The orphans of Romania who are building new lives underground

A story I wrote and that ran in Huck Magazine, a subculture bi-monthly. I knew about the children of the tunnels, but was just one of the passers-by. Huck readers and I now look at them through the eyes of Joost, the Dutchman photographer who lived with the boys, and in many respects was one of them. What a Channel 4 presenter called “hell on Earth” is the circumstantial home of a streetside family that’s seen harder times than most of us can dream of:

Homeless and disenfranchised in Eastern Europe – by Matei Rosca

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.

Graffiti around Bucharest's Gara de Nord, where the Lost Boys hustle and huff glue. Picture credit Joost Vandebrug

Graffiti around Bucharest’s Gara de Nord, where the Lost Boys hustle and huff glue. Picture credit Joost Vandebrug

Without adult supervision on the streets of Bucharest, the boys live the lives of Balkanic Huckleberry Finns. Credit for photo is Josst's

Without adult supervision on the streets of Bucharest, the boys live the lives of Balkanic Huckleberry Finns. Credit for photo is Josst’s

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 whole thing just happened,” says Joost.

Click here to read the whole story.

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