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The Underworld -

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Every once in a while a story comes along that makes us ask the question - could this really be happening? Remember all those years ago when the Ceausescu regime collapsed in Romania and hundreds of children were found in orphanages? Well, now they are much older but it seems there's no place for them or their children. As channel 4’s, Paraic O’Brien reports, they're eking out a living in one of the most appalling places imaginable. And a warning - there are depictions of drug taking which may offend some viewers.

REPORTER: Paraic O’Brien

You can travel to the heart of the EU from the station in Bucharest. But our journey is just a few metres. On the surface, the newest member of the club has worked hard to redefine itself, but there's another Romania underground. This is the entrance to Bucharest's underworld.

WOMAN (Translation): Oh, my God!

By late afternoon outside the station, they start to wake up, clambering up out of the ground, disoriented. Among them is a little boy - Nico. He agrees to send word down that we'd like to meet the boss. This world underground, we're told, has an overlord and you only go down by invitation. A couple of hours' later and we're told - he will see us now.

MAN (Translation): Let them down!

MAN: Paraic, are you okay?


On our hands and knees we pothole into a parallel universe. It's the heat that hits you first. The camera lens steams up. Then the music kicks in. If they had a club night in hell, it would feel like this. When your eyes adjust, you're in the first chambers. They call it 'The Office'. These are the lost ones, the children spewed out by the old Communist orphanages have had kids of their own. When Ceausescu fell, there were nearly 50,000 of them in state institutions.

CATALINA (Translation): My name is Catalina, I have been here since I was eleven or twelve. My parents abandoned me at birth, but this is where I destroyed myself.

MAN (Translation): I lost the life I should have had as a child, I should have had a normal life, like you. I don’t have that anymore.

Almost everyone here is HIV-positive, a quarter have TB. They're all making their way to the counter.

CHILD (Translation): I can’t stand it anymore, Daddy! I need! Please let me, Daddy! I brought the water.

The man on the other side is called Bruce Lee, after his street fighting days. He supplies the drugs. He calls the shots.

BRUCE LEE: Do you want some coffee?

REPORTER: Yes please, yes please.

BRUCE LEE (Translation): You add two spoonfuls.

REPORTER: What does that mean?

MAN (Translation): “Bruce Lee, King of the Sewers.”

REPORTER: That says, Bruce Lee, King of the Sewers.

MAN (Translation): This is me as a child, I grew up here in the sewers.


BRUCE LEE (Translation): Have you bought anything for the cats? I have cats, kittens I buy fish for them and feed them with fish.

On the Cabinet where he keeps the drugs, a photo of the little boy we met outside, Nico.

BRUCE LEE (Translation): He’s my child, I adopted him off the streets.

It's not just coffee and cat food on the counter, for the equivalent of 50 pence, he sells bags of metallic paint called Aurlac, a synthetic drug similar to methadone is also on offer and injected. So, I think Bruce Lee has asked us to go and see some of the other rooms and they're actually cleaning the corridor ahead of our imminent arrival.

Bruce Lee is warming to us. Time for the tour and further in.

BRUCE LEE (Translation): Will he fit?

REPORTER: All good.

The tunnels were part of Ceausescu's grand design to centrally heat the city, now a sweltering drug den. I've never seen anything like this, to be honest. There's this network of tunnels, and this is quite an honour, I gather, to be invited into Bruce Lee's room. This is his bedroom.

BRUCE LEE (Translation): We are the scum of society, aren’t we? The lowest of the low. I try to organise them to become a power, to become self-sufficient, a family to show people that they are wrong, that we are people as well.

There is, bizarrely, a twisted order to Bruce Lee's fiefdom. Social workers told us, he tries to protect the younger ones from sexual predators and addicts are less likely to die down here because he offers them a sort of safety and a warm place to sleep.

We've just been told we're been brought to another section of this strange community, called The Hotel and it's basically like a hostel underground. We go through room after room. During the winter months this place is full, this afternoon just a few couples.

BRUCE LEE (Translation): You see what I have put here?

Lying on the artificial grass holding on to each other.

BRUCE LEE (Translation): They call me their father because I have raised the majority of them since they were little. I gathered them off the streets and I looked after them. The authorities weren’t bothered. No one was.

Bruce Lee talks a lot. But the unspoken lines of another story are carved out on his arms, self-harming from the orphanages and the prisons.

BRUCE LEE (Translation): My mother abandoned me three days after my birth in hospital. The state took me in. I was raised in orphanages and when Ceausescu fell, so did I.

He wants to talk about Nico again, the boy we met above ground. He's not from the old orphanages, he's the new generation.

BRUCE LEE (Translation): I met him here on the streets. Little kid, problems, drugs - I banned him from using a syringe, I only let him use Aurolac, but I was too late.

He says he should meet the woman who looked after Nico with him. For that, though, he says we have to go upstairs and out of the tunnels.

REPORTER: Oh God, fresh air.

And thus begins the last bizarre leg of the your journey, Bruce Lee, his minder, and about 15 dogs tramping across Bucharest.

TAXI DRIVER (Translation): Hey Bruce, you’ve got the whole pack with you!

BRUCE LEE (Translation): No there are more back in the sewer.

Above ground he seems nervous. The Aurolac bag is pumping hard. We're going to meet a woman called Raluca, a volunteer running a shelter for the people of the tunnels.

BRUCE LEE (Translation): Is Mrs Raluca in?

MAN (Translation): No

BRUCE LEE (Translation): Call her.

MAN (Translation): I’ll call her now

As we wait, Nico arrives. It turns out little Nico is actually 17. His development has been stunted by the drugs and abuse. He has full-blown AIDS. Bruce Lee won't let him inject any more, but the silver streaks of Aurolac mark him out. We move inside to wait for Raluca. In the meantime Nico talks about his time in hospital last year.

NICO (Translation): While I was in hospital for two to three months Bruce was the one who visited me. He gave me money. Together with Mrs Raluca, the lady here where I live, they came every day to see me. I could have died.

MRS RALUCA (Translation): A little bit longer and you would have been dead!

Raluca eventually arrives. For her, Bruce Lee is a drug dealer with a heart, but he's still a drug dealer.

REPORTER: Do you disapprove of what he's doing?

MRS RALUCA (Translation): He wants to know Bruce, if I disapprove of what you are doing?

BRUCE LEE (Translation): No.

REPORTER: What do you make of this man?

MRS RALUCA: This man? You know, for me, I would like to kill him.


MRS RALUCA: Or to punish him, but for the other people from the street, no. Because those people.. they depend on him.

This strange partnership has worked for at least one boy. These are, after all, the only two adults left in Nico's life.

MRS RALUCA: We are the big family and happiness, with many problems, but we had a family.

It's almost night, time for a last dappled family portrait full of darkness and light.

ANJALI RAO: That report has the authorities in Bucharest under pressure to do something for those sewer dwellers. Sadly, though, it's all too late for 18-year-old Catelina. She's died since that story was filmed.




Courtesy of ITN

17th June 2014