Goldilocks in Danger
It is an unusually warm November in Bucharest. An ambulance pulls up by the little park opposite one of the city’s big train stations. The letters ARAS, written in bold across the vehicle, stand for the Romanian Association Against Aids. A bunch of gaunt characters immediately surround the two staff, a doctor and a social worker. The men are here for their weekly supply of disposable syringes. ARAS cannot stop them from injecting drugs but it works tirelessly to minimise the spread of HIV/AIDS among injecting drug users. UNICEF offers financial support to the organisation as a number of its regular clients are children.
We squeeze past the crowd in search of one of these children. As cosy as a cat, a lovely girl is sleeping curled up on the grass. This is Denisa: serene in the sunshine. Her golden locks showcase a lovely face. Looking at her at that moment, you could never tell that she left home at eleven, spends a lot of time on the streets and that, under her jean jacket, her puny arms are covered with the pierce marks of a needle.
It is a school day but Denisa is not at school. She wakes and smiles at us. As she rises to her unsteady feet, the glamour quickly begins to fade. Tiny for her fifteen years, Denisa has blotchy skin, dirt under her finger nails and the highlights in her hair look frazzled close-up. She hastily signs for the disposable syringes and slips them into her bag. When we pull a chair up to her, she disappears in it, except her large eyes, a smile and a voice hoarse from smoking. One moment she is alert, the next her mind wanders, eyes averted to the side. Slowly, unselfconsciously, with a kind smile, Denisa relays the story of her life. On a visit to the capital city four years ago, she decided to stay and not return to her native Bistrita, some 400 km north-west of Bucharest. Since then she has traded her state children’s home for a private one and made many friends on the streets. She meets with them at the soup kitchen, walks with them down the park and rides the dodgems when she has money. But not only.
Denisa likes having a good time and cooking. Her current home has a rota system whereby all the young people take turns to work in the kitchen. They get rewards: stationery and sweets; and learn life skills and a trade: catering. But occasionally Denisa gets hold of cash and this cash is spent on drugs. Drug abuse is not the only threat to the wellbeing of our Goldilocks. Predators pay money to vulnerable children like her in exchange for sexual favours. They seek out their victims in the streets of the city and buy their bodies, emaciated from drug use. The girl is evasive about it but social workers reveal the truth later.
Denisa tries to assure us that all she has ever tried are legal drugs which she injected for a week and gave up because of a scary blackout she had, ending up in Accident and Emergency. The medical staff tell a different story. Denisa has been signing on for disposable syringes for at least two years. Her first addiction was heroin. Now it is even worse. For the last half-year the so called Spice Shops, selling legal drugs, have sprung up in nearly every thoroughfare in Romania’s larger cities. Bath salts and plant feeders are purchased by Denisa and her friends, diluted with water and injected in the vein. Denisa is self-taught when it comes to locating a vein that has sunk into a skin-and-bone arm. She has the deftness of a medical nurse and helps others if necessary. But the substances they inject in their blood stream have claimed lives.
Addiction develops in a matter of days. Depending on the quantity and frequency of use, 50% of the cortex can be wiped out in a matter of weeks, leading to a loss of appetite, psychosis and death. The ARAS team had witnessed cases of teenagers losing 30 kg in a couple of weeks. Legal is lethal. When Denisa lost consciousness after her first shot of Special Gold, sold over the counter in a spice shop, she was incredibly lucky. As a fifteen-year-old with no identity papers she could not have received treatment in hospital. Had it not been for the nice couple, sitting on the bench near where she passed out, who backed her up, she might have never lived to give this interview.
So what brought Denisa onto the streets and into a life of chaos and addiction? Her parents have split up and live in different parts of the country. The father was an alcoholic and the mother was bringing in a measly salary sweeping the streets. They argued all the time. The house was cramped and unwelcoming. Denisa wanted a better life for herself. She has two younger brothers in homes elsewhere in the country. Her social worker arranges monthly reunions with them. Although she does not describe either of her parents as abusive towards the children, the thing she likes most about her current children’s home is that the adults speak to her with respect.
She knows about the risks involved in injecting drugs but for the time being she cannot help herself. Despite drastic cuts in a time of economic crisis, agencies and individuals are on hand to help but change is slow and painful, sometimes impossible. Yet, Denisa smiles as she waves us good-bye on her way to the home for a proper meal at seven. We let her go with a heavy heart, wondering how much more life the Spice Shops will afford this lovely child.
Denisa is a beneficiary of the MARA programme in Romania. It is designed and funded by UNICEF and implemented by ARAS. The aim is to reduce the risks of HIV infection among most-at-risk adolescents and improve their access to social and health services. The programme has been running since 2008. In 2011 it will continue with financial backing from the EU and a contribution from UNICEF.
It is mid-December 2010. There is a ray of hope that the Spice Shops might go out of business if a proposal by the General Municipal Council of Bucharest is approved. Councillor Horia Scarlat wants to pass a law whereby these shops cannot be open within a kilometre of schools, universities, sports centres, libraries, public buildings and any institutions dealing with children. It is reckoned that, given the layout of the city, no Spice Shop will fulfil the above conditions and they will all have to close.