The orphans of Romania who are building new lives underground

The orphans of Romania who are building new lives underground

Homeless and disenfranchised in Eastern Europe — Joost Vandebrug's intimate photo project captures the cobbled-together community of the lost boys of Bucharest.

“What do you expect? We are here, at the Gates of the Orient, where nothing is ever too severe.” – Mateiu Caragiale via Raymond Poincare, Craii de Curtea-Veche, 1929

Romania is a country with a troubled present and a violent past. Far from healed, it still bears scars from Niculae Ceausescu’s totalitarian communist regime. Two of the deeper ones are the failing child protection and healthcare systems.

Despite a lack of data, charities estimate that 1,000-1,200 minors aged between four and eighteen are sleeping and living rough in the city of Bucharest. About half are thought to be Roma. Drug, alcohol abuse, hepatitis, AIDS and other health problems are rampant. They are constant targets of paedophiles and violent policing and they survive mainly off charity, petty crime and panhandling.

But, like every story that starts with dark statistics, the full picture is less black and white. In a society that’s failed them, a group of homeless boys have forged their own semblance of community in the tunnels beneath Bucharest’s notorious Gara de Nord. And in 2010, an unassuming fashion photographer from Rotterdam found himself welcomed into their world.

Joost Vandebrug first met orphans Costel, Nicu, Liviu, Stefan and Bruce Lee while researching another gig in the Romanian capital. For the past three years he’s become a part of their community, spending time with them below ground, documenting their lives and building a visual narrative that he’ll soon self-publish as a photobook titled Cinci Lei (The Lost Boys Project).

When we meet at the Clapton Hart in gentrified Hackney, Joost looks bewildered to find a Romanian reporter, asking in earnest about the ‘Lost Boys’ of Bucharest. “Many Romanians are aggressive towards this, they say I give Romania a bad name,” Joost explains over a pint of cold beer.

The question of partiality is a pertinent one. A fashion photographer documenting the homeless and disenfranchised in Eastern Europe is bound to raise a few eyebrows. But far from glamourising life on the margins or rendering it ‘exotic’, the images Joost captured seem to fill a void, plugging a gap left by the media’s detached reporting with intimate snapshots of friendship and adolescence that anyone can relate to. But objectivity, in the classic sense, was never on the cards for Joost, just like Hunter S. Thompson never worried where his Gonzo words strayed.

“The whole thing just happened,” says Joost. “I’m not a documentarian in the sense that now I will be looking for the next project. This one will stick with me way beyond the borders of a conventional documentary. I have never tried to protect myself from going in too deep. And it’s too late for that now anyway. I never thought about my role as a documentarian because I don’t see myself that way. I do think a lot about what it means to be their friend, and I’m taking my responsibility in this friendship.”

Joost’s introduction came via Costel, a “quiet and timid kid” with heaps of street credit. Homeless since the age of six, Costel knows the nooks and crannies of this patch of Bucharest better than anyone. Now he’s sixteen and his mind is set on singing his way to success, like his hero Babi Minune who’s now topping charts after warbling on the dusty boulevards as a homeless child.

“It was so special what happened,” says Joost of the first-time he met Costel, near the tunnels where the boys live. “To me it was out of this world. I knew I needed to stick to this.” Costel introduced Joost to the others and they found ways to connect despite the language barrier. “We just used gestures and about three Romanian words that I had learned and kept using in different ways,” says Joost.

The kids were initially sceptical of Joost’s openness (“At the beginning they thought I was just another foreigner there,” he says) until an unexpected event became his initiation. While hanging out with Bruce Lee, the heavily-tattooed older alpha male of the group, Joost was arrested by the police. “They took us to the station and questioned us. After a while they had to let us go as they didn’t have anything on us.” From that point on, Bruce Lee’s trust deepened and he protected Joost when things got tense. “Nobody was robbing me and everyone kept away from me because of him,” he confides.

Over the next few weeks, Joost spent every day with the group. The kids would pass time at Gara de Nord by hustling for money and huffing aurolac – an addictive mixture of paint and thinner with narcotic effects – out of plastic bags. “I’d just sit there with them for hours on end,” says Joost. “It’s their life and I wanted to be a part of it.”

The first one to accept Joost was Nicu, then thirteen. Over time the friendship evolved, with Joost developing a sense of responsibility that would test his position as an objective documentarian. “I want them to be safe,” he says. “Last year I met this lady who runs a dog shelter. I love dogs, and I love Bucharest for all its stray dogs [64,000 this September, according to the council] and because I can’t talk all the time, sometimes I just hang about with the dogs. So anyway, I met this lady who feeds them and takes the ill ones away and I started to help her out. She had this space, but it was all run down so when winter came I said, ‘Why don’t we build a room here? I’ll pay for it, get all the shit out and make a little room.’ So I got the kids, we cleaned it up, put the floor in, a ceiling, windows, doors, a bunk bed. This was three months ago.”

Joost may have had the best intentions but of the six or so people who the room was built for, only Nicu and Stefan made it their permanent home. The others opted for life back in the tunnels. But it hasn’t stopped Joost from involving himself in their world. During a lengthy visit last year, concerned with Nicu’s deteriorating health, he took him to hospital. Nicu was hospitalised and diagnosed with AIDS. “I was there for two weeks making sure he didn’t run away again, because he had run away before,” says Joost. “He couldn’t get his head around being free then being bound to bed in hospital.”

Since then, Nicu’s AIDS-related illness has weakened him greatly and he needs plenty of rest. But having a room, and a female carer who makes sure he takes his medication, has provided enough stability to embark on an education. At sixteen, he’s never been to school a day in his life. Being a Roma kid living in and out of orphanages, Nicu’’s lack of documentation meant he couldn’t enrol in school, but Joost and his carer made the necessary arrangements.

Today Nicu is a happy pupil, as happy as he ever was on the street. In fact, what makes Nicu extraordinary even among his peers is his sheer exuberance. Even when faced with imminent death, he still found ways to laugh. “When I took him to hospital, in the back of the car you could see him drifting in and out of consciousness, that’s how sick he was,” says Joost. “And every time he woke up he would babble joyfully then slip back out of it again.”

During that trip, Joost rounded up the group and brought them to visit Nicu in hospital – but they weren’t allowed in. Nicu came down and used all the strength he could muster to give Bruce a warm hug. “That moment was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Joost. He talks of the experience with admiration in his voice. “I saw Nicu going from a healthy boy living on the street, then getting very ill. I saw him [nearly] die in the hospital, pretty much nothing left of him, then bouncing back and going to school.”

Though not all the boys’ stories have turned out that well (Joost refrains from details, but admits they’re “not quite there yet”) there seems to be a sense of order to their improvised community. According to the boys’, orphanages are rife with bullying from other children and apathy or even abuse from the carers, whereas the tunnels are a sanctuary where they know they won’t be harmed. If Bruce Lee can help it, that is. As the fatherly figure of the group, Bruce takes a hands-on approach to ensure they have a home. He’s rigged the tunnels with electricity from the main panel, installed fans to cool them during sweltering summers under the tarmac, and improvised a cement bath filled by pierced hot water pipes running through the tunnel. There’s even disco lights, a DVD player and an LCD screen for entertainment.

It may have taken a stint in prison for Bruce to rise to this role; he went in addicted to aurolac, says Joost, but seems to have emerged with a renewed sense of responsibility. Today, he’s the closest they’ve got to a foster parent and, in the complete absence of any guardian, the head of their self-made society. But that also makes it difficult to get them off the streets. Try, as some have, and “you’re taking them away from a place where they have finally found friendship, family, care, some safety,” explains Joost, having learned that lesson the hard way after trying to intervene. More often than not, the boys run back when they’re removed from one another and put into yet another alien place. “Who are you to tell take them away from that and tell them to go to school every day and to go to church on Sunday? It’s just not a good deal. It’s not fair and it’s not respectful either.”

Joost has picked up other lessons from the boys. “Friendship to me is when a man doesn’t have food, I’ll give him what I’ve got even if it’s very little,” Costel told Joost one day. It’s a lesson of compassion that we could all do well to heed. Walk around Bucharest on any average day and you’ll see ‘respectable’ city dwellers giving ‘street children’ maximum berth.

What they’re missing out on, though – and what Joost seems to have captured – is the compassion they show towards each other and towards the animals that share their space. “For a group of young adolescent boys living on the street with no parental guidance and nobody telling them what to do, they show absolutely no sign of aggression,” says Joost. “They’re very close to each other, physically close, very kind and sweet. They’re not afraid of a hug or a kiss. They express a lot of affection and they realise that violence is a luxury. If you get hurt you’ll need healthcare and that is not available to them.”

Romania’s disenfranchised youth are symptomatic of complex issues. A hangover from Ottoman times, worsened by the obsessively bureaucratic communist regime, small-fry corruption wreaks havoc in the post-revolutionary society. Being Romanian, it’s an issue I’m familiar with and face casually. Joost, on the other hand, tries not to comment. “It’s the culture of the place, not mine, so I’m not judging it,” he says.

But perhaps his work is comment enough. Beneath the black pavement lies a makeshift world, where innocent faces are brushed out of sight. They’re coming of age as the rich world above them is also maturing, moving apart from one another like the steam and the rain.

“I know this weird part of Bucharest that not even Romanians know,” says Joost. “I can’t even remember going to a café for a cup of coffee. All I know is the Bucharest of Gara de Nord.”

Find out more about the Cinci Lei project.