In The Streets, Boys Become Prey...And Help May Be Coming Too Late

Vasile Burchi, 12 years old, hops into the uncovered manhole across the road from Bucharest's main Gara de Nord railway terminus, clambers down a rusty ladder, and hauls open the cast-iron entrance to a service tunnel. Beyond, in the glow of a single candle, half a dozen other urchins lie on a board suspended over a row of heating pipes, luxuriating in the sweaty warmth. Most appear stunted from malnourishment. Some are inhaling glue from plastic bags. Others are lost in stoned slumber. The sound of hundreds of crickets--which breed prolifically beneath the snowbound streets--adds to the tropical feel. "Welcome to our apartment," chirps Vasile, flashing a gnomish grin. "We call ourselves `The Tigers.' This is how we live."

They aren't the only ones. All over the Romanian capital, an estimated 2,500 juveniles are sleeping in the underground conduits that house the city's utilities and sewage systems. Until last summer, many, like Vasile, hung around the Gara de Nord, hauling luggage, running errands, cleaning shoes, and ferreting in trash cans. Then, to the disgust of aid agencies, the city fathers ordered a cleanup, fearing for the sensibilities of Western vacationers passing through en route to the Transylvanian ski resorts and the Black Sea coast. "They created a Potemkin Village: All they've done is move the problem elsewhere and probably made it worse," insists Ion Petrescu, a Salvation Army sergeant who used to act as "banker" to Vasile's gang, holding their earnings for safekeeping. "They may have looked a bit fierce, but the Tigers never begged and never stole. Lord knows what they get up to now."

DESPERATION. While the Tigers do admit to a little pickpocketing and panhandling these days, Petrescu fears they may also be dabbling in an altogether more dangerous kind of trade. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, pedophiles homed in on Eastern Europe's poorest country, lured by the desperation born of poverty and a perception that law-enforcement officials dealt leniently with foreigners. "Some kids will drop their pants for a few dollars or a packet of cigarettes, and a lot of cops will look the other way for not much more," claims Georgiu Roman, director of the local branch of the British charity Save the Children. "You could say we are the Thailand of Eastern Europe."

Now, the sex tourists are spreading the word--and making money over the Internet, complete with an invitation to subscribe with credit-card details. At a conference on child abuse in Stockholm recently, Roman recognized juveniles from Bucharest among stills from films that had been disseminated on the Web. And aid agencies fear that kids could be in for an even worse fate. "We did once find three adolescents who died violently after they had been `interfered with,"' acknowledges police spokesman Ioneta Vintileanu. "But we still don't know if the person who did the interfering also did the killing." Some Romanian teenagers, it seems, may literally be dying for a bite to eat.

To be fair, Romania's reputation as a pedophile paradise is largely the legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist-era dictator who banned all forms of birth control, outlawed psychiatry and social work, and refused to countenance the need for a legal age of consent. Today, 100,000 abandoned or orphaned youngsters languish in underfunded institutions, and few adults are trained to help the 8,000 more nationwide who run away to fend for themselves.

In the Streets, Boys Become Prey...And Help May Be Coming Too Late (int'l edition)

Some of these Ceausescu legacies are gradually being righted. Family planning has slashed the birthrate, and Parliament has outlawed sexual relations with anyone under 14. But cold-war-era anomalies still haunt this lost generation of sewer rats. Romania's internal passport system, for example, forbids minors from remaining in public education outside their official domicile. "They can't graduate, so they can't find a job. Even in simple economic terms, it's just a waste," muses Nico Crone, a Canadian journalist who runs a small pilot high-school program for runaways with money from the Soros Foundation Hungary. "They're like this Year 2000 computer bug: At the moment they're a minor irritation. But when they're big strong adults, they're going to bubble up to the surface and do some real damage."

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