It was only when the drug ambulance pulled up near Bucharest's main train station that the city's forgotten people emerged from the darkness. Some had surfaced via a hole in the pavement from their homes in the city's network of sewer tunnels. Others came from nearby shacks, tents, and street corners. At night the average citizen avoids this stretch of land, marooned by a roundabout. It is a part of their city they'd prefer to forget.
The light from the open ambulance doors revealed a ramshackle group of damaged people gathering round, many of them Roma. On their flesh were signs of repeated drug injections: needle wounds in the jugular, swollen feet from ruined veins, and track marks up the arms. A few of them were high, either numbed on low-purity heroin or agitated from injecting a dirt-cheap mephedrone hybrid known locally as either legale or pure.
To an outsider, it may have looked like they were queuing at a mobile soup kitchen. But they were taking advantage of the little help that is available to them: clean syringes. To the people who patiently line up outside this converted ambulance four nights a week, fresh packs of needles are a lifeline, and they are a form of currency.
"The general public's attitude to the Roma and to the drug addicts is that we are wasting money on nothing, that it's better to let them die than to help them," said Dan Popescu, harm-reduction services coordinator at the Asociatia Romana Anti-SIDA (ARAS), which runs the drug ambulance. Despite the HIV epidemic among Bucharest's injectors, ARAS is one of only two drug projects carrying out harm-reduction services in the whole of Romania.
Some users bring buckets or plastic soda bottles full of dirty needles, which they have picked up in their own neighborhood and for which they are rewarded with extra packs of syringes. The clean needles go some way to stemming the rising number of injectors with blood-borne infections. Popescu said that almost all the injecting drug users they come into contact with in Bucharest's ghetto zones test positive for HIV and hepatitis C. It is widely accepted among health officials that official statistics on the extent of drug-related infections in Romania barely scratch the surface, but one analysis found half of injecting drug users have HIV and three quarters have hepatitis C . Because they are so widely used, syringes are also a form of collateral among Bucharest's injectors for anything from drugs to taxi fares.
One woman I spoke to, Flori, was 28, but she moved like she was in her 70s and was close to losing sight in one eye. She sleeps above ground in the warmer months and in the sewers during winter. She injects a mix of heroin, crushed methadone pills, and legale—a combination of three drugs known as Total Combat. Her favorite feeling in life, she told me, was the rush she got from injecting legale.
Every night a group of teenagers from the local orphanage, Pinocchio, come to the sewer entrance, to mingle with the older drug users and get high rather than sleep in their beds. They sniff a toxic metallic paint called Aurolac from black plastic bags. It's the drug of choice for young street kids before they move on to injecting. The paint gives a hallucinogenic high but causes damage to the lungs, heart, and brain. It is one of the most likely highs to cause instant death via heart failure.
Stephan, a Roma kid from Pinocchio, is 16. His mom was murdered in the street in front of him when he was ten; he ended up in a children's home and has been sniffing paint ever since. He had just started using legale when I spoke to him. He was introduced to it by an older boy at the orphanage. His friend, another Roma kid called Liviu, is 17. His father is also dead, though his brother and sister visit him in Pinocchio. I asked him why he takes drugs. "Life is ugly," he told me. "If you don't have parents, how can it be nice?"
It is no coincidence that the majority of Bucharest's desperately sick drug users are from the Roma community, Europe's largest ethnic minority. Like in many parts of Europe, the Roma, who originated in India and migrated to Europe in the Middle Ages, where they have been an underclass ever since, are a largely segregated community in Romania. Of the 10 to 12 million Roma in Europe, an estimated 2 million, more than anywhere else, live in Romania. Although they were freed from slavery by the King of Romania 170 years ago, they are still viewed as undesirables and are treated as such.
They have their own language and their own unconventional life. Although there are the odd exceptions—a child Roma pop star and a small group of Roma royalty and entrepreneurs—the overwhelming majority have low-paid, little respected jobs, such as recycling discarded scrap metal, cans, bottles, and clothes. On every level—housing, education, employment, and health—they are severely disadvantaged. It is something that, on paper, the EU is struggling to come to grips with. On the ground, however, Roma are subject to widespread discrimination, a nominally illegal situation within an EU member state.
Many Roma are simply locked out of mainstream society. Only around 45 percent are able to access healthcare or receive welfare in Romania, because they do not have the relevant ID. A US Department of State report remarks that a lack of identity documents excludes many Roma from participating in elections, receiving social benefits, accessing health insurance, securing property documents, and participating in the labor market.
They are virtually invisible to the authorities. Despite warnings from the World Bank's global AIDS program about the spiraling problem in Romania, the government has done almost nothing regarding the HIV outbreak among legale users since 2010. Romania has responded to this HIV epidemic by shutting down drug services and buying low-quality needles that snap under the flesh.
Even on the plane over to Romania, I could feel the anti-Roma vibe. A young Romanian business-management student doing his degree at a British university asked me what I was doing in Bucharest. Explaining that I was writing an article about Roma and drug addiction, he quickly corrected me. "Roma? You mean Gypsies? We do not call them Roma. Please remember, be careful—they steal."
A lot of Roma do end up stealing, but that is because they are trapped in a cycle of poverty, accentuated by being segregated in ghettos, often resorting to drugs as a solution to their shitty lives.
Death from drug abuse stalks this population. The Romanian government barely bothers to count the number of narcotic-related deaths. Of the scores of drug injectors Dan and his ARAS team come across in the ghettos of Bucharest, they are aware of around two people who die each week—around a 100 a year—which is three times the official figure for the entire country. The day after I went out with them, they saw the corpse of a young woman named Niculina, a heroin user they often chatted to, being lifted into an ambulance in one of Bucharest's ghetto zones.
"Currently the biggest problem we are facing in Romania is the unrestricted spread of HIV and TB among people who inject drugs. Why is that? Because of a lack of political will and accountability," said Valentin Simionov, who spent a decade trying to persuade the Romanian government to take its drug problem seriously, before getting a job with a London-based drug NGO. "In a country where 80 percent or more of the population say they are Orthodox Christians, you would expect huge compassion and solidarity with the poor and sick. Not here."
A 20-minute drive from the underground ghetto in the sewers, Ferentari is Bucharest's most infamous ghetto area. Located in the borough called Sector 5, a name with echoes of the country's Communist past, it is known to some, particularly the taxi drivers who choose not to take passengers there, as the Land of the Pirates . The politicians there are certainly dodgy; the mayor of Sector 5 was arrested for corruption earlier this year.
Local NGOs and journalists call it a punga saracie —a sack of poverty. In other words, it has the kind of deprivation from which no one can escape. The chances of getting out, save for leaving in a coffin, are as limited as the efforts of the Romanian government and its people to help them.
As I walked down Livezilor Alley, sandwiched between some dramatically dilapidated 1970s apartment blocks, the first thing I saw was a young man bending over in plain view in the street to inject himself in the groin before continuing his stroll.
Each 15-square-foot apartment, originally designed for single male workers from a now defunct bus factory, houses an average of ten people today. Only one in six apartments has hot water and gas for heating and cooking . Not everyone has electricity, but the outside walls of these blocks are covered with new and old satellite dishes. There don't appear to be many doors. The basements have been flooded for years and are home to huge rats. The stench is amazing. Dirty needles are everywhere, in stairwells, on the pavements, and in the huge, open rubbish dumps along this drag.
There is a theory mentioned in Hidden Communities, a book on Ferentari, that the drug dealers and injectors here maintain these piles of waste on purpose as a kind of "filth preservation policy" that creates a "no go area where the drug culture can survive." What is for sure is that most people throw their refuse out the window because the garbage trucks do not come and haven't done so for years because the local politicians simply do not care. This area is 70 percent Roma. So the trash is left to fester along with the people.
Michele Lancione is an Italian ethnographer from Cambridge University who has studied the community in Ferentari. He acted as my guide in what is essentially a no-go zone for the journalists who are satisfied just taking a quick snap of a drug injector before sneaking away. "Life in these places is incredibly hard, even more so if you happen to have an addiction," Lancione told me. "You are stigmatized both as a Roma and a drug user. In all this, the state is just absent. Or, worse, it is there, but only to harass people and make their lives even more marginalized through a lack of investments and a medieval penal code."
As we walked away from Livezilor Alley a woman was dragged screaming from her home and bundled into a car. The word on the street was that she was a sex worker about to be punished by an angry pimp. Just around the corner was Caracuda, a project run by Romania's second drug charity, Carusel, which is essentially a shack where drug users bring in their old syringes to get new ones.
Most of the injectors I spoke to at Caracuda had similar stories of loss and regret. The drugs offered an escape from that, if only for a short time.
"I started using heroin when I was 17 because that's what everyone else was doing," said Marian, who is 35 but has never had a job. "When I am using heroin I feel like a normal person, like you." Another, a teenager named Costel, told me, "I take drugs to forget. There is a need to feel blurry." When I asked him what he had to forget, he said he could not tell me, because it was unspeakable.
As Lancione points out, the EU funds for Caracuda, part of Romania's threadbare provision for drug addicts, are fast running dry and the Romanian government is refusing to step in to save it. "The Romanian State is inept at helping those who most need it, illustrated by the fact the help it gives Caracuda, in the shape of clean syringes, is done on the cheap. The needles are of such low quality—they break inside the body as drug users search for veins—as to be almost useless."
I talked to Florian, 27, who has two neck injecting wounds. He's from the ghetto, where he said "everyone" injects drugs. He had just stepped out of a taxi after paying the driver, a heroin user, with clean needles. Florian has been injecting heroin since he was 12. He injects one gram a day. "At the beginning, when I was a boy, the feeling of heroin was very nice. But now I do it because I need to do it. It's no pleasure," he said.
He's been puncturing his skin and filling his veins with heroin for almost half his life. But he's no feral, semi-human caricature. He's a lost boy, looking for some kind of a way out. Unfortunately, he's trapped in the same vicious circle in which so many young Roma find themselves. When I asked him what his tomorrow looked like, he said, "Shit. No future. Nothing."
One of the men gathered outside Caracuda told me his brother was off to England the next day. It turned out England is a popular holiday destination for the people in Ferentari. But they don't go there to take snaps of the Queen.
I asked the man what his brother was going to do in my homeland. "Steal!" he replied, smiling. He said lots of people from Ferentari love England because the police are so nice and lenient. He was particularly fond of Asda and Morrisons in Birmingham, where he stayed for six months before getting deported last year. He earned good money stealing whiskey, chocolate, and Gillette Fusion razors using a classic aluminum-lined shopping bag, before selling them to the fences who run local 7-11s. In Romania you can get three years for stealing a Snickers bar. But in England this guy said he got caught stealing four times before he was sent back to Romania.
For Amer, 30, another Roma injector, life in the ghetto here is a one-way track. "To me this is a normal life, I've lived here since I was born," he told me. "I go out of Ferentari twice a week, when I go to hospital for treatment and to make money, but I can't tell you what I do—otherwise I will go to jail! In five years' time there will be no change. I'm hoping life will be better, but I don't think so. The Roma are not treated fairly by the government—they are ridiculed and not taken seriously."
One 35-year-old drug user, Daniela, has been injecting for 15 years. She clutched a box of precious needles to her chest. "These needles are a beautiful thing. But we are treated like garbage.Living here is like living on an island forgotten by the world."
The average wage in Livezilor Alley is under $68 a week . Most live hand to mouth off the streets. The men are involved in hustling and stealing, while sex work is one of the few alternatives for teenage girls. Education levels among Roma in Ferentari are seriously low, with most children dropping out of education by the time they are 12, to start working or to start families, according to the Policy Center for Roma Minority, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 and based in Ferentari . With open drug injecting a part of life in many homes, it is common for children to start taking drugs, even heroin and legale, at a young age. In Hidden Communities, the author interviews an eight-year-old heroin injector and a ten‐year-old who was forced to inject drugs in his pubic area because all his veins were scarred.
"The problems faced by the Roma community in the ghettos of Ferentari are of many interconnected layers under the umbrella of extreme poverty," said Raluca Negulescu, executive director at the Policy Center. "Children are exposed to drug consumption, which does not only normalize it, but it's a health hazard. Children get sick with hepatitis C after being pricked by needles."
Not only do young Romas have to deal with drugs, but they also have to contend with the police. Last year a 26-year-old Romani man, Daniel Dumitrache from Bucharest, was arrested and taken to police cells for working as a "parking boy," a common job among young Roma, where they earn income by finding parking spaces for drivers in exchange for tips. By the next morning he was dead. The police said he became ill and, in spite of receiving medical care, died shortly thereafter. They stated that there were no signs of violence on his body despite the fact Daniel's parents said his body was covered with bruises. A forensic report found the cause of Dumitrache's death was a ruptured spleen, and an officer was arrested for unlawful use of deadly force but later moved to another precinct.
In 2014, a chief of police in Romania resigned in March after surveillance camera footage showed him slapping and kicking a 14-year-old Roma girl at police headquarters. Meanwhile, there have been numerous statements from Roma sex workers of abuse at the hands of police—they are commonly asked to clean the police station naked before being let go.
In its report on Romania's human rights record, the US Department of State said: "Discrimination against Roma continued to be a major problem… Major human rights problems included police mistreatment and harassment of detainees and Roma." It's this systematic discrimination against Roma that impedes their access to adequate education, housing, health care, and employment opportunities.
The politicians are as bad as the police. In 2007 Romania's foreign minister suggested that the government should buy up a piece of land in the Egyptian desert and ship Roma people there . In 2010, President Traian Basescu was fined a whopping $150 by Romania's anti-discrimination organization after stating "few of the nomad Roma want to work; many of them traditionally live on what they steal."
In 2014, there was international outrage after the mayor of a Transylvanian town evicted 74 families and forced them to live on a chemical waste dump. In 2012, the mayor of Baia Mare, a town in northern Romania, decided to force hundreds of Roma into a decommissioned chemical factory.
Reporting on the situation of Roma people in Europe, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights described the levels of exclusion and deprivation in countries like Romania as "shocking." In 2015, in its appraisal of Romania's progress of reform, the European Commission said, "few effective measures were taken to integrate the Roma population" and that there had been little movement in improving education or health care for Roma.
"The only effective interventions directed to drug users in Bucharest—and with Roma drug users in particular—are left in the hand of a bunch of NGOs, which cannot cope with the scale of the problem," said Lancione. "The state could and should do more—but this will happen only when and if its EU partners (which grant it its economic subsistence) will put adequate pressure. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be on the agenda, while another generation of young men and women is growing up in totally unacceptable conditions."
Through the EU's Roma integration strategy program, $28.7 billion was made available from 2007 to 2013 for member states to spend on Roma social inclusion, but only a fraction of that money has been utilized by Romania because the civil service has no idea what to do with it. The EU warns Romania every year that it is dragging its feet and must act, but every year the situation stagnates.
Despite the threat of sanctions for discriminating against Europe's largest ethnic minority, Romania, and even the self-proclaimed leaders of the Roma community, appear content to let their citizens rot away in their ghettos.
The EU has admitted that despite slow progress, vulnerable citizens like the Roma are best helped if countries remain in the EU. As long as no one kicks up a fuss, the health emergency around Roma drug addiction can be swept under the carpet.
"These children see the path others have trod, so it seems natural to [follow]. We need to expose them to alternative ways of living, so they have some element of choice." —Raluca Negulescu
This year marks the end of a ten-year plan by European governments, called the Roma Decade of Inclusion, "an unprecedented political commitment by European governments to eliminate discrimination against Roma and close the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society."
So I ask Raluca Negulescu what impact the Roma Decade has had on the kids of Ferentari. "The impact is close to zero, if I'm being optimistic. There is still blatant racism towards the Roma. Those who are drug users are seen as deserving it. This is highly unacceptable in an EU country in 2015."
As grim as the outlook is today, Negulescu thinks that real change is possible if the Roma people take the reins. "We have informal leaders, not people who say, 'I'm the leader,' but people who have the support of their people, people who actually want to change things, and not just for themselves," said Negulescu. "Some of these Roma women, they are amazing. They are the leaders. Now, in Sector 5, there are virtually no Roma in public positions. But I hope in the next ten years these women will be elected onto local councils."
In the past year, Negulescu's project has been working with more than 300 mainly Roma kids in a education program meant to help them catch up with their grade level in school. "These children see the path others have trod, so it seems natural to go along the same path. We need to expose them to alternative ways of living so they have some element of choice."
Toto is one of those lucky kids. Spotted by filmmaker Alexander Nanau when he was ten year old, living in the Livezilor Alley with his two teenage sisters, Toto's tough life was documented on camera more than 15 months. Nanau filmed Toto, whose mom was in jail for selling drugs, hanging around in a stark apartment, sleeping as drug users injected next to him. As his older sister got into heroin, he and his younger sister were moved to a children's home, where his life took a turn for the better.
Toto and His Sisters, a brilliant documentary work, was released last year. Now 15, Toto is one of the children benefitting from Negulescu's education program. He's now a famous street dancer in the neighborhood, and sometimes people ask for his autograph.
"I still get hassled when I go in shops. People tell me not to touch things because I am Roma," he told me. "I visit my mom in the old apartment and see my younger sister, although my older sister is in jail for stealing a mobile phone. Now, I share a room in a house with two other boys, who are my friends. I'm fine. I feel happier. I'm going to be a dancer. Maybe a film director, who knows?"
It is pitiful that the only real help being given to the drug users living in Bucharest's ghetto areas are via two NGOs funded mainly by foreign money. With few resources, these organizations are fighting a losing battle. As one of the newest members of the European family, Romania is clearly not under enough pressure from the EU to stop this. As long as the Roma are segregated in ghettos in Romania—and in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe—drug addiction will continue and rates of HIV will spiral.
Here's hoping that Toto, a boy with more opportunity than many to escape the grim destiny of those around him, manages to leave behind ghetto life. But even if he does, he will always be Roma. After centuries of subjugation, it is time for kids like Toto to be treated like human beings.
The author would like to thank Michele Lancione and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union for their assistance in writing this article. The HCLU has a new campaign to raise awareness of drug abuse in the Balkans; to learn more, go to www.room-for-change.org.
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