Underneath the main train station in Bucharest is a hot, cramped sewer that smells of excrement and glue. What’s more, used needles and condoms float on the surface of the city’s liquid waste as it runs through the sewer tunnels.
And people live there. A group of men, women and children occupy the tunnels – some of those people high on drugs and interchanging needles, their arms marked with scars. They are, though, a resourceful group, to say the least; framed art decorates the walls, while stolen electricity from a bus office above the street provides them with power and light.
This isn’t, however, some disorganized hub. It’s a community that lives off the grid and is run by a man who calls himself Bruce Lee. This is where some of the disenfranchised people of Romania try to make some kind of life for themselves.
Bruce Lee is tattooed, his wrists wrapped in chains, his cut-off leather jacket covered in badges. He’s lived in the sewer since he was a child; now the dispossessed who live alongside him call him “father.”
Those who reside in the sewers are the victims of the Ceausescu communist regime’s collapse. In fact, they grew up in awful conditions in orphanages after the banning of abortions and contraception left poor families with children they couldn’t feed. Many subsequently abandoned their newborn babies.
Rather than remaining in the harsh state-run orphanages, though, many young people opted for the streets instead. “They prefer to have freedom instead of very strict rules to follow,” said visual artist Dani Gherca, who photographed the sewer dwellers.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t rules under the ground. Indeed, Bruce Lee makes sure that those in his care follow strict guidelines. And yet while those rules are certainly sensible, some are a little surprising.
The first rule? No fighting. The second? No arguing. The third, which Bruce Lee considers the most important, is that alcohol is strictly forbidden.
Drinking, then, is not a tolerated form of escape for the 90 percent of the sewer’s inhabitants who suffer from tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS or hepatitis. “As the police have their rules, that’s how they respect my rules,” Bruce Lee told Casa Jurnalistului. “If you break them, it means you’ve got something against me.”
Bruce Lee has built everything in the sewers, which means that life below ground revolves around him. Those who live there work for him by scavenging in bins for metal and discarded paint. The scavengers then take their loot to their boss, who pays them for their work.
For their work, the scavengers also receive protection, shelter and food. Plus, they get access to drugs – and Aurolac, a paint with hallucinogenic fumes – at rock-bottom prices.
Interestingly, Lee is also helped by Simon and Andrei, his two deputies. And, naturally, all residents are loyal to the three honchos and, indeed, are prepared to protect them with dirty needles – or the stray dogs they take in as pets – if need be.
Such loyalty may be surprising when considering the awful conditions in which the sewer dwellers live, but many sing Bruce Lee’s praises. Some who’ve left, meanwhile, have said that they’d love to return to life underground.
Gabi ended up in the sewers after having enough of life on the streets; Bruce Lee took him in when no one else would. “We were little children hovering around him,” he told Casa Jurnalistului. “He bought us food and treatments. Everything we needed. If he saw us barefoot, honest to god he’d buy us shoes. He would intervene if the police or some hoodlum picked on us.”
Gabi now lives with his aunts away from Bucharest; he’s unable to return to the capital owing to a previous robbery conviction. But he still longs for life with Bruce Lee in the sewers; in fact, he’s described the time he spent there as “beautiful.”
One current resident is Mihaela, who at the time of her 2014 interview with Casa Jurnalistului was 17. She’s lived underground since the age of 13. “Initially I was afraid of Bruce Lee because he wore chains and smeared Aurolac all over his face,” she explained. “But someone picked on me in the sewer and he stood up for me. Since then I care a lot about him.”
Despite the protection, though, living in the sewers comes with many challenges. Once, for example, Bruce Lee was left trapped under the rubble after police bulldozed the entrance. “They sealed the manholes and trapped me down here,” he told Casa Jurnalistului. “I almost died, even though I know this sewer so well.”
On surfacing two days later Bruce Lee was arrested and held in custody for a couple of months. Martial law subsequently reigned supreme in the sewers, but when the boss was released order was quickly resorted. And that’s the way it’s been ever since.
Bruce Lee, furthermore, sees his work as a divine mission. God, apparently, guides him in caring for the sewer dwellers. “Before I knew god I was a different man,” he explained to Casa Jurnalistului. “I had no family, I was bad, I was corrupt.”
It’s a strange, awful life of drug use and poverty under the streets of Bucharest, but Bruce Lee sees it as better than the alternative. “No one has offered us an opportunity to life. This chance of a better life – we created that for ourselves and on our own. Before I arrived to this place, people were dropping like flies.”