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    Posted June 27, 2013 by
    odessa, Ukraine
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    First Person: Your essays

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    The Undergrounders


    We park by a two story abandoned building. A girl peers down from over a wall on the second floor. I climb up, cross a tar-covered roof, step through a window and enter a room. Two boys are talking to one of our social workers. I see several mattresses, an ironing board and a religious icon taped to a bare wall. The girl is sitting on a mattress, her back to the wall, watching me. I lift the camera. Photo? She nods. I step over and crouch to make an image. But she seems so completely at ease, I move closer and sit six feet away, cross-legged. One click of the shutter then another and another.
    The first few shots seem identical. I lower the camera for a moment. We look at each other, she without fear, self-pity, arrogance or shame. Neither begging nor refusing. I am not any less than you, or you less than me. I shoot again and again, my heavy digital camera making it's clopping sound. The final frame reveals the slightest smile.


    The sun has set, and we are in a van, roaring about the city under streetlights, our driver shifting, grinding, braking, honking, swerving, swearing. We have a First Aid kit, a deep pot full of beef and hot noodles, and tea to drink. I grasp a metal pole, holding the camera case in my lap as we swing back and forth. We pull over to the curb, a group of children stand on a raised platform of concrete, a bunker. On top of it, are two round steel rimmed holes with ladders to take one beneath. I see Jana, Vlad, Slavic, Seriosia, Dima and two I don't know.
    Jana, age 15, shouts, motioning with her hand for me to follow. She leaps to the platform and disappears down a hole. I crawl up on the concrete, dragging my camera bag, grab the sides of the rails, and go below. The room is ten by fifteen feet. In front of me are several massive steel sewage pipes too large to put my arms around. Smaller pipes run parallel and up; valve handles are the size of steering wheels. A jungle gym. Jana stands in the corner, hand on one hip. I raise the camera. She does not smile.
    Outside, two streetlights, a nearby gas station and darkness are the backdrop. I make two hundred images: boys and girls from age eight or nine to fifteen, hugging each other or climbing on top of each other, faces pressed against the yellow dog that sleeps on top of the platform, solemn, smiling, closed, intimate, distant. One boy has a plastic gun; he has a hand around another's neck, holding the gun to his head.
    Jana's face has changed. The images I took earlier showed her clean cheeks, ice blue eyes and shy smile. At fifteen, they tell me she has become a prostitute. I photograph her shrunken frame, her eyes dimmed by life on the street.


    Darkness is what I remember most about this time. Darkness fills the spaces children live: beneath the streets, in abandoned buildings, and under the apartments buildings of Odessa, Ukraine. Darkness fills the skies above me, no less than it surrounds me in the small apartment where I sleep.
    A journalist and photographer come from UNICEF in Sweden. The journalist is a woman, tall, kind, beautiful, everything you would expect out of Sweden, but a journalist with a job to do. We climb beneath the street, about 15 feet down into in a concrete block room and stand on large metal pipes, with only the light from the round metal hole above. I call out; we hear movement in the corner.  A boy comes out of the darkness, his feet showing first, then legs and arms and face.  He staggers; his nervous system has been ruined by the drugs. We call him Simolyot, which means "airplane." The journalist does not speak.  She stands on a large pipe, her knee-length wool coat like a shadow beneath her blonde hair.  The translator comes down. "Are there any questions you want to ask the boy?" I see in the dark how she shakes her head and says nothing. "Do you want to go up?"
    "I just want to stay for a while." This is when I know she is weeping.  Even after we climb back up and stand in the cold outside, she weeps. I should walk over to her, I think. Twenty five years of ministry taught me as much. Incredibly, I do not.


    Days tumble and roll into each other; I lose track. I arrive at the office mid morning Thursday. No one is there. I wander through the rooms until I find Roma who works street patrol is bent forward and concentrating on a computer game. Doesn't this guy do anything, I am thinking. “Where is everyone?” I ask.
    “It's Saturday,” he replies without looking up.


    The wall above my desk is now a collage of more than eighty of my photos, pinned to a four by six foot sheet of styrofoam insulation. Each is a candid portrait. Gleeful eyes, angry eyes, sad eyes, distant, trusting, doubting, pleading eyes, even an attack with the eyes means, I want help.
    Businesses do start-ups. This will be mine. I form a non-profit and call it, This Child Here; I start raising money. I pay psychologists. I pay for clothes, medicine, dance lessons, tents, a university degree and bicycles. I bought books for Andre, not comic books, Jack London, Jules Verne, Mark Twain. I pegged him as our first college student. One night he and another boy broke into my office, stole a digital camera and ran to the streets. Two weeks later, Andre was pulling a wire out of the ground to sell the copper, but the wire was carrying several thousand volts; he was electrocuted. I learned he lay on a hospital bed, half his head burned, unable to speak or respond.
    I learn the emotional power one child has over another. Anya, a young teen, took three younger girls to the streets to live for several weeks. It is very easy for a little girl to make a lot of money on the street. In each case, the emotional damaged is impossible to measure. I see it when they return: eyes that avoid mine, eyes that cannot focus or smile. At first, I had the feelings of powerlessness, violation and grief, but later it shifted to a more dangerous sensation. I am crossing a street with a child in a region on the north side of Odessa, a neighborhood street. A car bears down, an old Russian Lada; the driver breaks just before our ankles and lays on the horn. Something comes over me in a wave. I walk quickly to the half open window, raise my fist, lift the single middle finger and shout, “Eat my shorts… Eat all of it you ...” The driver, of course, is shocked but not because of my cursing, but because he feels he has every right to intimidate pedestrians. By the second year, a new feeling was breaking through; I was trying to suppress it: rage.


    In the comfortable breeze of mid June, we turn the van into a parking lot under the green leaves of oak and birch--the location of needle users. They live beneath a gray concrete apartment building, with all the architectural style of a cereal box. On the curb we find two small kids: ages eleven and twelve. I sit on the concrete next to them, “How long on the streets?”
    “Four months.” Alyona replies.
    “Where is your mother?” She shrugs.
    I call my Alla, my psychologist, and give the phone to Alyona. They talk. When we enter the van to leave, the girls step in also.
    At the dorm, Alyona and Diana talk with Alla, then walk up the steps to see the rooms. Later, I notice the girls with armfuls of towels and clothes. They are checking in.
    They don't know this; they are little girls. It would not happen the next day or even the next week. In the next months, though, it would. Alyona and Diana would take the needle, and like the others in the group, become HIV positive. With the infections and illnesses street kids suffer, chances point to death at an early age. Without knowing it, they chose life. I have a photograph I keep in my knapsack of that moment, Alyona’s face in the foreground. It is an icon of sorts, to keep me centered on the incarnation of success.


    Robert Gamble

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