VIDRA, Romania (AP) — In the trash-strewn slums of Sintesti, less than 10 miles from Romania’s capital, Mihai Bratu scrapes a dangerous living for his Roma family amid the foul reek of burning plastic that cloys the air day and night.
Like many in this community, for him illegally setting fire to whatever he can find that contains metal — from computers to tires to electrical cables — seems like his only means of survival.
“We’re selling it to people who buy metal, we are poor people … we have to work hard for a week or two to get one kilogram of metal,” 34-year-old Bratu, perched on an old wooden cart, told The Associated Press. “We are struggling to feed our kids ... The rich people have the villas, look at the rich people’s palaces.”
You don’t have to look far.
The main road that runs through Sintesti, a largely Roma village in the Vidra commune, is lined with ornate, semi-constructed villas and dotted with shiny SUVs. Behind lurk the parts where Bratu and his young children live, a social black hole with no sanitation or running water. The two worlds are strongly connected.
For Octavian Berceanu, the new head of Romania’s National Environmental Guard, the government environmental protection agency, the pollution from the fires that burn here almost ceaselessly, in breach of environmental laws, was so bad that he started regular raids in the community — where he says “mafia structures” lord it over “modern slaves.”
“This is a kind of slavery, because the people living here have no opportunity for school, to get a job in the city, which is very close, they don’t have infrastructure like an official power grid, water, roads — and that is destroying their perspective on life,” Berceanu told The Associated Press during a police-escorted tour in April.
The slums of Sintesti, like Roma communities elsewhere, have long been ignored by authorities. They’re made up of makeshift homes, where unofficially rigged electricity cables hug the ground and run over a sea of trash.
“For too many years, they were allowed in some way to do this dirty job,” Berceanu said.
But on top of the considerable social ills, according to the environment chief, the fires can significantly hike pollution in Bucharest, potentially by as much as 20-30%, at times pushing air quality to dangerous levels.