World War Two around half a million Roma died in the Holocaust (known in Roma languages as the Porajmos or Samudaripen). They were gassed to death or sent to German labour camps.
Between 1914 and 1953 Roma were prohibited from travelling to Sweden,
and Roma children were not permitted to attend school in Sweden until 1959.
France, Italy, Germany and Denmark have conducted mass deportations of Roma in recent years.
EU project criticised
The “Decade of Roma Inclusion” 2005–2015 was an EU project in which 12 countries joined forces with the aim of making Roma exclusion a thing of the past. Multi-million sums were channelled via the World Bank to the various countries, mainly for information projects and professional training, with poor results.
Criticism was levelled at the project, claiming that the initiatives had not improved the actual situation in the ghettos in any way and that the funds would have been better invested in schools in vulnerable areas, for example.
Former metalworker Gheorghe has a two-storey house, a laptop, internet, a farm, horses and pigs. When wages fell during the financial crisis, he changed jobs – he became a beggar.
It isn’t just hundreds of miles between the camp in Högdalen and the Romanian village of Malu Vanat. There’s also miles of difference in the standard of living.
Thirty-two year-old Gheorghe, a blond, muscular man with a sunburned chest wearing grey flowered shorts, has a large plot with two houses – an old one, and a new one two storeys high, which he is just finishing building. The yard behind the houses overlooks a lake. Horses are grazing in the fields.
The children ride bareback and stroke the pigs. Hammering can be heard from the neighbours. Many of the drives are strewn with construction materials.
The money being turned into houses was earned on Swedish asphalt. Almost everyone in Malu Vanat has been begging in Stockholm and lived in tents in the camp at Högdalen.
They are Boyash, a minority people who are often called Roma. They themselves want to be called Romanians.
Gheorghe goes into his new living room, opens the laptop sitting on top of the television and searches for something on the internet. One of his sons is running around playing in a Swedish football shirt.
The family started building the new house during the financial crisis, when things got cheaper. At the same time, Gheorghe and several other men in the village lost their jobs.
“Before the crisis, we were metalworkers on building sites,” he says, fishing out a cigarette packet.
Aren’t there any jobs like that anymore?
“Yes, I’ve been offered jobs but the pay isn’t good enough.”
He describes living in a tent in Högdalen and begging at Stockholm’s central metro station T-centralen as an incredibly hard life. Stockholm is far from his home and family in Malu Vanat. But you can earn more money there.
In Romania the men can earn about 1,700 kronor after tax. This is what my interpreter earns as a local government employee in Bucharest – a young woman with two degrees who is reading for a third. She bows her head and clenches her teeth when the men say you can’t work for so little money. They have been begging for years now – in Italy, Germany and Sweden.
One couple who can’t afford to extend their little turquoise house are Gheorghe State, 48, and Georgeta State, 42. Gheorghe walks around the farm barefoot, and there’s a washing machine standing on the gravel. He waves his arms:
“Far too small! Two rooms! 17 people!
Gheorghe and Georgeta have five children – aged 24, 23, 17, 14 and 13 – and ten grandchildren.
All the children are married and have children of their own – even the 13 and 14 year-old. None of the children go to school, which is free. Because they don’t go to school, they don’t get child allowance.
The parents and the three oldest children have been begging in Flemingsberg. Gheorghe pours out coffee and Coca-Cola on a rickety table in one of the crowded rooms and dreams of leading a different life:
“If the benefits in Romania were as good as they are in Sweden, we wouldn’t travel anywhere. It’s much better in Stockholm because the benefits are higher and you can drink coffee and eat for free, and have showers.
Is it free? I interrupt.
“Yes, Swedes give us coffee and food when we sit on the street. We get medicine and clothes too. Alvedon!”
He continues at the same rapid pace:
“Unemployed people in Sweden get benefits! In Sweden people get 10,000 kronor if they have four children! In Sweden someone will give you what you need for free if you haven’t got it. And the police are kind. We have no problem with the police in Sweden. They came to our caravan and asked if we were OK!”
He laughs as if he was talking about paradise.
Have you been able to save any of the money you earned from begging?
“No, not saved. We spent the money on food and paid the bus fare to come home again.”
What do you need for a better life?
“Munca, munca! Work! Cleaning, washing.”
Have you looked for a job in Bucharest?
“No, not in Bucharest. People with an education can’t get a job there.”
Here in the village then?
“Just casual work. Farm work.”
Unemployment has crippled many Romanian towns. One of them is the industrial town of Buzau, whose claims to fame are a brewery and a muddy ghetto.
About 4,500 Roma live among the ethnic Romanians in the town’s residential areas. About 500 Roma live in Aleea Gradinilor. Its name means Garden Street.
There aren’t any gardens here.
Here people walk around in sludge and urine among corrugated iron. People are getting drunk, someone is standing on a roof shouting that he is a thief and has just got out of prison.
Almost everyone in the ghetto has been begging in Örebro. Those who brought money back with them are rebuilding their shacks to turn them into houses.
There’s a rumour in Aleea Gradinilor that Örebro pays beggars 1 500 euros to travel home.
A father of five who wants to connect electricity to his house has heard this and has come up with a plan:
“As soon as I’ve saved enough for the bus ticket to Sweden, I’m going to go there and just take the money and travel home again.”
When I check with Örebro, the rumour proves to be unfounded – what they did was pay for bus tickets for beggars who chose to return to Romania.
Nineteen year-old Doru proudly cycles through the ghetto in a silver quilted jacket. He went to Falkenberg in Sweden and collected bottles and cans to claim the deposit back – and worked illegally doing some painting in the house of a Swedish man.
“500 kronor in my pocket every day!” he smiles, with a side parting and bright eyes.
He is a trained hairdresser and wants to work as a hairdresser in Romania but the only job he can get round here is as a plumber and almost nobody wants to do that as the pay is too low.
“In Sweden I can earn in a day what I earn in a month in Romania. We’ll carry on travelling to Sweden until it gets harder to get in.”
Will it get harder to travel to Sweden?
“Yes, I’ve heard it’s going to get harder to get into Sweden if you don’t have a job. Lots of people say it might be like that. We’ll keep going as long as we can.”
Doru cycles with me to the end of the ghetto. This is as far as his life stretches.
To the end of the muddy soup.
The Swedish organisation Heart to Heart helps vulnerable people in Romania. They offer children help with homework, as well as jobs as an alternative to begging – they think that education and legal work are the only things that can break the exclusion in which the poor live.
At the moment Heart to Heart has five employees who make baskets and earn 3,600 kronor after tax, legally, every month. The idea is to be able to carry out manufacturing on a large scale and to sell the baskets in Swedish supermarkets such as ICA and Konsum so as to employ more people.
However, it’s hard to get people to take the jobs. Romanian Razvan Popescu travels around the villages and tries to get people on board. His goal has been to employ 50 people but the outlook is starting to look bleak. When I meet him in Bucharest, he throws out his arms :
“Most people say no because they can earn more from begging in Sweden.”
One consequence of the begging is that many children are left at home alone in Romania – often in conditions similar to ghettos.
When I ask Valeriu Nicolae, a Romanian Roma who has won a number of awards for his human rights work with Roma and other minorities, what happens to these children, he answers:
“It kills the children. We are creating the next generation of beggars, drug abusers, people living in extreme poverty and exclusion, and criminals.”
Ten years ago he tried to get Sweden to understand that something needs to be done about Romania’s ghettos. He repeats his story:
“I met the politicians from Stockholm in Brussels in 2004 and warned them that beggars would come to Sweden once Romania joined the EU. No-one listened. I said it again in 2008. No-one listened. In 2012 they came to me and said: ‘We have a problem with beggars.’ I thought: ‘Idiots’, and I told them: ‘Well, it’s too late now.’”
Valeriu Nicolae works with children in the most dangerous ghetto in Bucharest – Livezilor in Ferentari. He offers them activities such as sport, music and help with homework. He also pays mothers who are at risk of travelling abroad and begging 1,250 kronor a month for them to stay at home with their children and accompany them to school and learn alongside them – it gives an education to two generations and keeps families together.
Under the sun in a courtyard in a peaceful part of Bucharest, children are playing football. All are children who have been left alone and are being looked after by the Romanian Life and Light Mission, which is supported by the Swedish aid organisation Läkarmissionen.
Managing director Florin Ianovici has been working with vulnerable and homeless people for 22 years.
When I ask whether it is a good thing to give money to beggars in Sweden, he utterly condemns it:
“Absolutely not. If you give them money, it’s like giving them a salary for sitting on the street. It will lead to them staying on the street and that will encourage even more of them to come to Sweden. And while they’re sitting there begging on the streets, their children will be left home alone with no-one looking after them, they won’t get an education and the family won’t have a future.”
What kind of help do they need then?
“They need professional help. We might feel guilty because we have well-ordered lives and a home to live in, but it’s more important to do something more than give money. We need to contact aid organisations and agencies and find a long-term solution for how these people can change their lives.”
Florin Ianovici works on the principle that you should never give without demanding something in return. If you give children in the ghettos clothes, for example, they often go to the nearest street corner and sell them. To combat that, you can give them clothes in return for them coming to football training.
The arguments are the same when it comes to adults. If Life and Light pay off a family’s unpaid bills, they must promise to let their daughters finish school and not marry them off.
He considers that the situation is too complex to be solved on the streets and that help should be given at home.
“The best thing would be to try to solve the problems here in Romania. Find the roots of the problem. What’s missing in their lives, how they can be integrated into society, what education they need, what jobs they can get – contact companies and draw up a sustainable plan. This takes time and requires investments. But it’s the only way. Standing on the street for two or three minutes and giving them money is no solution. It’s no help at all really.”
In Bucharest, a notorious drug dealer managed to achieve something that neither the politicians nor the aid organisations could. He built a shelter for the city’s forgotten souls. Underground. But he was arrested. And now those people are wandering around like lost souls.
They are the forgotten ones. They are the orphans. They are several generations of orphanage children and addicts, who never received any love above ground. Which is why they gravitated towards an underground kingdom of their own. And now their leader is gone and violence has taken over.
The blonde woman in heels and a ponytail who parks her million dollar BMW is visible. The man buying a bouquet of red carnations from the flower shop on the corner is visible. The office workers who hurriedly disembark from the train, on their way home from work are visible.
But the boy who we will call Liviu is not visible.
He is sitting in the backyard of the forgotten souls. A concrete space surrounded by high stone walls.
Next to him is a bag of excrement and a mephedrone syringe, otherwise known as ‘legale’ – a cheap crappy drug from China that hurls you into another world. And you won’t know if it will turn out to be a dream world or a nightmare world until you get there.
But it makes no difference to Liviu. He is already living a nightmare.
“Life is ugly,” he says in a voice that sounds more like a whisper from the grave.
His entire hollow teenage body looks dead. His deathly black clothes hang from his frame, as if he had died long ago but was forced to remain, just because his heart was still beating.
Perhaps Liviu’s soul died when he was young, when his parents were buried. Perhaps it died when he was locked up in the orphanage, where he was beaten. Or perhaps it died when he was raped. At the age of 12.
“He was Romanian. He raped me at the market in Rahova,” he says and looks down towards the concrete with his dead eyes.
Romeo starts pacing around the backyard jumpily when Liviu begins to tell his story. His back is curved and one of his feet struggles to keep up. His hard gaze pierces out from two deep grooves in his weather-beaten face.
It is as if something flips inside of him when he hears about child suffering.
All he wants is to get high. On marijuana, mephedrone, heroin, cocaine – anything at all. Usually it is Aurolac, a metallic silver paint you sniff, which numbs everything you need it to numb. Hunger. Exhaustion. The cold. Loneliness. Anxiety.
The inner walls of the backyard are lined with vacant remnants, trying to fill the emptiness inside themselves with something. A small man with sunken cheeks and a shaggy beard has erected a sheet of cardboard in front of himself. He clings onto that rickety bit of privacy with his feet, drops his trousers and shoves a needle into his groin.
A Romany girl with a baseball cap pulled down over her short hair does not care about privacy. She is manically searching for a vein in a sore on her leg. Her parents are beggars and sent they her out to beg too. She hated it, ran away and ended up here.
There is a hole in the wall next to where she is sitting. It looks as though someone made it with a sledgehammer.
There is a glimpse of a stale-smelling passageway beyond the hole, where a semi-naked figure can be seen squatting, like a wild animal, with a syringe in their mouth. That is the entrance to the world of the forgotten souls.
“When Bruce Lee was here, the place was in good shape. Now it’s chaos. Just shit and rubbish everywhere,” complains Romeo and kicks at another empty bottle.
Beyond the hole there are 20 small rooms, and 60 beds. There are 2 km of underground sewers, with more beds and a kitchen.
The forgotten ones could have built a door to their world, but instead they made a hole. If you have spent most of your life in the sewers, then you feel more comfortable with a hole than a door.
Romeo jumps up onto the edge of a blue concrete water tank in the corner of the backyard. In the past, it was filled with water and was used as a swimming pool. Now it is full of rubbish and used syringes.
The architect, drug dealer Bruce Lee, grew up in one of Romania’s most notorious orphanages during the Communist era. When Ceausescu was toppled in 1989, Bruce Lee got on a train to Bucharest and got off at Gara de Nord, the northern train station.
Here he created his underground kingdom. He gathered together other lost orphanage children and brought electricity in to the sewers, as well as stereos, disco lights, drugs, and a pack of dogs. Later even flat screen TVs and Internet.
Everything that the people who did not receive love above ground needed below ground. He decorated the place with art he found at rubbish dumps, painted the walls pink, coloured his hair with Aurolac and dressed in leather, medals and chains.
He was called Bruce Lee because he was good at fighting, but his underground people called him Dad.
On his leg, he tattooed the words, “I’ve lived in the sewers since I was a child. I am the terminator. I am the only person who has managed to do anything for the homeless. I turn darkness into light.”
Bruce Lee was king of the underground for a quarter of a century. Now he and his closest men have been arrested for selling drugs and for organised crime. There was a police raid at the end of July, and all of the souls they found down there were pulled out of the sewers and evicted.
Some say that Bruce Lee was arrested because an international television crew had been here filming, putting the city of Bucharest to shame.
Ever since Communism, Romania has been good at getting things to look good – on the surface. When there was no food in the shops, they displayed fake food in parades.
Today they say that there are homeless shelters. What they do not say is that intoxicated or HIV positive people are denied entry. 90% of the people who live in the sewers are HIV positive.
They say that there are orphanages for the orphans. What they do not say is that the children in these locked institutions are over-medicated, beaten and sexually abuse each other.
Liviu pulls himself up onto his weak legs and opens the black metal gate that leads out of the backyard. It is cloaked in blue and orange plastic, to make sure that no one can see in. Beyond it is the visible world, where life goes on as normal. It is a world that he will never be a part of.
It is starting to get dark.
“Will you be going back to the orphanage to sleep?” I ask.
He shakes his head. I never see him again.
Romeo also leaves through the gate. He walks down the street towards the brightly lit petrol station and turns left towards the grand station building. An EU gateway with rails leading out into Europe.
But Romeo is not going anywhere. He sits in McDonalds eating ice-cream.
He is 27, but looks as though he has lived several lives.
“Why did you start doing drugs?” I wonder.
“I was 22…” he begins, but falters.
Those hard eyes fill with tears. His body erupts into shakes. Between the sobs, he manages to tell me that he fell in love with an Austrian journalist and that they had a child.
The child died.
He fell between the cracks of society and never managed to get back up.
“Life on the streets has become the norm for me,” he says and dries his face on the back of his hands.
He breathes. Sorts his face out. He has to put the survival mask back on.
Outside, yellow cabs with chain-smoking, stressed out drivers jostle to overcharge the tourists. A short distance away, the prostitutes are lined up. The most broken of them are usually picked up by elegant Romanians in shiny new SUVs.
The police have sex with them too. Without paying. That is what the girls and the mafia bloke pimping them out tell me.
On the way back from the station building, Romeo walks past Stella, who is stretched out on her dirty mattress. Even when she is lying down, she has a spirited energy about her. Every item of clothing she owns is piled up beside her, together with a plastic container of food. She opens it up and eats from it with her hands. It smells rotten.
She has a prominent chin, her greying hair is scraped up into a bun on top of her head and her arms are full of self-harm razor scars.
Stella tries to stick to the methadone, but sometimes she just cannot stop herself from shooting up mephedrone.
“When I take it, I can walk alongside a stranger and feel everything that the person is feeling,” she explains.
Intimacy. A connection. Getting to be part of it.
It never happens in reality. Her getting to be part of it. But hallucinating about it is better than nothing.
Stella was eleven the first time she took heroin. She is now 40. And has three children. One in Sweden, one in Norway and one in Romania, but she does not know where.
Now she has another problem. She gets up, grabs at the saggy flaps between her legs and repeats,
She wants sanitary towels.
Darkness has descended upon the backyard. Standing in the middle of it is a stylish woman with a pushchair. She is wearing a beige designer jumper and white trousers. She has rings on her fingers and earrings in her ears.
In her pushchair, her two-year-old daughter is sucking enthusiastically on a dummy. Her wavy hair is as soft as a baby’s. All around her are sewer souls, sitting on the concrete injecting themselves. I turn to the woman and say,
“What does it feel like, coming here with your child?”
“Not good, but I need to buy my drugs,” she answers with a shrug.
“And when you get home and take your mephedrone, will you be able to look after your child?”
A man who moves like a boxer interrupts us and grabs hold of me.
“What stupid questions you are asking! She is here because she likes drugs. She is a high-class prostitute. She likes to get high and have sex. She got her husband to start dealing and now he’s in jail.”
I go out to talk to the woman. But a well-built man follows me and chases me off.
His back is tattooed. With a swastika.
He is one of the two new bosses who have taken over the underworld after Bruce Lee. The other takes money from the forgotten souls and says he will give them drugs, but never does.
This one fights and rapes.
Before the raid, there was almost 80 injecting drug users living in the underground. Now just a third remain.
The rest float around like lost souls, searching for shelter and drugs. What was once a problem for Gara de Nord is now a problem for the whole of Bucharest. If they go into withdrawal or are conned into buying really poor quality drugs, they could get violent. Not only that, but the ambulance from Aras – an organisation that distributes clean needles and offers healthcare and testing – cannot find them, which could lead to a rampant spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.
Roxana chose to stay. She does not think she deserves security. What is the point of finding security, when you actually just want to die?
“Security?” she asks into thin air and shakes her head in bewilderment.
She acts like the university graduate she is, and is always well-dressed in a blouse or pale-striped blazer.
“Yes, don’t you want security?” I insist and try to meet her gaze.
“I don’t want to live,” she says and looks away.
Ever since she found out she was HIV positive, she has wanted to die. She makes a face like she does not want anything to do with herself.
“My life is disgusting. I don’t want anything any more.”
Her legs are infected. She has to dig about in the flesh with the needle to take her mephedrone. When she needs money for drugs or food, or the madeleine cakes she likes so much, she begs by showing people her legs.
“You have very beautiful eyes,” I hear myself saying.
It is a worn-out cliché, but she really does have beautiful eyes.
“I was very pretty when I was young,” nods Roxana.
A few days later, she only has one eye. Her left one is smashed up.
She is lying on the tarmac, a short distance from the backyard. It looks as though someone has shoved her into the dirt and pummelled her face. She cowers when I ask her what happened.
“I woke up like this,” she manages, and contorts in black and blue agony.
She is too scared to tell me who attacked her.
A boy’s voice reverberates from the entrance stairs of Gara de Nord,
“My thoughts. All my thoughts go to you. And in my dreams, it’s only you, my love. I’d praise your love. With just one word. I’ve wronged but give me one more chance…”
Shirtless Costel is Romany and wants to become a Manele singer. Singing folk music about the beautiful things in life. He is 17 and grew up in an orphanage. He never had a father, his mother has moved to England and he does not know how she makes a living.
His friend Stefan rests his head on my shoulder. He is wearing a black beanie and is breathing into a black bag.
“Mummy, mummy? Will you be my mummy? I love you mummy…” he mumbles and leans in for a hug.
The bag contains Aurolac, an industrial paint. A hallucinogenic substance that dissolves the brain, destroys the lungs and can stop your heart in an instant.
Waif-like Stefan has a silver smudge on his cheek from the paint, he smells of chemicals and is grinding his teeth – the most common side effect of mephedrone. I get high just sitting next to him. My head spins, as if I had drunk far too much beer, far too quickly. I feel sick and my nose and mouth feel like they have been doused in petrol.
“Where do you buy it?” I ask Costel, pointing at his Aurolac.
“At a bar in Luica, in Ferentari. 55 a bottle.”
Ferentari is Bucharest’s most dangerous neighbourhood.
“Why do you take it?”
“It makes you feel good. You see stuff. Like in dreams.”
I put my arms around Stefan, who continues to call me mummy.
“Where are your parents?”
“Dead,” he says and grabs my hand as if it were a lifesaver.
It is not until a week later that he works up the courage to tell me. His mother was murdered on the street, right in front of him. When he was ten.
Costel and Stefan hang out with a group of orphanage kids: Ionut, David and Nicu.
At 18, Nicu is the oldest but looks the youngest. He has full-blown AIDS and is stunted.
Few believe he will survive the winter.
Nobody knows how many forgotten souls there are, but it is estimated that there are about 1,100 homeless children in Bucharest, half of whom are on drugs.
Claudiu and Andrei do not take drugs. They hang out a few stations away, at Unirii, where there is another sewer system.
One evening they buy me pizza. They have made more than SEK 100 that day, from begging, and are feeling happy.
Andrei shoves a big slice of pizza into his mouth. He is 13 and has lived on the streets since he was six. Before that he lived in an orphanage in Ferentari, where the staff would beat him with planks of wood and steal the money that was meant for the children’s shoes and clothes.
“I ran away,” says Andrei, in his calm, mature way.
“But isn’t it dangerous, living on the streets?”
“Yes, it’s very hard. They kidnap street kids and remove their organs.”
I have to ask again, to check that I heard him right,
“They kidnap street kids and remove their organs?”
He tells me that three children have disappeared and that they have tried to kidnap him several times.
His information about children who have disappeared and had their organs harvested is confirmed in a New York Post article. Children have been abducted in Vietnam, Nigeria, China, Bangladesh – and Romania.
Another thing Andrei is scared of, is being abducted and used for violence pornography on the Internet.
“They take kids, lock them up and film them being raped,” he says.
Andrei and Claudiu’s dream is to save up SEK 880 from begging, so that they can rent a room for a month.
Tonight they will be sleeping next to a rubbish dump. When it starts getting cold, they crawl down into the sewer.
In another sewer, in another area, there is an illegal shooting room – a place you can go to inject yourself with drugs. They have everything, from beds to WiFi to puppies, down in the sewer. One wall has been wallpapered, the floor has been tiled and the ceiling is being renovated for winter.
In countries like Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Norway and Canada, there are legal shooting rooms, with healthcare staff who monitor the addicts. They have proven to reduce overdoses, reduce the spread of HIV and increase the number of people seeking treatment.
Romanian shooting rooms are run by drug dealers.
I’ve heard stories about police wrestling out addicts, dragging them into fields and holding dog fights with them. If they refuse to fight each other, then the police beat them.
And the only addiction treatment on offer is being checked into a psychiatric hospital, getting strapped down and being sedated on benzos. But in actual fact, you cannot even do that if you do not have an ID card, which you cannot apply for until you have an address.
Pregnant Melinda quit heroin and mephedrone two weeks ago. She used another method.
“My husband beat me till I stopped.”
He is one of the two new bosses in Gara de Nord’s underworld. The one taking money from the forgotten souls.
When he ended up in jail once for domestic violence against Melinda, she turned up crying and begged them to release him.
They have six children. Their seven-month-old son has HIV and is hospitalised. Their two-year-old daughter lives on the street with Melinda and her husband. The other four are scattered about in orphanages and with her mother-in-law.
Melinda has AIDS, Hepatitis C and tuberculosis. She is pregnant with her seventh child.
“I’ve been offered SEK 1,100 by a woman who wants to buy it, but I want to keep it,” she says hoarsely and then coughs.
She moves and speaks like a woman who, just like a lioness in the jungle, would defend both herself and her cubs until the bitter end.
Just as long as the attacker is not her husband.
It is midnight in the autumn, and being at the forgotten souls’ backyard is no longer possible. The souls lurk about like panicked dark creatures. It is like stepping into an inferno – where everyone is fed on bad mephedrone.
I find a place to sleep a few hundred metres away, under a bridge. Melinda approaches, rocking her baby, and takes her place just a short distance from me with her daughter. Little Giana’s head is shaved, because she had lice.
They eat yoghurt, lie down, cuddle up together and fall asleep. Apart from the cars passing by overhead and the street lamps shining down into their faces, they look like any other mother and baby.
A rat scuttles across me. Otherwise there are no disruptions. Until Melinda’s husband arrives.
Bellowing and with a radio in his hand, he flops down right onto Melinda. He starts to eat, in his drunken state, but then lies down and starts dry-humping her. She is not in the mood, he starts screaming and they fight.
Eventually Melinda gives in and the cross the street, where he shags her. Afterwards she runs off to pee, lies back down and he starts late-night partying with another homeless person.
There are no doors on the street.
Giana stirs restlessly, but does not wake up. She has never slept indoors. She is the next generation of forgotten souls and already knows the law of the street. There is only one: survival.
Every week, a couple of souls fail at this. They are just the deaths that aid organisation Aras knows about. Around 100 a year, in Bucharest alone. That is three times the official statistic for the whole of Romania. The government cares about counting the forgotten souls. On the contrary. The more they neglect to count, the better the statistics they can present.
The only lifeline being cast into the forgotten souls’ world is the ambulance from Aras. When it arrives, the invisible souls come crawling out of the holes in the ground and are drawn to it like moths to a flame.
It is their only contact with the visible world. Here they can cry, show their wounds and get bandaged up. Without being judged.
Aras muddles on through thanks to foreign funding. Today they are able to hand out clean needles, but have no money for condoms. By New Year’s Eve, all support could have run out.
Coordinator Dan Popescu is fighting to change what everyone else wants to sweep away under the carpet. He talks, with frustration, about corruption and predatory capitalism, where everyone is grabbing what they can. But also about the general public’s unwillingness to help the addicts and homeless,
“The general public’s attitude is that we are wasting money on nothing, that it is better to let these people die than to help them.”
The police are satisfied with the efforts
A police officer who works for Bucharest’s anti-drugs unit, a special unit within the organised crime division, grants me an interview, but for security reasons did not want to reveal their name.
What are the police doing about drugs in Bucharest?
“We have a lot of techniques for fighting drug trafficking. We have seized three, four kilos of cocaine. The biggest haul was ten kilos of heroin, which was headed for Bucharest’s domestic market. The most common drug being used in Romania is marijuana.”
And what are you doing about legal highs? (mephedrone)
“This has been a challenge that the whole of Europe has been facing since 2009, the new psychoactive substances. We changed our anti-drug laws in 2010, 2011 and 2012, extended them to cover the new substances. In 2009, there were about 400 smart shops, where they was sold completely openly, but not any more.”
So how come there are still so many drugs on the street?
“Actually, if you look at the statistics from the national anti-drugs authority, you can see that we don’t have much of a problem. Sure, there are areas where heroin and psychoactive substances are used, like in Ferentari.”
But I have been out with Aras and they hand out needles to addicts throughout Bucharest, around Gara de Nord, and even in the most exclusive urban areas in Sector 1 as well, so it is not just in Ferentari.
“Yes, it is. We have the statistics. Sure, it’s also around Gara de Nord, but we’ve arrested a few important figures there. As you’ve seen, Bruce Lee is no longer on the streets.”
But the drugs are still on the street, even if Bruce Lee isn’t.
“Yes, that is possible.”
So you think that the situation around Gara de Nord is better now that Bruce Lee has been arrested?
“Yes, I think that the situation is under control.”
In what way?
“Because we have control over the situation. We are doing our police work. If you ask me, we’re effective.”
But when I ask the people who live in Gara de Nord, they say that the situation is worse. That there is more violence and rape.
“That’s not the case in my opinion. I work there and know the area.”
So in what way was Gara de Nord worse before Bruce Lee was arrested?
“I’m not saying it was worse before, I’m saying that we have arrested some gang members there, Bruce Lee and a few others.”
I have talked to so many addicts and they say that they have been beaten by the police. Is that one of the methods you use?
“No, it is not one of the methods we use. Yes, when we receive reports about it, then we do something about it.”
How many reports do you receive?
“I don’t know.”
What does the Romanian part of international drug smuggling look like?
“Drugs are smuggled through Romania. The most recent case we had was 300 kilos of heroin that came here from the Middle East, probably Afghanistan, and that was due for Belgium, Holland, France, England and so on. International gangs run these things, there are cells here in Romania too. The bosses are based in Holland and Turkey.”
More than 500 children are IV drug users
5,062 addicts are registered with Bucharest’s needle exchange programme
2,204 are Romany
532 are children
346 are prostitutes
56 are homeless
There are a huge number of unrecorded addicts and homeless people.
The government has reported a reduction in the number of addicts in Bucharest – from 10,000 to 6,000 – despite reports from the organisations who work with the addicts that there are far more than 10,000.
(The needle exchange programme statistics are from 2013.)
The homeless are paperless and have no legal rights in their own country
One relic of Communism is that you must have an address in order to apply for an ID card.
Your ID card has your address and your parents’ name on it.
To apply for an ID card, you must present a birth certificate and rental agreement.
If you are homeless, rent second hand or live in an illegal dwelling, you will not have a rental agreement and can therefore not apply for an ID card.
If you have been fined for not having your ID card on you when you were arrested by the police, you must first pay all previous fines before you can apply for a new ID card.
If you do not have an ID card, you will be excluded from all social support systems such as social security, healthcare and addiction treatment.
Nobody knows how many people there are without ID cards in Romania, but we could be talking about hundreds of thousands.
Aid organisations can help people to get an ID card by registering the homeless person to the organisation’s address.
Tens of thousands of children infected with HIV during Communism
During Communism, abortion was illegal and women were paid to have a lot of children.
The children would become the factories’ workforce.
A lot of people were unable to look after their children, so they ended up in orphanages.
Children died in the orphanages because they had no physical contact or human touch.
Blood transfusions were given to orphanage children, which infected tens of thousands with HIV (the transfusions were given to malnutritious and anaemic children).
During the revolution in 1989, 16,000 children had HIV.
7,000 of them are still alive.
9,000 of them died.
Not everyone who survived is receiving treatment.
Out of all of the HIV infected children in Europe, more than half of them are in Romania.
HIV epidemic during the financial crisis
In 2009, the financial crisis hit Romania.
There was less money for needles and fewer were handed out.
That was when the new drug, Mephedrone, showed up – a synthetic drug that comes from China, where it is legal.
The number of new cases of HIV among IV drug users exploded between 2010 and 2012.
For the period between Jan 2015 and Jan 2016, the needle exchange programme is lacking funds once again.
Almost no help available
The only help provided is preventative damage control: needle exchange programmes, condoms, health tests.
Only two organisations in the whole of Romania have a preventative approach – Aras and Carousel.
Both organisations are under-funded and get almost all of their money from other countries.
In Bucharest, there are about 100 detox facilities, all of which are in psychiatric hospitals where you are ‘treated’ with sedation and medical restraints.
To receive treatment you must have an ID card and health insurance.
Most of the methadone programmes cost money.
If you test positive for drugs once during the government-funded methadone treatment, you lose the right to methadone.
HIV positive addicts receive no antiretroviral medication.
There is not enough antiretroviral medication for everyone who is HIV positive.
Aras works for HIV positive rights
Aras is a non-governmental organisation that was founded by volunteers in 1992.
The organisation educates the general public about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, and how to protect yourself.
They work to improve attitudes towards people who are HIV positive.
Helping people who are HIV positive to defend their rights.
Offering material and psychological support to people with HIV and their relatives.
Offering medical care to addicts and people who are HIV positive.
They have a methadone programme that does not exclude people who are HIV positive or who have relapsed into addiction.
They have a needle exchange programme.
And they have an outreach team, who drives around in an ambulance handing out clean needles and condoms, and providing healthcare and check ups.