Inside Outside Under Bucharest

Massimo Branca

2013 - Ongoing

Bucureşti, Romania

A hole in the ground. A border between two parallel universes.

When I first visited their subterranean house in Bucharest city centre, I never expected that, over time, I would become part of their family. Children, aged up to forty years, were the street tribe of Gara de Nord.

Trained by violence, they have learned to growl in order to be heard. Many of them, growing up without parents and in social exclusion, bear the marks of early-discovered addiction, disease and prison. Sometimes it seems they rush towards death on purpose, and sadly someone has truly told me so.

Yet, by themselves, they have learned the values of hospitality and sharing. In search of affection and safety, these kids have given each other mutual support gathering around a fatherly and authoritative figure. With a few rules, easily misunderstood by the ‘civilized’ world, they managed to found a small community opposed to the society above ground.

The leading figure of the group, a charismatic and experienced man called Bruce Lee, spent the last years trying to provide a comfortable house for his family. He was proud to show their struggle for self-sustenance, despite being neglected by the rest of the world. As if they were natives of the street, they sought survival through the resources that were available to them. But in July 2015 local authorities arrested Bruce Lee and many others. Accused of organized crime and drug trafficking, they will be sentenced to 10-20 years in prison.

For two years I lived on the streets of Bucharest with one of the most marginalized communities in Europe. I witnessed a complex reality, in which illegality and drugs were largely the side effects of a process of adaptation to their marginalization. With this work I would like to enable the audience to imagine what underground life was like in Gara de Nord, without their eyes being clouded by pity, judgment or fear, and make them part of a personal encounter.

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  • For three years Bruce Lee was the formal leader of the street community of Gara de Nord. He was always eager to recount his past adventures and his plans for the future.

  • The text ‘vino cu noi’ (‘come with us’) stands above the head of Azavoae (19). Under his feet, the tunnel that used to be home to many.

  • The last of five children, Catalina was entrusted to social services after her birth. When she was 3 she was reunited with her biological family, but around the age of 13 she left again to live permanently on the streets.

  • Blackout inside the tunnel. Before the arrival of Bruce Lee, who brought electricity underground, the tunnels were very dark spaces, lit only by candles.

  • After police demolished the tunnel entrance inside the park in October 2013, the community opened the access in the middle of the traffic island in front of the train station.

  • Once a day Bruce Lee cooked a hot meal for everybody, using a little gas heater.
    ‘We eat together, we are like a family’.

  • Washed dishes and a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ are seen inside the tunnel. Religious faith is strongly felt by those who gradually stop believing in everything else.

  • In winter more then 40 people gathered underground to find shelter from the cold weather, sharing time and resources in a space of only a few square metres.

  • For a period, Catalina tried to stop using drugs, but she felt weak and kept eating and sleeping all the time. ‘I dream about injecting myself’ she admitted. Catalina contracted HIV when she was 14.

  • Orlando (now in prison) and Albert (died in 2015)

  • Despite her very young age, Catalina was surprisingly aware of her fragile condition. Nonetheless, she seemed to accept her life and refused to leave the environment she recognized as ‘home’.

  • Catalina died in May 2014, just one month after she turned 18. On my notebook she wrote: ‘it’s too late, I’m a drug addict and there is nothing left to do’.

  • Each one had his/her own little intimate space inside the tunnel. Lonely mother Ana (38) unable to take care of her two sons, entrusted them to social services.

  • Catalina wrote some of her memories, including some short poems: ‘when I look at the starry sky, I don't feel very talented, but the stars inspire me’.

  • Bruce Lee dreamed of buying a big house for the homeless, a place where they could feel safe. He kept saying that God inspired his actions.

  • In summer 2014, Bruce Lee began erecting walls inside the ‘baraca’, trying to set up an equipped place to stay on the surface during the approaching winter.

  • After many months of work to restore the ‘baraca’, Bruce Lee managed to build a comfortable apartment, equipped with bunk beds, kitchen, fridge and bathroom.

  • For many people Bruce Lee was a living legend. Most of the street inhabitants claim to have spent a period of relative calm and serenity while he was in Gara de Nord.