BUCHAREST, Romania -- Dan lives in a tunnel beneath a manhole cover on the edge of Bucharest's Gara de Nord railway station. It's a hellish, stifling and dirty space where warm pipes hiss and rats scuttle by. The stench is overwhelming.
He shares the space with three other ragged boys, all in their mid-teens. They have spread torn cardboard boxes on the floor. They are grateful to have this warm place for the coming winter. In other tunnels, children have even managed to rig up electricity for makeshift lights.
Dan and his tunnel mates are a part of a Dickensian underworld in which many of Romania's unwanted children now live. They flock to the entrances of the warm tunnels of Bucharest's metro stations after they shut down at midnight -- packs of miniature pimps, prostitutes and glue-sniffers with their own hierarchy and code of behavior. Some are as young as 3 years old.
They come to Bucharest from towns hundreds of miles away. Their number -- estimated between several hundred and several thousand -- is constantly growing as Romania feels the increasing weight of its poverty.
The Rev. George Sporschill, co-founder of the Caritas aid project for Romanian children, described the street children as "a symbol of the situation in Romania as a whole." He added: "The sight of children in the streets, their faces hidden in plastic bags containing the drug Aurolac, is a picture of hell on earth."
Romania's revolution on Christmas Day 1989, in which dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu was overthrown and executed, caught the imagination of the world. But after an initial spurt of democratization, fundamental reforms have been stalled and former Ceaucescu officials have crept back into power.
The failure to carry out serious reforms has plunged the country into an economic crisis, with an annual inflation of about 300 per cent. Officials don't pay much heed to the street children. They say they have more pressing priorities.
"When you are converting to capitalism, you have to kick start the more prosperous areas of the economy -- you can't afford to worry about poor people until later. That is the way capitalism works," said one government official.
Some of the children are escapees from orphanages. But aid workers believe most have run away from home. They complain of beatings, poverty and alcoholic parents unable to cope with the large families forced on them by Mr. Ceaucescu, who forbade contraception or abortion in order to fulfill his dream of ruling a populous nation.
The street children of Bucharest are bound by a complex dynamics in which the oldest and the strongest are the rulers. One of the kings of the Gara de Nord, "Michael the Blond," thinks he is about 19 years old. He and other older boys admit to buying a glue solvent known as Aurolac for 300 lei (about 30 U.S. cents) per bottle. They make a profit by forcing younger children to buy one-fifth cuts for 100 lei at a time. They also control entry to the warmer entrances of the metro tunnels. And they pimp for some of the girls.
Varying states of delirium
In every group, children can be seen in varying states of delirium. They smear Aurolac on plastic bags, then inhale from the puffed-up bags through their mouths. Some have burns on their faces where the solvent has come into direct contact with their skin.
The younger children are desperate for physical closeness, even with strangers. Nine-year-old Ciprian, for example, was typical. He was one of a few not high on Aurolac. He had a cut on his head where he said he had been hit by an older boy. He said he had run away from home after his mother died and his father turned to alcohol.
A cleaning woman working nearby hit him with her broom and tried to move him on, yelling at him for "bringing shame on our country to foreigners" as he talked to a reporter. He responded with a torrent of foul language. But when she was out of sight, he burst into tears.
One foreigner who has penetrated the children's underground world is Valentine Morby, a 34-year-old Briton. One of the teen-age girls has even named her newborn baby after him. Mr. Morby drove a charity truck to Romania from Britain for his mother almost a year ago and decided to stay.
He is helping run a newly-opened center at the Gara de Nord funded by the Roman Catholic organization Caritas. It tries to coax the children into a fit state to join -- and not disrupt -- one of five Caritas homes. Space is limited, but the children seem to prefer it to other charities, particularly the Romanian Pinocchio orphanages where they are reportedly locked in.
Even those accepted at the Caritas houses and a newly-opened farm frequently run away again, preferring the anarchy and freedom of the streets to regular bedtimes and the schoolroom.