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Travel

The dark underground society living in the heart of Bucharest

@TomTaylorFO

Beneath the opulent grandeur of the bold and upstanding Bucharest is a society that dwells underground in the dower literal sense. Strangely mingling the tragedy of hardships and disparity, with hope and human spirit, this subterranean world is one that many struggle to come to terms with. It is almost literally a world apart and that renders its peculiarity very hard to reconcile. 

In 1989, the communist regime was overthrown, and Romanian orphanages closed their doors condemning thousands of kids to life on the streets. In the winter the temperature frequently lingers around freezing and the snow flurries that blanket the markets and marble arches with the postcard shimmer of Christmas render the streets dangerously cold for those without homes. 

Thus, the children who had to fend for themselves in the 1990s took solace underground. On the surface, that might sound like a strange decision, but the heated steam pipes made the dark world a lifesaver away from the perils above. In making the move, a community was born, albeit from dire circumstances, but a community, nonetheless. And when the disparities remained this community grew. It is now a paradigm of the shocking hardships faced under our noses, and how the fortitude of spurned youths has offered support to many. 

Frequent dispatches might comment on the dark mingling of kids with the junkies who also dwell in the tunnels, but as many have claimed, the community goes back generations now so that most of the ‘sewer people’ know each other and look out for one another. It is a true subculture that can hardly be compared to life above ground with an elusive leader known as Bruce Lee serving as a sort of father for the underground. 

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From tourist-clad café culture streets above, such a thing seems like fiction. Stories of a silver-haired man with scrap metal as jewellery jangling around his neck and a pack of stray dogs in tow named after a martial artist serving as some sort of guardian of a twisted community sounds like a dystopian work from a hopeful young writer that would be rejected by a publishing agency in a heartbeat for lacking subtlety. However, it is far more human than many give credit to. 

Some of the communities’ areas are sweltering and humid owing to the pipe systems causing many who have dipped their head into them to comment on how they are unliveable, but for those who have acclimatised to these festering spaces at least they provide some privacy. Remarkably, they aren’t some decrepit final frontier, but a matter of metres beneath the footsteps of those pouring out of luxurious hotels, government buildings and everything else that stands in the Romanian capital. 

It is this sense of disparity that exacerbates the problem. The world above seems like an unattainable one for those underground. Seeking solace in the bureaucratic world is an unknown entity—they are so detached from the services and authorities that hostels and such like seem alien to them. Thus, many people will spend their entire lives underground, a short ladder from civility in a society of their own. Although they might frequently be raided and flushed out by the police, they quickly spring back up.

As Bruce Lee has previously publicly commented: “being here is their only hope. They have nowhere to go. Here, they have food and water and heat. I know them all. I control everything down here. They used to do a lot of bad things. They didn’t have anyone to guide them to do good before me.” 

His tunnel has electricity and treasures collected from garbage to make the 2km ravine of concrete spaces as liveable as possible. His ultimate goal is to raise enough money to build a new community outside of Bucharest that will allow his people to live freely. That might remain a pipedream at present, but it is a mark of hope often overlooked by the dirty term of ‘sewer people’ which glosses over some of the intricacies of the existence. 

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