It was a classic case of an "upstairs, downstairs" family. Two boys in France lived in a cold, dark cellar while their stepbrothers enjoyed a "great" life with the family upstairs.
The French police are now investigating the family of a 39-year-old plumber who allegedly mistreated his sons.
The incident happened in a detached house in a quiet district of Pavillon-sous-Bois in Seine-Saint-Denis, north-east of Paris, The Telegraph reported.
The boys, aged 10 and 12, spent three years in "hell" after their father began a relationship with a 44-year-old woman who had two sons of her own, aged seven and 17.
One of her sons had his own room and her 17-year-old was a "petit rat" - a dancer at the Opera de Paris, which, it is believed, pays for his upkeep and education.
Judicial sources said it appeared the boys' ordeal began when their biological mother, a drug addict, left home. Their father moved in with the woman, who was unemployed.
While the father, stepmother and her sons lived "comfortably", the man's children were forced to sleep on two little mattresses without covers slung onto a cold concrete floor in a cellar with no windows, electricity, running water or toilet. The room was never cleaned, they said.
The boys said they were allowed out by day to attend a state school. But once back home, they were not allowed to live or eat with the rest of the family.
They said that sometimes, they were given no food at all.
Shut in the cellar
They were shut up in the cellar and their father regularly beat them with a belt in the room.
"Neither (of her sons) was treated badly at all. If anything, they were spoilt," The Telegraph quoted a police source as saying.
The elder boy managed to slip out last week and went to a police station to report the mistreatment.
When the police turned up, they were shocked to discover the "appalling conditions" in which the boys had been living.
A judicial source said: "It was sordid. There were thin mattresses on the floor, which was very dirty. The whole place was in a state of advanced decay."
A source close to the case said the boys told police that they were often hungry. There were signs of physical abuse.
"It's always the same in this type of case of abuse - parents say they had no other option as they couldn't cope. Clearly that's not satisfactory," the police source said.
The father and stepmother have been arrested and charged with "violence against minors, neglect and food deprivation". The boys have been placed in a foster home.
But there were question marks last night over why neither social workers nor neighbours had failed to notice the extent of their mistreatment over such a long period.
"It is strange that nobody picked up on this. That's what we're trying to work out. The least we can say is that social services were a little lax in following them," the police source said.
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