Vision of Hell

A team from Haaretz Magazine documents the daily violence, illness, humiliation and despair that are the lot of hundreds of young men and women, drug addicts, dealers and prostitutes, living in a vermin-infested building in Tel Aviv's old Central Bus Station.

"Slaves of the white powder that falls on the city, ambassadors of the dream, angels of the anesthetized" (Tamir Greenberg, "To you, the sleeping")

The passenger platforms on Salomon Street in the old Central Bus Station of Tel Aviv are orphaned. Not even skeletons of buses are parked here now. At this late hour of the night it's hard to miss the busy traffic in the building at 1 Finn Street. The prostitutes who work the area of the old station huddle outside the building, skeletal, their veins perforated, barely able to stand. Some lean on the wall, others sit hunched up next to it, their eyes opening and shutting in fright, unaware of their surroundings, only waiting for the next john and the money for the next fix.

"Whore, cunt!" one of them screams at a girl whose whole body is shaking from a bad trip. "You junkie whore!" she continues, throwing herself on the girl and pummeling her. No one intervenes. Darkness swallows the brutal scene.

The main entrance to the building at 1 Finn Street is long and winding. Enter a dingy foyer, turn to the left, and you come to the foot of a steep flight of stairs. The walls are spattered with drops of blood sprayed out of hypodermic syringes, and on the stairs is a "red carpet," a blood trail, painted in shades of natural red. Handmade.

Fear climbs with you. Even though the building is crowded, cramped and in a state of constant bustle as junkies, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and the plain homeless slither up and down the stairs, everyone who passes surveys you, scans and sniffs you out. In no time, kids - chronic users - are sent to proposition you. "Do you need stuff? Smack? Coke? Crack? There's good stuff, just say the word," they boast openly.

The drug dealers at the end of the corridor on the right watch me from afar with an icy gaze. Quickly and wordlessly, the house rules become clear. Staring at drug pushers is dangerous; a long look is a gross violation of the rules, sufficient cause for a violent confrontation. On the floor, a girl writhes in pain, trembling, trying to focus on jamming the needle into her body. Her veins are used up, finished. She shifts nervously and pulls down her pants, revealing legs cratered with needle marks, landscaped with pustules. She raises her blouse, offering anyone who cares to look a tableau of garish blue-purple marks. Finally she snaps, and in a fit of crying shoots up into the palm of her hand. Her eyes close. Three minutes later her body visibly relaxes and her eyes open, momentarily shining and glittering, before she stretches out on the floor, motionless.

The stench that rises from the refuse and the rot immediately assails the senses. Welcome to hell. Welcome to the building at 1 Finn Street, which under police auspices has become the main branch of the Lod drug dealers, the kingdom of the netherworld. This house of the dead is the hangout of all the junkies and hookers in the vicinity of the Central Bus Station, along with other chronic users from all over Tel Aviv and pushers who come to buy from the Lod dealers and then peddle the stuff across the city.

At the entrance, on the left, are two rooms with heavily barred windows. These are the official "ATMs." A hand emerges from a narrow opening and offers a small plastic bag containing heroin to a waiting client. The hand takes a bill and repeats the motion for the next client, a man beaded with perspiration. White powder is poured into his palm, he makes a fist to enclose it, hustles to a corner room and slams the door behind him. This routine goes on nonstop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The ATMs never stop working. Occasionally the distributor takes on a real form, as he pulls back a curtain to check the line. His face is a mass of open sores, his body emaciated, his eyes glazed.

The upper floor is U shaped. It contains a large number of one-room apartments for rent, about 70, most of them tiny, some of them lacking a shower. Some of the doorposts bear the room number, others show the number in plastic, but the numbers are not consecutive and many of the rooms are without markings of any kind. Advancing deeper into the structure, one finds more and more apartments - you get the feeling that if you open the electricity cabinet you will also find the entrance to a one-room flat.

I first came here about half a year ago, not knowing what to expect. It was an enormous shock. The sights leave you dumbstruck: the scale of the open dealing, the stream of addicts who have come to sniff or shoot up. Nothing has changed since then; in fact, the place has expanded. The momentum of development is palpable. More youngsters have been sucked into the circle of prostitution and addiction, and more and more dealers enter the building with empty bags and leave to spread their tidings in the city.

The inner courtyard, which six months ago was piled with junk, is now empty. It's easier now to see the filthy floor and the rats, as big as cats, that skitter across it. At the rear of the inner courtyard, accessed by descending a staircase, are more apartments for rent. To the right and the left, additional passageways have been created to Finn Street and Erlinger Street. The new access paths are like burrows, their grimy tiles loose, lined with additional apartments.

On the apartments located on the building's facade, on Salomon Street, the name of the structure's owner is flaunted in red paint. Don't the police know this? Don't they know that drug dealers from Lod have taken over a building in the heart of the old Central Bus Station district and turned it into a mall that sells drugs and sexual services? The police know and the police see, and the police regularly raid the place, but the police have their own agenda.

Maybe the concentration of dealers, users, prostitutes and pimps in one structure is convenient for everyone. This way the consumers of drugs and the sellers of sex don't leave the compound, don't interfere with the course of life in the city, don't unravel the order of things. Here they degenerate with one another. For the police, too, it may be convenient: concentrated intelligence material resides in the building, doesn't scatter and is easy to locate when needed.

But the ruinous consequences are readily visible. Trade is thriving, the number of addicts is increasing - many young people are added each week - and more women are falling into prostitution. Anyone who thinks that all this will remain fenced off and far from the public eye need only stand at the entrance and see the volume of drugs that is disseminated by the dealers, men and women, who enter and leave at will.

The structure on Finn Street was originally an apartment building whose units were rented to women working in prostitution. A room goes for NIS 150-200 a day, a high price, which does not include drugs, of course. There are no free lunches: a dose of heroin, for example, costs NIS 70, and the addicts need an average of three doses a day at least.

The women rent the rooms and ply their trade in and around the building, to finance their habit and pay the rent. Few of them manage to keep an apartment for any length of time; they end up on the street. House rules allow a woman working in prostitution to rent a room alone or with a man, but not with another woman. The high price turns the women into slaves of the drug dealers and pimps, with whom they are forced to share an apartment. Each apartment thus becomes a drug lair.

It is plain to see that, whereas the women come and go and end up on the street, the men - the dealers and the pimps - reside in the building for lengthy periods, in some cases in a room of their own. But the women are needed. They are the perfect cover, they are the workers who feed the machine, they are what draws the target audience.

For many women who work in prostitution, the proximity of "home," occupation and drugs is a tremendous temptation, though they will be the first to admit that it's a honey trap. The prostitutes at 1 Finn Street realize that they have reached the bottom of the ladder: a life of despair, humiliation, sickness and loneliness. They know that the building offers them better living conditions than the street, but they also know that life there - the closed circle of room-work-substance abuse - only aggravates their distress. From many points of view, life in the building is even harder than it is on the street. It's hell in the form of an asylum.

The naivete of the new arrivals is heartbreaking. They see the veteran prostitutes wandering back and forth, making circles around themselves, and are certain that there is no danger in staying here. Sometimes they delude themselves into thinking that it's just momentarily.

B., a girl of 17 or 18, came to Finn Street just two weeks ago. Her teeth are still white. "I have it good here, really, I have it good here," she says. "I don't lack anything, I have everything here. Look, my arms are lovely and clean. I look after myself. I don't shoot up, I only sniff heroin. Crystal. A little crack. Whatever I get. I can sleep anywhere I want. Where else can you find something like this?"

But you are just dumped here on the stairs, I tell her, as lonely as a dog.

"My clothes were stolen and all I have left is what I'm wearing," she replies. She is wearing a miniskirt and a jersey. "Do you think too much is showing? I feel a bit naked."

Don't you want something different? I ask, and for a moment she persists in her self-deception.

"I have it good here, really, really, it's good here." But then her eyes fill with tears, and she bursts out, "It's because of people like you that I got here. Because of people like you who told me that 'there is something different' and 'things can be different,' and I believed them and followed them and ended up here." Then, in a crying jag, "I don't know what to do. Where can I go? How can I get out of here? Everything I need is here. Here I am not different. Go away, just go away."

A., 25, dropped out of a rehabilitation center and came straight here. "I've only been here a month," she says. "I broke the rehab, so my mother wouldn't let me stay with her. I was left out of the house. But I won't be here long. The next time you come I won't be here anymore. I am waiting for everything to work out. I rented a room in the building, I will work a little, save money and get ahead. The welfare authorities have to see that I get housing, but until all the bureaucracy [is finished] and the committees meet, I am here. Getting organized."

Are you back on drugs?

"I smoke crack. That's all right. It's not terrible. You won't say that I have gone back to shooting heroin."

Do you really not understand that you are back to using drugs?

"I have nowhere to live. Who will rent me an apartment? Look at me. There is no choice. I am waiting for the committee. But trust me: another two-three months and I'm out of here. It's an awful place. I don't want to live like this."

Gas burners, snorters, needles, test tubes, aluminum foil. Deep inhaling, clients going upstairs with prostitutes, a cacophony of commotion, the rank smell of drugs and human decay. It's a stale, oppressive environment. The horror that seizes you from the moment you enter, the fear in the pit of your stomach and the sheer recoil gradually give way to a feeling of melancholy. Strange how sadness can abate fear.

"For sure you never interviewed anyone as wicked as me," he said. Two months ago, I worked on a story that opened, for the first time for me, the gates of the drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for youth in Lifta, an abandoned Arab village at the edge of Jerusalem. There I met T., a delightful kid of 19. He was holding a copy of James Frey's book "A Million Little Pieces," the heavily fictionalized (as it turned out) "memoir" about the writer's struggle with addiction. "Strong stuff," he says about the book. "My mom brought it for me to read." During the interview he repeated, "For sure you never interviewed anyone as wicked as me," without explaining what he meant.

After 16 days at the center, he had had enough. "I had excuses in my head," he said. "I believed that I could do rehab alone, that I didn't need anyone's support." From Lifta, he headed straight for Finn Street. "I knew right off where I was going. I felt the need for a heroin fix. I didn't have the strength to think. I told myself, 'First get a fix and then everything will be all right.'"

In the building he received a room for free and free access to drugs, in exchange for becoming a dealer's slave. "I dealt, I sold and I did things I don't want to talk about. After the rehab flop, the use of drugs was stronger - I shot up with huge doses."

I persisted: What did he do in return? Why was he allowed to live in the building for free?

"I am ashamed to say," he replied. "Ashamed to tell you, and afraid. I am doing a long inner stocktaking with myself about everything I did under the influence of drugs."

Further attempts to get him to talk were unsuccessful; his body language projected irritability. "A relative got me out of there. It's dangerous to talk about it," he finally agreed to say.

Girls who work in the building filled in the details: "He used stuff without thinking. Sometimes, instead of selling, he used the stuff himself and the dealers would beat him to a pulp. We kept finding him all bloody. They used him and made him their gopher."

"For sure you never interviewed anyone as wicked as me." T. is now back at the Lifta center for the second time. He is about to complete a detox program successfully, but mentally he is in a bad way, irritable, and any attempt to talk with him about his time in the building on Finn Street dredges up traumatic memories. He is fearful about leaving the center, terrified that the first thing he will do is make the trip to the old Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv.

The drug dealers never lack for candidates who will be happy to do whatever they say in return for stuff. It's easy to spot these candidates in the building - first of all, because they are outside the rooms, and second, because they don't go anywhere. They are always there. When I look at one of them in the middle of the night, he lowers his gaze. His body is bleeding and he looks semi-comatose. He lives with a dealer in a room, cleans up after him, takes out the garbage, brings him food from the corner kiosk, takes his licks, collects debts from users and also sells. All in exchange for using drugs.

S.'s legs have become so worn out from needlework that she can barely stand up. Two days ago she arrived at Ichilov Hospital. She was treated in the emergency room, but when she needed a fix they refused to give her methadone or a pill and she left and immediately came back here to get her medicine. S. is now cleaning a dealer's room. She is not stable, but is washing the floor. The dealer would not let her sleep in his room. She slept in the street. Her payment for cleaning is a bit of powder.

The dealer stomps into the room and dirties the wet floor. S. says nothing. She washes it again. He goes on walking around the room, staining the floor, and she obediently cleans up after his every step. A minute later, two young prostitutes enter. "I brought friends," the dealer tells her. The girls have money, they have come to buy a dose. The dealer sees me standing at the far end of the room and screams, "That's as far as you go, you're not coming in here," and slams the door.

There are no cameras in the building, so people are used instead. For a moment, it looks innocent enough, just a woman standing outside the door; but the anxiety, the pressure, the constant sideways glances make it clear that she is the doorkeeper. Her job is to keep watch and alert her dealer to approaching danger while he is in the room peddling drugs.

The building's internal hierarchy is clear and rigid. At the top of the pyramid are the big dealers, the suppliers from Lod. Below them are the peddlers who live in the building, and under them are the slaves - a motley crew of chronic users, young people and unwanted sick prostitutes who in return for free drugs allow the dealers to run roughshod over them, exploit them, knock them around and humiliate them.

"You have to see," says a man who lives in the building. "Early in the morning or in the middle of the night the big dealers from Lod come to the building. They pick up the money that has been collected and bring stuff. And maybe a hundred strung-out junkies are standing there to serve them, clearing the way, almost bowing."

Many of the dealers who live in the building are Arabs, not all of them users. They don't need cocaine to feel like God. "We are not afraid of the police, we are afraid of the dealers," was the refrain of all the women who were interviewed for this article. They are all terrified to talk about the dealers. Those who overcame their fear said that during police raids, "the cops enter, smash everything in the rooms, rip open the mattresses and attack the bony prostitutes and the other addicts. They take them out of the building and search the men. The women are taken to a police station and are searched by policewomen. Everyone is arrested for 24 hours and a police file is opened on them for personal drug abuse. During the raid, the dealers leave the building casually and wait at the corner kiosk. An hour later they are back and start running things again. The message that everyone gets is that no one touches the drug dealers. If people don't believe it, let them explain to us how the dealers go on living in the very same rooms and how come the iron bars of the ATMs aren't ripped out. How come the police don't seal the building and stop the activity there once and for all? If the raids aren't effective, maybe they should station police at the entrance for a long period, to stop people from entering."

When I tried to glean from the interviewees why, in their opinion, the police take no serious action, they said, "the police probably have a vested interest. Maybe they get information about other drug arenas in the country, so they let the dealers operate quietly. But the police aren't supposed to make deals and protect drug dealers at the expense of the city and let the slimiest of the dealers operate so openly. It's the job of the police to protect the public against the expansion of the appalling phenomenon that goes on without interference on Finn Street."

In response to this article, the Tel Aviv District Police said: "From time to time, the police conduct searches and arrests in cases where there is a suspicion of criminal activity. The police have mapped out the regional crime scene, according to which we carry out both overt and covert operations. It should be noted that on Finn Street, the police hold constant activity, on both the operational and intelligence levels, to deal with crime at the site. Police action is taken not only against the residents of the place, but also against citizens who come there to commit felonies such as drug purchases, theft, etc.

One of the reasons why it is easy to enter 1 Finn Street but hard to leave is the overdraft. Addicts who run up debts - and there are many of them - become the dealers' flunkies. The dealers, for their part, encourage this, because they are always happy to get help in selling and distributing the merchandise.

"Anyone who has an overdraft with a dealer discovers that he is in a prison," says a woman who has a relative in the building. "A month ago he called me and begged for help. He threatened to kill himself. They have created a system there: They let him use drugs and run up a debt, and until he repays the money - and it's a huge amount - he is not allowed to leave the building. He is nothing but a prisoner there. They don't let him out, and sometimes they beat him up. He knows that if he escapes without paying, they will murder him. They are the lowest of the low in the underworld. To pay off the debt they make him peddle drugs in the building, and because he has easy access to the stuff and is a chronic user he keeps taking the stuff, and the debt will never be erased. He is living in slavery conditions in a prison."

It was only at 1 Finn Street that I finally understood why the inmates of the Neve Tirza women's detention facility think they are better off in jail. In jail, with all its restrictions, they get three meals a day, take part in a daily routine, have access to a doctor and are sheltered. There are warders who see to it that there is no violence, no sexual abuse, no prostitution, no rape, beatings, humiliations or abuse. Whereas the violence at 1 Finn Street is harrowing.

"Every minute a new fight breaks out," says a woman who used to live in the building and is now on the streets. "Knives are whipped out and people are always settling accounts: this one stole from that one, he cheated the prostitute, another one ran off with stuff and took money. They fight over everything, but the sure thing is that they all abuse the prostitutes. They are the house punching bags."

I met her in the compound of the new Central Bus Station, a 10-minute walk from the old one, huddling with fellow-users in a car just before heading for Lod. "I don't dare go near the building," she says. "It's full of disease, bad drugs that get mixed with unknown stuff, bad people, beatings, violence, rape, and they screw you all the time, taking your money and disappearing without giving you stuff. It's a cursed place. I am totally scared to go near it. Lod is better."

Even in this darkness, L.'s beauty shines forth. The drugs haven't yet wreaked havoc with her delicate features or corrupted her humanity. But she is appallingly thin, and on this warm fall night she is very cold: her body does not protect her. She is afraid to talk.

L. is being victimized; her fragility makes her easy prey. Doses are stolen from her immediately after she pays for them, she suffers abuse, and most of all she is beaten and beaten and beaten. She immigrated to Israel 10 years ago from Ukraine. She has been at 1 Finn Street for a year. When she has money, she rents a room. "A night yes, a night no, losing, coming back, losing," she says. "There are blows all the time in the building. Everyone hits me - dealers, prostitutes. It depends what I do, what I buy and who I buy from."

Have you seen women being raped? Women being stabbed?

"Yes. Working girls. But no one talks about that. You have to forget."

Were you raped here?

"You forget. You have to forget. I have to go, excuse me, shalom."

Under the street lights, N. shows her lower belly. "Look, it started with my being raped by the owner of the massage parlor who employed me here, near the building, and it turned into attempted murder. He stuck half a knife into my stomach," she says, rubbing the scar. "I didn't file a complaint, I didn't dare go to the police, I didn't open my mouth, nothing. That's how he was - beating up all the women who worked for him and using them."

While she worked in the nearby massage parlor she lived in the building, but after the stabbing she left that job and started to work on her own at 1 Finn Street. There she experienced "beatings, violence, humiliations," she says. "The dealers can make up a story that you have a debt for using, even if you never bought anything from them."

Is it true that if you don't pay your debt to the dealer you are not allowed to leave the building?

"Yes, that happens all the time. They are always beating you, selling you bad stuff, stealing your money. You just come to say something and right off they hit you. They have no heart, no mercy. They pay men and women in drugs to slice the faces of women who have a debt. The place has gone downhill. I have been living here for two years, and day by day it is getting worse."

What do you do? Is there anyone in the building who protects you?

"Only God in heaven."

She didn't start using drugs until she was 28, she says - three years ago - and describes a horrific home life: Her father sexually abused her sisters and tried to rape her, but she resisted. As a means of escape, she married, but her husband turned out to be violent, too. After he forced her to have sex against her will, she fled with her two daughters to a shelter for battered women. She then got a divorce. Her father ostracized her, and her whole family spurned her. Out of loneliness she entered into a relationship with a dubious man, who turned out to be a drug addict.

"Do you know what it is to live without parents? Without siblings? Without anyone?" she says. "I was desperate, depressed. I don't know how it started. You are making me remember hard things. Just showing up in the middle of the night and asking questions. It's hard for me to remember my life." She falls silent for a moment. "He got me into it. My first time was an injection. For a week and a half he tied me up and made me bring him money."

A client approaches, looks her over, and she breaks off the interview. They move away and discuss his desires and the price he is willing to pay to realize them. N. sells herself in front of my eyes. After a while, she returns. It's now, after they are done with a client, that one has to observe these women. The quiet, the sadness, the depression, the detachment from their surroundings, and then the rush to purchase a dose that will override the revulsion. They get rid of the money immediately, as though it were contaminated, preferring to use it for a quick fix that will never reduce the self-hatred, never fill any void, only expand it.

It is worth taking a look at the clients, too. It's hard to miss the fancy Jeeps that zoom by and honk at the prostitutes in the old bus station. Don't the clients see that the women's bodies are dotted with the purple-black stains of hypodermic needles? Don't they notice their wasted bodies? Are they blind to the bleeding cuts? Recently someone submitted a bill in the Knesset under which the clients of prostitutes would be considered felons. It is almost certainly only men who will object to the legislation on the grounds that prostitution is a profession of choice.

At the start of the evening I saw Z. next to the room she was renting with a drug dealer. A couple of hours earlier, she had shot up with heroin, and she was filled with a quiet radiance. A few hours later, she left the building in search of clients. There was one who wanted to do it outside. Z. went with him to an open area some way off. Half an hour later some of the prostitutes began to scream, "A john fucked Z., robbed her and smashed her face in." I rushed over. A few of the prostitutes had gathered around her. She was sprawled on the sand, covered with dust, crying bitterly. "I can't feel my body!" she wailed. "I can't stand up. My spine hurts."

Her face was puffed up from a punch she'd taken. For a long time she was unable to get to her feet. "We will all end up like this," one of the women groaned.

When I got back to the building, I noticed a beautiful woman with noble features standing at the main entrance and looking for her daughter, G., an addict who works as a prostitute. The woman was carrying a bag containing clean clothes and food for her daughter. "I come here from up north once every two weeks," she said with quiet restraint. "To bring her things, to show her that I love her and that I will always be there for her."

She tried to send her daughter to rehabilitation several times, she said, but each time she ran away and went back to drugs. She had brought 50 photographs from G.'s wedding. They show a lovely, happy bride. "I bring her the pictures to remind her that once she had a good life," she says, her eyes misting.

After a lengthy search, she finds her daughter next to the building, where she has just bought drugs. At age 28, G. looks like she is dying. After five years of substance abuse, she can barely stand up. Her price for a client is NIS 25. Her mother goes up to her warmly and hugs her. G. remains aloof, stranded in her own universe. "Mom, do you have two shekels?" she finally asks, as though she has just snapped out of a coma, and misses the tears streaming from her mother's eyes.

A few hours later, under the brilliant morning light, everything looks even darker. W

The people photographed for this article are not the interviewees. A number of people helped with the article, and others dared to be interviewed and describe their way of life. To protect them and preserve their anonymity, some are not mentioned at all and others are identified only by an initial. We want to thank all of them for having the courage to tell, share and reveal, with the aim of showing and perhaps also changing an intolerable Israeli reality.