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The railway children of Bucharest

Hundreds of children still live a precarious life of begging, drugs and violence on the streets around the capital's station. So what good has the work of Western charities done since 1989? Christian Wolmar reports
The mass of children around Bucharest station was shocking enough. There were about 50 of them who live there permanently, mostly boys and nearly all sniffing the local cheap solvent, Aurolac, from dirty polythene bags. They were begging from passengers and looking for the chance to steal anything left lying about.

Some were unusually cleanly dressed in new jeans and T-shirts given to them by a German TV crew, the rest were mostly in oversized filthy tracksuits. Though it was afternoon, some were still asleep on the luggage cart around the side of the station where most of them spend the night.

But even more shocking was the presence of a baby amid the detritus left by the children and the passengers in a large yard behind the station. Her mother, Monica, a scraggy waif-like 17-year-old in a red T-shirt and dirty jeans was sitting on the side of a cart washing out baby clothes.

Catarin, the young man from Asis, a local charity which works with the children on the streets, asked her where the baby was. She lifted up the rags and old newspapers on the cart and there was Bianca, fast asleep. One of the bigger boys who spoke a smattering of English said the baby had "constipation", but then corrected himself, "No, it's spots, you know, red spots." It seemed like measles, but Bianca was sleeping soundly and we did not want to disturb her.

Bianca - a misnamed baby since she is dark with black hair - was more than a year old but had only been on the streets for a few weeks. Her mother, who had lived at the station since she was 10, moved in with her boyfriend's dad after the birth, but all three were now back on the streets because he had tried to rape her, just as her own father had done years before.

Gigi, the boyfriend, was hassling Catarin for money and cigarettes, but the ethos of Asis is not to give any material help to the children on the streets. Indeed, the strategy of the charities has changed since the heady days just after the 1989 revolution, when Western charities charged into Bucharest bearing gifts aplenty. Rodica Gregorian, who runs Asis, says that much has been learnt since then about how to treat the street children: "If you give them clothes which are too smart, they will sell them. There is no point just giving things away."

Romania is poor, the streets have holes that could engulf a cow and there are abandoned construction sites everywhere, a legacy of Ceausescu's megalomania. Even the elegant Metro stations are strewn with piles of rubble. Inflation is rampant, which makes wages unbelievably small - the charity street workers get barely $100 per month - and the cost of living amazingly cheap for Westerners. A Metro ticket is just 10p. The extent of the backwardness can be seen from the air as you approach Bucharest Airport and observe a dual carriageway mud road used only by a succession of horse-drawn hay carts.

Everyone is poor and galloping inflation has meant most are getting poorer, except those lucky enough to have mortgages. It is not surprising that the street children are better off materially than many other Romanians thanks to the proceeds from begging, prostitution and stealing. Although their way of life is clearly not sustainable because of the violence, the drugs, and the chaos around them, they may take some convincing of that fact.

Asis has three workers on the streets who make contact with the kids and help them sort out basic problems such as getting identity cards or taking them to the hospital. Catarin says: "The children say 'give me money to go home' but if we gave them the money it would not be used for the train. Instead, we build up a relationship with them and if they really want to go home, we take them there." Over the past year, Asis has been in contact with about 50 children per month and managed to get five completely rehabilitated into jobs. Ms Gregorian says: "It doesn't sound much but these are complete successes. Other agencies say they have many more successes but you find that most of the kids have just been taken home and run away again."

While many children have been turfed out by parents or run away after beatings or sexual abuse, some street children do have some choice about where they live. We found one tiny 15-year-old boy, his growth clearly stunted by inhaling too much solvent, who had run away from his rural home in neighbouring Moldavia because he was made to work cleaning out the pigsty. He had been taken back home once by another charity but ran away again within a few days. He was part of a large family and said he had been beaten; it was unclear whether it would be possible for the charity workers to reunite him successfully with his family.

As with many of the children, it takes a lot of patient work to piece together the real story and to discover the extent of their plight. Catarin said: "At first they tell you many lies. Sometimes they make their story worse, sometimes they don't tell you what really happened." Working with these children is, therefore, a long-term business and the complexity of the issues proved too much for many of the Western charities which arrived in the wake of the revolution seeking quick solutions.

British and other West European people contributed massive amounts of money as a result of the extensive media coverage of Romanian orphanages and homeless children, but most of these charities have now left Romania, disillusioned and no longer able to raise cash in the fickle society of Western Europe where interest in Eastern Europe has declined.

There was a cultural mismatch. As Gheorghe Nicolau, an energetic, English- speaking man who runs a training centre for homeless children, put it, "Many of the programmes initiated by Western charities in the aftermath of 1989 have produced no useful results at all. The money has been wasted."

The approach of the Western charities was misguided, he says, because they did not understand the attraction the streets held for the children on them. "There is no school, the kids have money from begging or stealing and the street becomes part of their culture, in fact their whole culture. You cannot expect them to leave that life without offering a viable alternative." The only downside for them, he says, is that they have nowhere to sleep and they have to find food: "If you give them these things and let them stay on the streets, they have no incentive to leave. If you give them a bed before they are prepared to make a real change in their lives, then it is an indirect encouragement for them to stay on the street."

Mr Nicolau's project, Casa Deschisa, involves 15 children signing up for a week's education and training at a day centre. He says: "The only things that we offer to our kids when they first attend our programme are respect, love and comprehension. These are the things they have always been deprived of."

The programme initially concentrates on sports and games and teaching basic skills such as washing clothes, cleaning the house and table manners. There is a merit system by which children are awarded points for attendance and on Fridays those with enough points are given a treat such as a film. Each day a different child is appointed to oversee the behaviour of the others, thus subverting the culture of the street where the biggest kids rule the roost. Gheorghe claims that 15 children have been fully rehabilitated in the past year, and all the 85 others who have attended the centre have shown improvements in their hygiene and behaviour.

Monica and Gigi are, however, a long way from starting this process. Every time they have gone back to their parents, they have had trouble. So back at the station, with the sun shining and the clothes drying quickly in the hot weather, Monica is not yet ready to contemplate another way of life. Catarin will return day after day to the station and hopes to get the couple and their baby off the streets permanently, but he reckons that probably it will not be until the advent of winter when they will go into some type of shelter. What he must teach them is how to live off the streets rather than on them.

Christian Wolmar, transport correspondent of the 'Independent', is on the board of the Railway Children, a newly created British charity which is raising money to support the work of street agencies across the world. Donations can be sent to Railway Children, Foundation House, Macon Court, Herald Drive, Crewe, CW1 6WA.