RAMNICU VALCEA – To the tourist eye, Râmnicu Vâlcea is a quiet, leafy city. Located at the bottom of the Carpathian mountain range, in central Romania, no one would guess this town’s secret, buried in its working-class neighborhood, Ostroveni.
You have to leave the boulevard that stretches across the city to end up in narrow streets surrounded by housing projects from the communist era, to start noticing that something’s amiss in this city of about 100,000 citizens.
Parked around those poorly constructed buildings erected during the Cold War dictatorship, there are expensive cars. Behind the wheel, youths between 20 and 30-years-old are proud of showing off a wealth that deeply contrasts with its surroundings. Welcome to the hackers’ lair!
Râmnicu Vâlcea and its Ostroveni neighborhood, is nicknamed “Hackerville.” It is the world capital for online theft. Internet shoppers from all over the world have been had by the Romanian hacking network: French, British, Germans, Italians and mostly Americans. According to the Romanian police, around 80% of their victims reside in the U.S. "Last year, one billion dollars was stolen in the U.S. by Romanian hackers," says American ambassador in Bucharest, Mark Gitenstein.
In Ostroveni, everyone knows what is happening, but omerta – the code of silence – is the norm. One of the hackers agreed to let us peek into his "business," as long as he remains anonymous. "It’s easier with the Americans," he says, "these guys buy their bread online, they’re used to do everything on the Internet." He claims to sometimes "bamboozle four or five users per week, leaving me, in the end, a few dozens or a few hundred thousand dollars richer."
"It’s a big world we live in and it’s full of idiots ready to buy anything on the Internet," he says. "We sell fictitious products, we clone websites and hack credit cards. In Europe, in order to get the cash in, we use "arrows" (money mules) – their only job is to withdraw the money previously sent to an account. They keep 30% of the loot and then send us the rest via Western Union." Given the many Western Union signs that have flourished in the center of Ramnicu Valcea, business seems to be blooming.
The Romanian hackers have understood that it is better for them to work in networks. This is their difference and their strength, compared to other hackers. The "arrows" are the most exposed – this is why they often have fake IDs. They know everything there is to know about the complex world of the Internet. "We used to pull all-nighters in front of our computer screens," recalls the hacker from Ostroveni. "We used to get 14-year-olds to help us. We even drafted the children of the orphanage to teach them stuff and make them work for us."
Fighting cyber crime
A group of FBI cyber-criminality specialists has set up shop in Bucharest, in order to – among other things – train 600 Romanian policemen to end the scourge. A special Internet theft unit was created and its 200 policemen have been dispatched all over the country. "We have made a lot of progress in the last few years. Romania is now working with Europol and the European Commission against cyber-crimes," explains Virgil Spiridon, head of Internet theft unit. They are making more and more arrests. In 2011, the Romanian unit filed about a thousand cases, arrested 500 people and passed 150 cases on to judges.
"SirVic," AKA Victor Faur knows the system – he used to be the head of one of Romania’s top hacking networks. As skilled as he is, SirVic got caught and condemned to six months in jail with a suspended sentence and a $240,000 fine. He had breached NASA’s servers to show the Americans how flawed their security systems were. "I warned them to fix it but I made the mistake of bragging about it on a website they were monitoring."
According to "Ice Man," the 26-year-old "black prince" of the Romanian hackers – also known as Robert Butyka – stealing on the net is very easy. He adds though, a little miffed, that hacking and stealing are not the same. He only likes the true challenges of the Internet.
"Yes, stealing on the Internet is easy," he says, "there are hundreds of websites where you can learn how to become a hacker." A few clicks later: "There you go, I found credit cards for sale with associated codes for Italy, France, the U.S., the UK and Spain." His screen shows classified ads where everything is for sale: credit cards and their codes, blank cards, lists of accounts from large email companies and many programs to access servers.
Ramnicu Valcea is the nerve center of cyber-criminality and its reach extends to several continents. The phenomenon started in 1996 and had a snowball effect on the town. However, Romania waited until 2003 – pressed by the U.S. – to pass a bill against cyber crimes.
From his balcony with a view on the pirates’ bay of Râmnicu Vâlcea, the hacker from Ostroveni has few doubts. "The brains, the big whales have Hackerville," he says with a grin on his face, "they have settled elsewhere, and are hiding in the U.S., the UK, France or Switzerland. They are very rich and stealthy ghosts. I don’t think they’ll ever get caught."
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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