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Witness

Bartek’s Getaway Bus

Can restoring an old van transform the life of a poor but determined Polish teenager who lives off stealing scrap metal?

Last updated: 20 Jan 2014 11:31
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Crime and scrap metal are the focus of Bartek's life. He is a poor but determined Polish teenager, who makes a living by stealing scrap metal from a disused steel mill.

He is in increasing danger of dropping out of school and being sucked into the rampant gangs around him. But he has a project that could just get him and his 'gang of five' away from a life of violence and crime.

The boys have been offered a piece of scrap metal, in the form of a wrecked-out old van, that they have been asked to restore with the help of Robert, a youth worker. Bartek soon realises that this vehicle could have a transforming influence on his life.

As a reward for their work, the five are being promised a holiday of a lifetime - a trip to Barcelona. But can the boys rise to the challenge? Moreover, will the adults who are organising this project live up to their promises?

Bartek's story is set in Poland, against the backdrop of coal production and economic crisis, and how such circumstances impact young people especially.

Through Bartek, we meet his gang and his family - his young mother and alcoholic grandfather who think nothing of his stealing; we witness the social decay in Poland's abandoned mining towns, where one million unemployed men and their families live in poverty; and we follow a young man who is building his getaway van.

Filmmaker's view

By Julia Rooke

Old men, as pale as ghosts, carry heavy lumps of scrap metal on their backs. Younger men armed with saws and blowtorches work like ants, dismantling girders and a railway line that stops dead at a defunct coal shaft. They are stealing whatever they can to eke out a living. It reminds me of a scene from Ridley Scott's film  Blade Runner . But life can be stranger than fiction; this is in fact southern Poland, the industrial conurbation that surrounds the bustling city of Katowice in Upper Silesia.

Just a 20-minute drive away, younger men have been stealing water hydrants to sell as scrap metal. The city's police took me to a car park where a cluster of 12-metre street lights had simply vanished overnight. You could still see drag marks in the grass. Telephone cables are ripped out on a daily basis and iron manhole covers frequently go missing, leaving gaping holes in the road and accidents waiting to happen. A transport policeman told me that he had found young men dead on railway sidings, electrocuted while trying to tear down overhead electricity cables.

Scrap metal is lucrative, as is stolen coal. There are two to three coal train heists each day. In 2012, a 16-year-old boy lost his arms and legs stealing coal from a moving freight train. However, these incidents are barely given a mention in the local and national press because they are too politically embarrassing.

Coal and steel were once the backbone of the Communist economy. Miners were regarded as the vanguard, looked after by the state from cradle to grave. This culture of dependency was, in part, the miners' undoing. When state subsidies were removed in 1990, these communities found it hard to adapt. Today it is estimated that a million or so former miners and their families live in endemic poverty. This, while the economy is growing around them.

Almost every town and city has its own glitzy shopping mall. Since the fall of Communism, GDP has grown by 500 percent. But Poland's prosperity has come at a price. Former mining and steel communities have been turned into social ghettos and alcoholism and domestic violence is rife.

As someone who was born in the UK, but of Polish parentage, I wanted to know what it was like growing up there. After travelling to Poland to find out, I met 14-year-old Bartek. He lived in a shabby three-bedroom flat with 16 family members in the former mining community of Bobrek in the city of Bytom.

To me, Bartek looked out of place in his grey designer sweatshirt and new trainers which he told me he had bought thanks to the money he earns from stealing scrap metal. But Bartek was no common thief. As far as I could see, he always paid for his food and swore he would never shoplift.

Aided by my assistant Lukas Bluszcz - a great hit with the kids on account of his David Beckham-like looks and great footballer skills - I was able to film Bartek and his gang over several months.

We started filming in February during -15 C conditions. We witnessed Bartek and his gang collecting scrap metal from the frozen ruins of a derelict steel plant that once employed half the city. Bright eyed and intelligent, Bartek was enthralled by the sense of adventure and possibility of making money. But he is also in danger of being sucked into more serious criminal gangs. In fact, it is just a matter of time.

Unable or simply unwilling to wrestle with such deep-rooted social problems, the police often turn a blind eye to boys like Bartek. They have bigger criminals to deal with.

Luckily there is a Lutheran Church mission in Bytom which employs a tiny group of so-called street workers, including Robert. Robert performs much needed social outreach work in the streets where children hang out. He knows these kids and their families and he has a plan that might just pull Bartek back from the brink. It is a gamble.

In Pictures

 

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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