Two years ago, Jen Tse grabbed her camera and went to Bucharest, Romania, to crawl into the city's sewers in search of the people rumored to live there. She found instead were the children who had been forced into the underworld during the waning days of communist rule and had grown to adulthood surrounded by pipes and darkness. She shot their portraits in the almost completely unlit sewers while hearing the inhabitants' grim tales of rape, violence, drug abuse, hunger, cold, disease, and loneliness.
Thirty-one-year-old Mihaela Jordan has long stopped noticing the stench, or being bothered by the rats, fleas, garbage, feces, and rainwater. She's spent decades in this sewer.
“I’ve been cut, beaten, and so much more,” she told me. Her voice was deep and worn, almost disembodied in what would be total darkness if not for the single candle she held to her face.
The sewers are the hidden world of Mihaela and her friend Marius Nelu Tanase, whom she met on the streets as a child. They are members of a generation discarded in the wake of the Romania envisioned by Nicolae Ceausescu, the country’s last communist leader, whose regime collapsed in 1989.
Scar tissue from old cuts and burns cover Marius's arms. The burns, he said, happened accidentally while he was high on Aurolac, a type of paint thinner commonly inhaled by Romanian street children to cope with hunger and cold.
“Nobody cares about me, so I fend for myself,” he said. “Nobody trusts me, so I don’t trust them.”
Even as he enjoyed his own lavish lifestyle, Ceausescu introduced policies outlawing contraception and abortion, and forced women of childbearing age to have at least four children, despite his poverty-stricken citizens’ inability to take care of them. The policies were meant to boost the country’s workforce and reverse low birth and fertility rates, but the economy to support this sudden influx of people never materialized.
As a consequence, hundreds of children from large, impoverished families ended up on the streets. In Bucharest, many of them took to the city’s disused sewer tunnels, where excess heat from nearby steam pipes kept them warm. Some never left, and even eventually had children of their own.
“It’s been almost 25 years, and nothing is being done to help the sewer children who became sewer adults,” said Nelu Nica, an aid worker for Jubilee Romania, a Christian charity organization, who used to work with street children. “The government tries to clean up this disaster by blocking up the sewer holes, but that only hides the problem. These people just go somewhere else.”
Aid work by small, independent organizations isn’t the solution, according to Nelu. “There is a stray dog problem in Bucharest because people take pity on the dogs and feed them, rather than giving them new lives,” he said. “Aid work does the same for sewer people, but it’s the best we can do.”
But even the aid organizations are struggling. “So many of the ones we know of are closing down because the money has stopped coming from overseas, from America,” said Archway Romania director Dendea Origel.
Nelu himself almost became a casualty of the fallen regime, surviving his mother’s illegal abortion attempt when she lived under Ceaucescu—his unborn twin brother died. He decided to devote his life to helping street people, and met Mihaela as a pregnant teenager on the streets.
He never expected to run into her again, many years later, still living in a sewer pipe outside a metro station. The only difference was is that she had given birth to a total of seven children—two now dead, the rest in foster homes—by several different men.
Today, improved adoption policies help many kids born in the sewers escape their situation to healthy environments in foster homes. But their parents, the first generation of sewer children, still can’t escape the only lives they have ever known.
“I’m glad Mihaela’s still alive,” said Nelue. “But it’s horrible to see her, because she’s still here."
Jen Tse is a photojournalist from Toronto, Canada, currently based in Copenhagen, Denmark. More of her work can be found here.