by Oana Dan and Diana Oncioiu
photographs by Silviu Panaite and Zora Iuga
`Whomever enters here gets out really fast because of the unbearable smell`, says Viorica while stepping carefully on the street. A stout woman, she is wearing some colourful bermuda shorts, a white shirt and flip-flops on this sunny spring day. Livezilor Street from Ferentari district in the Romanian capital Bucharest does smell unbearably this Thursday as if a full cesspool was discharged right here.
The basement of the block of flats at no. 36 is flooded. All the manure, garbage and food leftovers have made their way into the middle of the street. Nobody wants to set foot in here fearing big fat rats. A gully emptier would be quite useful, but who knows how to fetch one here? Where to ask? Whom? How?
And anyway, the gully emptier would only partially solve the problem on Livezilor Street. Truth be told, it would only banish the manure odour leaving behind the one coming from the gargantuan heaps of garbage. They are everywhere – on the sidewalk, on the roadway, between the blocks, inside block entrances, on green spaces. Garbage goes as far as the eye can reach.
On the surface of a water hole formed after the spout`s eruption from the basement you can see coffee cups, plastic bags, a milk carton and syringes. The unexpected inrush of rubbish could be easily likened to an invasion, an armed strike wrapping up forcefully all flanks. All waste literally leaks into the street.
Look! A chicken bone, packages and plastic containers. Here it would be utterly reckless to unwrap a chocolate candy and hold the packaging until the first trashcan happens to cross your path. Because you won`t bump into one. There is not even a garbage bin, let alone a trashcan.
And so, throwing the packaging on the street is seemingly the only option available. Could you then rebuke a resident for doing it? For polluting? For being uncivilized? Here words and life itself are defined differently. Because here we are `in the ghettos` – the half of Livezilor Street that even the residents of Ferentari instantly identify as a `third world` impossible to save.
Geographically speaking the `ghetto` is not merely a district corner, but rather formed from disparate pieces. Like a puzzle stained with coffee, here and there. In Ferentari there are streets where mountains of garbage seem to grow higher than the four storey buildings, where the rooms are ridiculously tiny, a little over 10 square meters, with no water, electricity or any facilities whatsoever. You have such a street here and another there. People try to survive desperately each day, against all odds.
Back on Livezilor, from the second floor of a building a pot with food leftovers is just being spilled. The slops are oozing out on the pavement, quickly mingling with the water hole formed as a result of the basement flooding.
`Look, syringes! Do you see them? `, shouts someone. Of course you can see them. There are four of them, already used, but not on the street. They lie at the entrance of one of the buildings. Some kids pass over running without even taking notice of them. The syringes are part of the landscape.
Here each day passes by like this.
You go in, although you are already afraid.
Chapter I. The land where even time has forgotten to go by
A hallway opens up at the ground floor of the block. The first studio on the left is home to Alexandru P., his woman Tudorita, his daughter Alina and his older brother Ion. They all try to squeeze in a 12 square meters room. The moment the door opens, you spot the bed placed on the left. Behind the door there is a large wardrobe with four openings – two mirrors hung in the middle.
Next to the wardrobe, on a chest of drawers, there is a TV set. Next to the chest of drawers there are a fridge and a stove. On the right wall, facing the home appliances, is the sink and the washing machine. In the studio there is also a small table on wheels. It goes to and from whenever needed.
Rich with damp, the four walls of the room have no electrical outlet or switch. The electric power gets in through an improvised circuit. Above the entrance door, in the right corner, there is a hole that accommodates perfectly a plastic tube through which two wires emerge. That is the source of light.
The light bulb lightens only when one member of the family climbs on a nightstand and connects a blue wire with a red one. A white thick wire also creeps in through the tubular aperture above the entrance, hanging next to the wall and leading to the extension cord in the center of the room. The extension cord has five plugs.
`Sister, I’m telling you, where you’re sitting right now, on the bed, my son doesn’t even come close to. He stays at the door. He is disgusted by the smell coming from the garbage and from the basement. After visiting he washes his sport shoes. He does that every time he leaves this place`, says Tudorita while inhaling from a cigarette she then passes on to Alexandru.
The man takes the cigarette and puffs shortly. Alexandru`s words come out simultaneously with the wreaths of smoke: `This is a no man`s land. Even time lags behind here.`
Ferentari district is the place where Alexandru P. grew up, the place he left, the place he came back to and the place he wants to escape again now. He comes from a family with eight children, out of whom only seven are still alive. One of his brothers passed away five years ago due to heart failure.
When Alexandru was born his parents were living in a house on Samuil Vulcan Street, in another Bucharest neighbourhood. When he was six they moved to Ferentari in a three bedroom apartment, where he spent 14 years of his life. The first thing that comes into Alexandru`s mind as he ponders on that period of time is that it was clean.
In 1984 he left Ferentari. His family moved to a four bedroom apartment, in Bucharest’s third district. `I could hear my echo over there. I would call my name and then immediately hear the echo. Such a big apartment it was!`, recalls Alexandru. In 2002 he came back to Ferentari, on Radu Constantin Street. From there, one year later, he „moved” straight behind bars for drug dealing.
This is not a subject he is keen to linger on – he says it was a mistake and he never took drugs. The mistake cost him five years of prison though. Once released Alexandru returned to Ferentari, in the ghettos, on 36 Livezilor Street, in a studio bought by one of his brothers. It is the same studio they live in at the moment.
He would go anywhere if he could leave although his whole family lives in Ferentari: in the same studio with him there is brother Ion; three floors above sister Georgeta; on Tunsu Petre Street, just a few blocks away, live two other brothers; and another brother lives on Ion Stefanescu Street.
Alexandru has one more sister. She doesn’t live in the neighborhood. She is in prison.
Alina Will Go to School
It`s mid-May on Livezilor Street in Ferentari. The spring is almost over. The garbage is still there and the smell has not worn off. The basement is still flooded. However, something seems to be different. Once you have been there before people start knowing you and the poverty around does not come off as shocking anymore. Without even realizing you start looking at this part of Ferentari with different eyes.
Look!, the sun is up and there are many people on the street. Cigarettes are inhaled thirstily. Men and women are gesticulating fervently. Children are smiling and running among the worn out buildings. They all defy everything around.
Two persons dressed in green overalls can be distinguished from the crowd gathered on the street. They are equipped for an `intervention`, only that the intervention has already taken place somewhere in Bucharest’s District 4. They work for a public cleaning company. Now the employees in green overalls come back home in District 5, Ferentari, on 36 Livezilor Street.
They are Alexandru and Tudorita, returning home to even more garbage after eight hours of sweeping in different areas of the city. `I have never seen something similar to this place and I have been sweeping lots of places`, says Tudorita with a convinced voice. Alexandru has some brooms in a large bag that his boss wanted to throw away. He took them for his neighbours on the street.
Alexandru and Tudorita enter their 12 square meters studio, take off their overalls, sit down at the small table on wheels and light a cigarette. He is short, lightly grizzled and not very talkative. At 52 his greatest pride are his children. She is 43 and a bit taller than him. Her eyes resemble a clear blue summer sky, her hands chapped from all the hard work. Tudorita is a blunt and amusing woman.
They met when she was 16 and he was 25. Their parents were family friends. Together they have a boy of 26 and a girl of 25 years old. They broke up when the children were 8 and 7. Tudorita took the girl and Alexandru, the boy. They reconciled three years ago but Alexandru was not alone anymore. He was taking care of a two years old girl, the result of a previous relationship he had with another woman. Tudorita moved to Ferentari, on Livezilor Street, and raised her stepdaughter Alina as if she was hers.
Alina calls Tudorita `mother`. She is always on the move, she talks a lot, dances and asks question after question. Really short for her age, the girl is five years and seven months old and wishes to never grow old.
Tudorita didn’t send her oldest daughter to school. The girl, named Ana, only attended a special school for one week. Tudorita withdrew her after she had learned that Ana was beaten by her teachers. `Well, I thought: since I have no school it’s OK for her to have none also`, tries to justify herself Tudorita.
`But as for this little girl, I want her to go to school by all means. I want her to read me what’s on TV…`, continues Tudorita who doesn’t know to read or write. Without waiting for her mother to finish the sentence little Alina shouts: `To know how to read is the most beautiful thing!`
Couple of days later, Tudorita takes a day off from work, grabs the little girl`s hand and head together towards school no. 136 in the neighbourhood. It is the same school where father Alexandru studied for six grades and her older brother for eight grades. Tudorita is told by the school`s secretary that she still needs some papers, a medical certificate and an evaluation attesting that the girl is fit to be enrolled in grade 0. The evaluation can only be done in Colentina district, at the other end of the city, 11 kilometers away. Without it all other papers are useless.
So Tudorita leaves the school together with Alina for the family doctor`s office, in the city centre. In her hand she holds a paper with all the necessary information the doctor has to provide her with. From the city centre she needs to go further down to Colentina.
They hop on the trolleybus no. 85. You can see Alina staring with her big brown eyes outside at the buildings on Carol I, a central boulevard, while pressing her petite nose against the window. `It`s super clean down here. It`s never this clean at our place`, says the little girl. After three hours, a vaccine, a medical certificate, three buses and one trolleybus, Tudorita and Alina are at last in Colentina in front of the building where the evaluations for class 0 take place.
Alina is dressed in a red dress, with purple leggings and black shoes. Once entered, she sits down on a chair, places her hands on the desk and listens carefully to what the evaluator says. Seated next to her is Tudorita. She is not allowed to pop into the conversation. The evaluator is skeptic that Alina is ready to begin class 0, considering that she has never attended kindergarten.
“– Can you please, tell me who your friends are? With whom do you play in the neighborhood?
-My friends are Bety, Antonia and Narcisa.
-Many children give me just one name, but you have already given me three! “
Ten minutes are enough for Alina to impress the evaluator. She counts up to 15, writes some letters she already knows, recites the four seasons and then easily tells apart the fruits from a paper full with vegetables, fruits and other objects.
In the end, Tudorita is handed in a paper attesting that her daughter is ready to attend school starting from fall. Back home her father receives the news with excitement. Even though he can`t quite make out everything that is written on the paper, Alexandru gazes at his girl and says more to himself: “I knew I had a smart one. She talks like a grown-up.”
Both adults compile a list with things they wish to do in the upcoming period. They have already crossed off the list the first task: making school arrangements for the little one. They would have Alina spend less time on the streets. The next thing down the list is to cease stealing electricity.
Beginning with December 2015, Alexandru has been prosecuted for electricity theft. He was not even at home the day his studio had been checked out by inspectors. The improvised wires were, however, there. And so was his brother Ion, who didn`t have much of a choice other than hand in the identity documents.
The small studio at the ground level of the block of flats on Livezilor Street is buzzing. Tudorita and Alexandru are back from work. Ion watches TV. Alina wants 1 RON to buy a hot tea from the corner shop. The neighbour from the upper floor sits down on the nightstand, listening to Alexandru. While striving to take off his overalls, the man is reminded again of the miserable living conditions of his family and of how much he wants to leave this place.
Elena chimes in over Alexandru: `But Ferentari is the only place where you can find refuge. Ferentari has been home for poor people, for tricked ones, for ex prisoners, for all the marginalized ones. Only God seems to remember this place even exists but even Him forgets about us from time to time”.
Elena is from the ranks of those tricked. She lost an apartment she had bought in another district in Bucharest – the seller alienated it to several buyers. So, Elena was left alone on the streets, she had two children and Ferentari was her only found haven. For Alexandru, Ferentari was too the only place where he could start all over after he had been released from prison. Livezilor Street welcomed him with arms wide open, without judging, and offered him and his family a shelter. A shelter without legal access to electric energy, in a block of flats with a basement forever flooded where water does not reach the 4th floor, on a street devoid of cleaning services, in an exiled community that is not bothered as much by poverty, as it is by the impossibility of escaping it.
Yet, Alexandru and Tudorita want something else for their youngest. They wish that from Livezilor Street, Alina will take her first steps on the path leading to a better life. This hope, although frail, is what flickers in their life.
After they sort it out with the light Alexandru and Tudorita want to paint the walls as well as lay floor and wall tiles. Then they want to sell the studio and leave. With this thought in mind they have started to attend the Mothers` Club. Set up in 2013, the Club is the means through which the Policy Center for Roma and Minorities (PCRM), a non-governmental organisation, is trying to help the communities in Ferentari.
The Club`s meetings take place each Thursday at School no. 147 and are attended by women from the community, but men are welcomed, too. They discuss and try to find solutions to day-to-day problems they are faced with. The only requirement they must fill is to send their children to school and also to the NGO’s alternative education club – an `after-school` type of project run by PCRM.
As of December 2015 two out of the four meetings of the Mothers` Club are dedicated to problems related to the hazardous access to electricity. Representatives of the electric energy supplier in Ferentari are also present at these meetings. Apart from that there is an energy mediator in the community that goes on the field, talks to people and takes over cases. The supplier managed to look into almost 30 cases. In half of them there have already been taken steps towards entering legality. One of these cases is that of Alexandru P. and his family.
Adriana H. also wishes to get out of the grey area. She has done all the necessary formalities to become legally connected to the electrical grid. Connecting Adriana’s family would cost 4.500 RON (one thousand euros). In the absence of a stable income the sum has been recalculated to 1.693 RON (380 euros). Adriana has the possibility of paying it in installments.
Chapter II. The miracle on Breslelor Street
`Sometimes the detergent is running out and I put some sand in the washing machine`, mumbles the old woman. The hoarse voice betrays her addiction to smoking. She can`t give up cigarettes no matter how hard she tries, despite the fact that her breathing has steadily turned into a wheeze. The oxygen mask is a `must` to help her make it through the night.
She stands with a grave expression, gesticulating and pointing towards the rusty washing machine rattling behind her back. A mother of five children, grandmother and widow for 11 years, the old woman seems straigh out of a Salman Rushdie novel, resembling a matron that has seven magic lives gathered into one. Is she joking or not with putting sand in the washing machine? Smoking one cigarette after another you could picture her stuffing the grains in the washing machine`s slot.
The short neighing of Gelu is the only clue that it might have been a joke after all. Gelu is one of her grandchildren, a little rascal of 9 years old. The others in the kitchen – three adult brothers – ignore the episode and keep on talking about money, expenses and fines. The washing machine runs on in the background. A wire passing by the other three rooms powers it.
Before going out in the courtyard, the wire also passes by the bathroom where the boiler is just a decorating item because of the low voltage. Once in the courtyard the wire goes over the gate to the next property – from there family H. draws the used energy. Basically they `buy` it from their neighbour who adds or subtracts monthly, depending on what the meter is showing. The family does not have an energy supply contract.
Six people share three rooms in the house of Adriana H.: her old mother, her two children (Gelu, 9 years old and Crenguta, 8 years old), a brother and a brother-in-law. In the outbuilding next to Adriana`s house live her younger sister Elena with her 2 years old daughter Estera. The courtyard is steep and winds around a metal fence separating their house from the courtyard of an uncle. He is actually the legal owner of the whole plot of land.
The history of family H. is told by some photos Adriana brings to the table. They were five brothers and their father had a stable job and a three-bedroom apartment in Bucharest. That was before 1989. After the Revolution though he became an alcoholic and died from cirrhosis, leaving behind debts and a family without any source of income.
They sold the old apartment and moved in a house in Ferentari. However, here they fell victims to some real estate scammers – the house had already a different owner who sold it various times; three years ago they found themselves thrown into the middle of the street. They turned for help to Adriana’s grandparents who lived in an old house on Breslelor Street. It’s the same house they live in today.
Unfortunately the family was scattered apart for a while. One brother took up drugs and ended up in prison, her mother lived where she could and Adriana found herself in the Ferentari ghetto.
Seven or eight years ago she lived there for 24 months. She had just given birth to her two children. Gelu and Crenguta discovered the world there, in a small room that Adriana used to paint a couple of times per year, hoping to keep it clean.
In 2009 her grandparents finally decided to welcome her back in the house on Breslelor street. The courtyard was split in two and Adriana began rebuilding and extending the house. There were many summer nights of sleeping outside on the foundation, on the bricks, on the plaques. However, all of these served as a motivation for Adriana, a petite that took after her mother`s massiveness – she weighs no more and no less than 85 kilograms, being a little under 1.60 meters. She also has the same appetite for smoking as her mother.
Adriana tidies up and runs to and from all day long, trying to solve all sorts of problems.
She is 36 years old. She went to the seaside for the first time when she was 25 – the father of her children took her there. She was so excited about it that during those few hours spent there she took pictures of everything, including of the host where they stayed overnight. She pulls out the evidence from a transparent envelop, lays it onto the kitchen table and starts making fun of her weight at that time. That was, she says, the only reason why she refused to face the sun in a swimsuit.
Then she shows the picture with her first birthday cake ever. She received it when she turned 28 years old. Afterwards she hands out some photos printed on paper: merry people are partying at Gelu’s 1 year anniversary.
As her life unwinds in snapshots, sometimes in black and white, sometimes in colors, we get to learn about her seasonal workplaces: from chopping vegetable in a kitchen`s restaurant and cleaning other people`s homes to selling flowers on the street, an activity for which she got fined by the local police several times. If you count them all up the fines total over 15.000 RON (3300 euros). Under the table jobs brought Adriana unstable and temporary incomes, helping her just to make ends meet.
Therefore, at 36 years old, Adriana has been through enough to make a movie. The hours spent at school were few, so Adriana is only able to read sentences in capital letters. She has essentially no professional qualification. All the work she has done over the years has left no administrative trace, no paper, no social right. No one has given her a proper chance to learn a profession and no one has ever trusted her professionally.
On a Thursday evening with capricious weather at the beginning of May Adriana was given a chance. It happened at a Mothers` Club meeting where she learned that women are needed for a job in a bakery shop – a social project developed by an NGO. She jotted down the phone number and called the next day. She went to the interview and she impressed the employer with her honesty and authenticity. `I told them: I`m Taurus, born on the 26th of April. I can work hard and I am a religious person. I work but I also smoke. I don`t need a lunch break, but I do need a smoking break.`
Adriana was hired the next day. For now she is responsible with cleaning while learning how to become a baker. On the 9th of May she signed her first ever working contract and on the 15th of May she received her first legal salary. How are things at the workplace? `It is like an escape for me, everybody talks to me nicely and treats me well`, says Adriana waving her working papers. Everybody in the room – her mother, brother and sister – stares at the written contract with respect, as if it was some old, valuable item.
`Let`s frame it!`, whistles Adriana’s old mother. Again, is she joking or not? This time her grandson Gelu is not neighing anymore. Instead he opens the fridge looking for an apple. `What are you searching for? It`s sexy, it`s empty, our guests shouldn`t see that.`
Gelu laughs. He doesn`t quite understand why a paper signed by his mother is all the family talks about on the last days of May. For the boy the end of this spring is no different than all the other spring endings he remembers.
Only that this time something has changed. There is hope.