Radu Ciorniciuc

Bruce Lee, The King Of Sewers

In a sewer under Bucharest’s biggest train station a man covered with iron chains and tattoos sits on a matrimonial bed watching an action movie on a flat screen. Around him, the sewer is packed with men, women and children injecting themselves and sniffing glue. Their feet are drenched in the muddy hot water that floods the whole tunnel, with floating syringes and condoms.

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The man with the iron chains gets out of his bed, squeezes through a hole in the concrete wall and sits behind a table where the people come to refill with their drug of choice one by one. He points at a tattoo on his leg that looks like Zorro drawn by a child, with a scribbled message above:

I’ve been living in the sewers since I was a child. I am the terminator. I am the only one who succeeded in achieving something for the homeless. I turned darkness into light.

Under my rule, everyone has their own money, they have what to eat. They have all they need – after a fashion. Light, heating, understanding and parental advice.

People outside are aloof. It’s more difficult to understand what we do here. But if each of them tells you their life story, how they spent these last years with me, you won’t believe it.

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He is one of the children abandoned during Romania’s communist anti-abortion policy. After the 1989 revolution, they ran away from the orphanages and built an underground empire with its own laws and hierarchies.

I spent two months in the underground to get to know Bruce Lee, the enlightened despot in the Bucharest sewers who built the main hub for the homeless in Romania, and to understand how his creation works.

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In a little town from Moldavia, a dwarfish lad pisses on a railway line. He gets a dirty bag out of his thick leather jacket, along with a tube of glue used to repair slippers. He pours half of the yellowish – gummy substance into the bag and sniffs until his eyes snigger. He got old, small, circular scars where the veins are visible.

This makes you feel just like drinking a pint, only that it gives you a nicer vision and pleasure than the alcohol. The Aurolac is better than this glue. You hallucinate differently. It doesn’t make you as dizzy; you’re calmer and you speak sweetly and softly.

Gabi left his parents in Focsani in order to avoid prison. He was given conditional bail and he ended up in a fight a few months after the trial. He punched a few people who then went to the police, and so Gabi ran to Bucharest. If he had stayed he would have gone to jail. He preferred to become homeless.

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In the capital he ended up broken by love. He lived in block entrances until he met Mariana, a prostitute hooked on heroin. He used drugs daily for eight years. I had no veins left on me. I started shooting into the pubis and the main arteries. I almost lapsed into gangrene. Man, it made me steal! I would catch people on the street and rob them… I’d steal their money at cash points, I’d throw dust into their eyes and I’d take their money.

The police had enough of him. Every time they caught him they stripped and beat him with slim fibre glass sticks. I would piss myself every time they hit me.

He hit the bottom and went to live in the sewers underneath Gara de Nord. He went through a lot on the streets, but when he first entered the sewer he was terrified. I was worried that I’d get carried away by some bad hallucination and lose it. Think about it. To enter a hole with two to three thousand drug addicts who prick each other with syringes, and to inject from the start. It’s terribly tragic.

Bruce Lee saw that he was helpless and he took him in. We were little children hovering around him. 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. He would chase all the faggots that were coming to take the smaller kids away. We all called him father.

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Gabi had everything he needed there – food, money, drugs and protection. He befriended the father that introduced him to the business. He made money selling drugs and with scrap metal dealings. For instance if you go to the sewer he sells a sachet of white powder for 1 million, when he didn’t pay more than four hundred thousand for it. Well, he has his men who work for him. They bring copper, metal, items, trinkets, telephones, laptops…. No one makes the kind of money he makes.

Many of his friends died because of drug use. They couldn’t eat anymore. It takes everything away from you. You lose weight, and after a while, your body refuses anything. You’re half dead. You dry up like a corpse. Father would carry them out of the sewer, lift them in his arms and take them to the ambulance.

Gabi lives with his aunts in Buhusi, but he’d like to return to the sewer if he could. He’s banned from entering Bucharest because of an older robbery offence. He misses Bruce Lee and life in the capital. We had electricity in the sewer from a bus ticket office. We had plasma TVs, stereos, disco lights above, it was very beautiful. 

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***

A chubby intellectual is waiting beside a manhole in front of the Gara de Nord. He’s sweating, his pupils are dilated and he’s rubbing his hands like a schoolboy in front of the class. He pulls out two million lei and hands it to a scrawny tramp crawling out of the sewer. In exchange he’s given two white sachets with PURE written on them in a rabid red. He retreats to a small park and opens the sachets. He’s speechless: they are filled with sugar.

Devils stab him in the heart. He goes to a cash-point and withdraws all the money – 20 million and he descends into the sewer. There are only women at the entrance. I hardly advanced a couple of steps and I had already given away 5 million to the people around me. I started sweating, a kind of panic attack.

He encourages himself and moves on, through the syringes, all the way to the end, to the counter with the powders. He takes a sachet and empties it into himself to sooth his demons. There’s a guy in there with a shamanic look. The guy’s quite trippy. He covers himself from head to toe in Aurolac silver paint, he identifies with the drug. He has visions. He was peaceful with me, even his lieutenants were ok with me.

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Stefan is hooked on injecting substances. He loved a homeless guy for many years whom he took home. He’s now doing a PHD in Public Policies on drug issues. When I use Pure I’m extremely dominated by my sexual side and it’s difficult for me to get it out of my head. I think about sex in public – in that moment everything becomes real. You are under the impression that you can fully love anyone. But I couldn’t do it with them, they are pathetic, finished. They are very dirty; they have syringes. When I was younger – maybe! Then I could have fucked anyone. Then I could have fucked anyone.

With his demons on a leash, Stefan sits sweating on a hot pipe, leaning against the counter filled with powders and syringes. The first feeling is a sort of awareness that everything you think of and all your mental processes are not exclusively yours. You’re not the only one who has access to them. They’re public. It’s purely an impression that someone else, a presence, participates in what happens within you. This is exactly the main impression. It’s both euphoric and like stepping away from your own self. Physically, your entire body gets mobilized. You feel relief, you can escape, you run, you can do anything you want. You’re like Superman.

But in the sewer Stefan is a wreck. He can’t stop until he’s run out of money – which doesn’t take longer than a couple of hours. The price of the powder varies depending on who you are. If they see that you’re better dressed they will sell you a quarter of a gram for a million and a half.

When he emerges he feels that his lungs are collapsing because of the heat and heavy air in the sewer. I’m amazed they can sleep in that place. When you’re hooked on legal drugs, you are schizophrenic. To have 20 people around you, limbs intertwined like snakes, some cutting themselves… How can they sleep, eat?

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***

A man built like a boxer, with the mannerism of a petty dealer, smokes a cigarette on the steps in front of the Station. He comes here daily and stays until late at night..

Marius swindled foreign currency and other banned stuff during communism. Prison turned him around. He has a family and now he volunteers for an organisation that feeds the homeless.

He knows Bruce Lee for 23 years now. He lived in the sewer as well, around Dristor-Unirii. Even back then he had a clean sewer, all made up, with many children and elderly. Now, it is the same – he is surrounded by vulnerable people: children, elderly people, women and stray dogs. He’s like the God of the homeless.

No one calls him boss or big guy, everyone calls him father, says Marius. People come and ask him for money to pay their rent or bank loans. I swear to god he helps them! He doesn’t necessarily agree with Bruce Lee’s businesses, but these kids in the sewers need him.

Marius thinks that the society is responsible for the poor ones living in the sewers. The programmes that the NGOs and the town hall came up with to integrate these poor creatures are useless. Everybody comes here and says oh, we tried to take them to some social center or whatnot. Take a stray dog that has lived all its life on the streets, put him in a cage and see what happens to him.

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***

Two gendarmes approach a young man who hangs around the entrance to the sewer.

– Where’s your boss Bruce Lee?

– Bruce Lee is my father, and father is at home! says Viorel staring at the ground. Bruce Lee’s house is this entire world, as far as you can see. Only that you’ll never find him home. He lives only underground.

A pensioner near by crosses herself. God have mercy on us… Viorel takes out a bag from his chest pocket, breathes deeply into it, then cimbs down the hole. His feet slide between slabs of steel concrete. He pushes his body forward with his arms and back and disappears underground.

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His home is underneath the Gara de Nord since he escaped a humanitarian organisation. Under Bruce Lee’s protection he’s in a better mood. Thanks to him, it doesn’t rain over our heads. He is the father of the homeless. He gives his heart and soul for us.

The father of the homeless comes in through a crack in the wall holdinga bag filled with liquid in his teeth. He is barefoot and has chains around his wrists and ankles secured with metal locks. A patched vest crowded with war medals and brooches of semi-precious stones covers him. He crawls to a stereo, he turns it on to a commercial station and sits down cross-legged near Viorel. Some dogs curl up behind him and press, as if they would like to lift and carry him around on their backs.

While Viorel is playing around with some white liquid in a bottle lid, a girl creeps through the sewer adorned with dogs, aurolacs and a group of tramps who are trying out some powder.

A gawky tramp dashes towards her through the gaping manhole, grabs the girl and spits in her face. Bruce Lee starts hitting him with his fists, legs, karate. Eèéêëėę! Dumbass! She’s a woman, what a prick of a man! e kicks him out of the sewer and rests his hand on the hustled girl’s shoulder. Everyone who made her their wife did so All those who took her as a wife did so to make her produce money for them. She’s a girl and they make her work as a prostitute. She’s better off alone and producing money for herself!

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The girl is 17 and since the age of six she’s been living in orphanages and foster homes. At 13 she married Fernando, a rogue who brought her to the Station. Initially I was afraid of Bruce Lee because he wore chains and smeared aurolac all over his face. But someone picked on me in the sewer and he stood up for me. Since then I care a lot about him. He’s like a father to me. I don’t want to leave this place, says Mihaela.

The girls here in our sewer are respected. If she wants to live with you, fine. If not, she’s free. She works as a prostitute, it’s her business, she has her own money, explains Bruce Lee.

You need to follow some strict rules to live in the sewers: you don’t fight in the sewer, you don’t start arguments and you don’t drink. First and foremost the use of alcohol is not allowed here! These are my rules. We get along well with each other, and they understood from the very beginning that what I’ve spoken is the law and laws need abiding. As the police have their rules, that’s how they respect my rules. If you break them, it means you’ve got something against me. And I am righteous!

Everything in the sewer was built by him. Money mean nothing to me. None of them contributes a penny. I built these walls with holes in them in order to allow the air to circulate from one end to the other in the sewer. We used hundreds of bags of sand and cement. These are the bedrooms. The rooms were built for the girls – I want them to have privacy, cleanliness and ventilation.

The kitchen is over there in the back. I cook for the entire sewer from here all the way to the other end.

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Listen here, this is the clever thing: this concrete on the bottom wasn’t poured directly on the pipes. I thought about these poor losers, I didn’t want them bitching that I ruined their pipes. First we built up a layer of bricks and concrete over the pipes and then I poured this concrete all over. The pipe is now protected of the extra weight by two layers of concrete. And if a pipe bursts the water will surely not to reach us. Underneath we’ve created trenches for the water, so it drains away.

It was him who brought electricity to the sewer. During daytime he uses a fuel powered generator. That costs about 2 million lei a day plus all that oil. It rips us off. By night, I steal electricity from the idiots, straight from the pole. We even have internet here. We knocked through a huge wall and came across those cables. I fasten it with three clips like that and I log onto the internet.

Last summer, the city hall set up a first aid tent for people affected by the heat. They found themselves in the situation of not being able to supply electricity to keep their water coolers working. The only solution was to ask him for help. They had no cables, no multiple plugs, they were pathetic. In the end I connected them to my source here from the sewer.

All the electrical cables go through his electric panel. I cheat the losers nicely. Any short circuit goes straight to his electric panel and not to the source. We were sitting in darkness before, with candles, we would catch fire, the pipes leaked and there was filth.

I learned all these things one by one from everyday life.

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***

Bruce Lee was born Florin Cora and he’s from Râmnicu Valcea. His mother abandoned him three days after birth. He lived around orphanages from Babeni, Targu Jiu and Bistrita and he finished 8 years of schooling in a special school. He then attended an industrial school.

When Ceausescu was toppled so was I. No one forced him to stay in school and he didn’t get along with the director of the boarding school where he lived. He got into a fistfight with some school mates, he caused a few scandals and found himself thrown out in the street.

He tramped around Ramnicu Valcea, then travelled aimlessly around the country.
I was starving but I didn’t know how to steal. I would go down to the creek and catch fish. I’d remove the scales, wedge them open and eat them. I’d go to balconies, I’d steal from farmers, but I wasn’t a burglar. Until I got to Bucharest I didn’t know how to steal.

It was winter, cold. Bruce Lee was 17 and had no money at all. He boarded the train and got off at Gara de Nord. Wearing a sheep coat and traditional clothing, all the rogues laughed at him. In the 90’s there was a different crowd here. They were the boys back then. For me they meant something.

A few months after descending in the station he joined a gang of thieves. They saw that mymin was ripe, clever and cunning and said ‘come, join the gang’. They saw how I could fight and they were left speechless. That’s when they nicknamed me Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee, the Chinese actor was Florin’s childhood idol. He learned from TV to perform all his karate moves. He can still do it, even at 40. I’ve got a 9-year experience in martial arts.I’ve got 9 years of martial arts. I am street fighter. He only knew how to protect himself, but on the street you must break all the rules, there is only one rule: survival. Otherwise, you are dead.

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The chains he wears on his wrists and ankles are for strength, agility and stamina. This is how I keep fit. Over time I increase the weight. I wear a chain of about 30-40 kilos, one of those 10 metre long ones. I put them on my chest in a cross, to weigh more. When I remove them I’m like a flake. I hit like a hurricane, but I don’t feel well. I am very light. I keep them on for months. The ones I have now – I’m wearing them since winter. My main food is garlic. I eat little meat, but I overindulge with cheese and milk.

If you walk with me on the street, I swear to you, the police stand aside when they see me and they talk nicely. Before, they used to beat these guys to a pulp, kill them. Now, because of me, they don’t touch them anymore, they know they’ll come to me and tell me. I attacked them at the station a few times. I put the bag in my mouth and attacked them. It was mortal combat.

In 1992 the Turkish ruled in Gara de Nord. They worked for Ortadogu, a Turkish transport company that made millions on the Turkish – Romanian route. The Turks used to beat up the tramps, take their girls and send them to Turkey and force them into prostitution. It so happened that I poked one’s eye out and another’s teeth. He wanted to beat up one of our boys. Following this incident a few tens grouped to lynch him, he hid in a humanitarian centre and when things calmed down he fled from the Station.

He found refuge in Dristor. He slept on artificial fibres at the bottom of a manhole, among rubbish and rats. The only good thing was the heat generated by the pipes, and for this he had to pay the local rogues a fee.

He was on the frontline. He was going begging, breaking into shops, he did anything that made the bosses happy. It’s just that I always out-smarted them. First I got under their skin, than I formed my own gang. And since I’m a good fighter I finished them all and took their place. Briefly, I got rid of them all, because I didn’t like the way they were treating us, and I took over everything. I ended up the chief of the sewer. Not only in Dristor, all over Bucharest.

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Once in power, he built an empire with rules and refined methods of making money: We would check out for the manholes, then make an itinerary which lead us to the parking lots. We’d emerge at night, batty, from the sewer. I’d tie a spark plug to a rope, take ten guys with me, break the car windows and they’d steal anything of value. Radios, tools, everything. We’d break into 30-40 cars then retreat into the sewer and put the manhole cover back in its place. No one would have a clue.

They didn’t sell everythingat once so that they don’t attract police attention. He collected so much equipment, you would have been amazed. He transformed the sewer into a shop for stolen items. We had a deposit full of cigarettes, drinks, food and whatever else you needed. I wasn’t selling. I deposited everything in the sewer and whoever was hungry or needed clothing would go to one of the boys who kept a record of the stock.

The tunnel at Dristor was 20-metre long. In winter the pipes were so hot your skin got peeled off if you touched them. Bruce Lee sorted things out so that they only had a low temperature. He covered the pipes and brought in electricity. Back then he didn’t know how to connect to the street lights. He’d steal car batteries and headlights so that they didn’t live in the dark. We were bandits. We liked those lights and we’d hang them up all over the pipes. We were happy that we didn’t need candles anymore. The kids were careless, they’d get high and burn down the sewer. People would die. Either asphyxiated or burnt.

Every night he’d check whose missing by calling out names from a register. If people were missing they were either under arrest or out breaking into a shop. The boys that were not caught would return in the morning with food, electrical items or clothes. Whatever they stole.

Source: Photographer and filmmaker Joost Vandebrug

Source: Photographer and filmmaker Joost Vandebrug

When he was younger, Bruce Lee was dressed as a bandit wearing a soldier’s helmet. He’d smear aurolac paint over his clothes, face and hair. Many who saw me thought to themselves: ‘GOD! He must be mad!’ That was an advantage for me. Even the police were avoiding me. They wouldn’t arrest me as I made them sick, I reeked of aurolac paint. When I went stealing I’d smear dog shit all over me. No one would touch me, and my pockets were full of watches, money, gold. If they had looked past the shit and saw what I had on me, them fools, they would have had a heart attack.

He made enough money to buy a hotel for his gang.He wanted to buy Dunărea, near the station, wich now lies abandoned. But he had no papers, so he rented a post office under-the-counter. They stayed there for half a year until they were raided by the special police and kicked out by the owner. I was conned. When he saw how many people turned up there he kicked us out and kept the rent money – about 60 million. After that, we found ourselves another place to rent, in a bank. We were conned again. Since I had no lawyers, no papers, no nothing – everybody tried to double-cross me.

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He descended in the sewer underneath the Station and invested everything he had in there. He built a social centre that meets the needs of the people around him, and he governed it according to the best communal organizational method: he – the father, provides the cheap drugs, and his assistants, the apostles, hand them out to his followers. The followers bring metal and valuable items in exchange for powders, aurolac, protection, shelter, food and money. Everything gravitates around Bruce Lee.

To the guys around me I’ve said the following: go, rummage through bins. Copper, brass, paper. Go and do this job. Come back to me and I pay you. I buy copper, brass, paint and whitewash. Everything that these people find they bring to me and I pay them. This is how employ them. They are not running around uselessly, they are not out robbing and stealing. They come to me. We live out of garbage, and we steal every now and then. 

His assistants are Andrei and Simon, his most trusted men and extra pair of hands he does his business with.

Andrei is the spitting image of Bruce Lee, with rotten teeth and the temper of a rabid pit bull. He had gold, silver, diamonds in his hands and he never cheated me. I won’t even mention money. He had billions, but he never took a penny without asking. You know what he asks for? Juice and those stupid things, energizers.

Simon is skinny, with a Brazilian footballer’s hair style and he looks like the wiser one. Simon can’t be corrupted by the rogues who go to him and demand their right or try to bully him. Wise guys go to them daily demanding their share. The ladder down the hole is under lock and key. There are rogues who want to harm us; they are trying to squeeze money out of the guys. There was an arson attack on us because we wouldn’t pay. They try all sorts of methods to bully us.

e secured the sewer against all kinds of dangers they could confront: police, strangers, all the unwanted persons. Half of the sewer is a lounge for junkies. It’s always packed with people armed with used syringes who are ready to protect Bruce Lee. In the other half, tens of mean dogs guard the bedrooms. You can only crawl in and only if you’re less than 70-80 kilos. The special troops have no chance.

Shredder’s mole. I’m the only in the entire country who knows all the sewers. I close and open them, I’m the boss. They laid concrete over me and I still managed to get out. I amazed them.

In 2013, the police came with a bulldozer over them. They removed the manhole covers, pepper-sprayed the whole sewer and sent down the police special forces. Bruce Lee and his brigade were suspected of stealing some expensive art from the home of some French people. I had no idea what I had on the wall. It was a valuable antique icon. I didn’t know it was made out of silver and gold. It was a few hundred years old. I bought it from others.

They arrested many junkies who formed a line at the entrance to the sewer trying to protect Bruce Lee. The police confiscated anything they found to be of value: cash, three kilos of copper, brass, paintings. Everything was bought and paid for, I didn’t steal anything! They took everything! To empty the sewer? Maybe I did steal a painting or whatever they said I stole, a plasma. But for them to take away everything?

After the raid the city hall poured concrete over the entrances. hey sealed the manholes and trapped me down here. I almost died, even though I know this sewer so well. But he was prepared: he had a jackhammer, pickaxe and flex. He broke the concrete wall and cut through the steel concrete with the flex. He emerged through the pavement after two days of digging with the pickaxe.

He was arrested and imprisoned for two months. While he was away, martial law was declared in the sewer. Firstly they cut the electricity. Then the hoodlums with the powders arrived and imposed new rules: ‘You want a fix? Then go steal or beg for me.’ All the rules disappeared. It reverted to how it was. Darkness. The rubbish was piling up. The girls were raped and the bosses were bosses only for their own ends. Bruce was released, sorted them out and it all went back to how it was.

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Bruce Lee wears tens of army decorations, brooches, bells and key-rings – many are made of solid silver, with semi-precious stones. When he walks or crawls through the sewer you think it’s Santa Claus. All the one hundred dogs that he cares for seem to be hypnotized by the sound of his armour. When he comes out from the underground and crosses the street the dogs get frantic. They bark at the cars and bite out of car parts that get too close to the master.

He looks after the dogs as if they were children. He had them vaccinated and takes them to the vet when they are ill. His favourite is Greta – a Pekingese the size of a loaf of bread. There’s also Albus, a people loving half-breed Labrador. Then we have Bruce Lee’s dog, the leader of the pack and the biggest of them all.

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***

This is where afflicted generations abandoned by Romania immediately after the revolution live. The system treated them in a most savage way. Almost all of them come from communist orphanages. We come from foster homes, poor, broken and alcohol ridden families. More than 90% of these people have AIDS, HIV, hepatitis and TB. 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

Bruce says he never used a syringe, only aurolac. I put half a bottle of aurolac in a bag. They can’t sniff that much. They only put enough to fill the corner of the bag. I also drink it, wear it, take it shopping with me and make money with it.

He spends about 20 million a day. The dogs, the community, the generator and what else they invest in scrap and trinkets. I’ve got nothing to spend my money on I walk only barefoot; my clothes are over a year old. When they fall apart completely, I’ll buy new ones. God doesn’t look at clothes or muscles, he looks at the heart. That’s what I want as well. I don’t want people to judge me by my clothes. I want them to look at my heart.

He hasn’t met a woman to his liking yet. As a man, when I need a woman I pay for her. I only share my bed with prostitutes. I haven’t found one I can rely on, a serious one. They are all after my money. I’m better off alone.

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I’m disappointed by weak and cowardly people – from the youngest to the oldest. I don’t know how this country chose its leaders, they are all idiots. I don’t ask to be given the power for a month, because I’m a real idiot. One day only. I cut off all the heads, every single one. There is nothing you can offer me. I don’t accept gifts, I don’t want anything for free. I know that if I take something I’ll have to return the favour, and if I make you a favour I’ll become corrupt.

Before I knew God I was a different man. I had no family, I was bad, I was corrupt. I call God, father. That’s how I see things as I felt him close to me and he guides me in everything I do. He is all I have.

That is why I live in the sewer and help the poor ones. They see that I’m close to them. That’s why they all call me Father.”

***

Text, Photo & Suffering: Radu Ciorniciuc

Pepp talk: Ștefan Mako, Vlad Ursulean și George Popescu

Versions of this feature were published by Channel 4, Daily Mail and lots of other channels from around the world.

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