– When did you first run away?
– September 7, 1984 I crossed the Danube, I swam very beautifully because I am a good swimmer. Growing up on the banks of the Danube, there was no problem.
– Where did you cross?
– Around here, after the border guard unit.
– You mean where the Danube is narrower or at the Ostrov?
– No, no, the narrower way, but I was very wrong. Because the water was narrow there, the currents took me a kilometre downstream.
– And it took you straight to the Serbian border guard unit?
– No. I arrived on the Serbian shore without any connection or knowledge. I had with me the map, the compass, I was prepared. I had been in the army in the border guard squad and I knew what I needed to find my way in the field. It was good, we crossed the Serbian shore, I looked from the Serbian side to Romania, to Coronini and I said: “Faraway village!” That’s how I was crying in my heart, that I got away. But before that I took the exam at the police school. I wouldn’t have run away if it hadn’t been for those times when it was compulsory to become a Party member. Knowing from my father who was a Party member what was going on, lateness to appointments, neglect in the family, I said I would not become a Party member, nor a militiaman. I’ll be an Australian.
– Australian, because your cousin left before?
– Not only that. All of us in the village who passed through kept in touch with each other. We each knew where the others were going. For my cousin, that was his choice. I, for example, wanted to go to Sweden. Because in Sweden there was one man for every two or three women, compared to the population. What a childish mentality I used to have back then!
– How old were you then?
– Twenty-one to twenty-two.
– And you weren’t married then?
– No, I wasn’t. After I finished all the “formalities” I had to complete to become a Romanian citizen, I got married. I crossed the Danube, I arrived somewhere in Beograd knowing the Serbian language, knowing the orientation on the ground. Even now I can take you without a map, without a compass, to reach Bucharest through the woods. So we arrived in Beograd, crossed the Danube once more. That’s good to remember. We swam across the Danube once before in Serbian territory without getting caught.
– But how many of you were there? Were you a larger group?
– Five of us.
– And you were all from the village?
– When you passed, was it day or night?
– It was dusk.
– Let me tell you. Being a border guard officer, working there, I knew the border guards’ schedule, I knew how the military ships went. Because even then there were motor boats. I knew exactly what would happen if they went up towards Divici. I knew it would take them an hour and a half. The risk was that we’d get shot by the border guards a hundred yards from shore, but not even that. That’s international law and at present, you don’t have the right to turn your gun towards the territory of a neighbouring state. So Decree 678 on the legal regime of the state border I know even now. I was in the army in the border guard unit.
That’s how I ended up in Belgrade. I had money with me. I was working at the mine in Moldova Noua, there was no problem with money, I had my own money. You could buy foreign currency from the Serbs from Yugoslavia who came with permits. So everything I exchanged, dollars, dinars, was from the black market. And that’s where I got beaten up by the Securitate (secret police). Normally you should exchange money at the bank. I arrived in Belgrade, I went in to buy tickets, to go on to Trieste, to Italy, although I was in doubt because I wanted to go to Austria.
– So what was your route?
– Trieste, Italy.
– And how would you arrive there?
– To Italy by train. When we arrived in Belgrade, there were five of us. As I knew Serbian, I went to the ticket office, left them outside and bought them each a Serbian magazine. There were four boys and one girl, the girl being my girlfriend. She was married while I was in the army, I took her from her husband and left. My colleagues were talking in Romanian. I said, “Don’t talk!”
Don’t talk, don’t let anyone suspect you. I bought Serbian magazines. The homework was done, I was the commander of the group. When we got there, the militia suspected them. Seeing my ID in their luggage, the militia asked for me. One of them pointed at me. So it was their fault, you see, that they were caught and I wasn’t. I tried to run, but I knew I’d never get away. I really didn’t care about the ID. After all, I was leaving my identity behind. I told them who I was, I showed my documentation, anyway, they could find out everything on European level, through Interpol. They arrested me. They took us to a restaurant, asked if we were smokers, I said yes. He treated us nicely, not like animals. 28 days we were locked up. I was working there. Being from Coronini, I preferred milking cows. Easy work. We weren’t treated like animals, like in Romania. We communicated with each other, we had chess, a gym, and tennis. We could even relax. One thing, the bathrooms were shared. We all bathed together.
– When they picked you up did they tell you about these 28 days or what was going to happen to you?
– In those 28 days they brought us an interpreter. They told us not to panic that our roads would lead to all the directions we wanted.
– And while you were in the camp were you allowed to go out?
– No, we were confined there. We also worked outside the camp. Some of my colleagues worked outside, doing construction works, loading bricks. They were taken there by car, they were watched.
– Ah, so you couldn’t escape from there.
– Well, you could run away, it wasn’t as strict as it was back home. Anyway, those 28 days went by and one evening there was a luggage checkup. The Serbs paid me for the work I did, milking cows. So I was paid. They put us on a bus, 28 people. In those 28 days I think we gathered there about four hundred Romanians. I met guys from Constanta, from Baia Mare, from Sighetul Marmației. They were all fleeing here illegally. All through this area. Other people had the idea of crossing the border overland. I had a friend who tried to cross with a colleague. His colleague got shot and this one went back. In any case, we all met in Serbia. We also had border guard officers and militia non-commissioned officers and policemen. We met all kinds of relatives there. I was not alone. After 28 days, they sent us back to Romania, there was an amnesty in the country. We escaped uncondemned. But I got beaten badly. I got a punch that my cuffs fell off, there at the Iron Gates. I was the only one, they didn’t have anything to do with it. Why did you take the exam at Police School and why did you work at the border patrol if you wanted to run away? He shut me up.
– So the Serbians sent you back, but the rest of your group? You said there were four hundred Romanians in the camp in Belgrade.
– To sum it up, we all met at Popa Șapcă. On August 23, Nicu Ceausescu paid a visit to the Serbs. For each Romanian runaway that was sent back, the Romanian state gave them a wagonload of salt or something, I don’t remember exactly. Anyone who passed the border was a victim at Popa Șapcă. We got home, they took us to court, from court, we were free. I knew what would happen. I was waiting for them to come for me. In the meantime, I found two other friends. After the trial, a week later, I tried again. I ran away the first time on August 7 and on September 7 I tried to sun away the second time. I ran away because they would oppress my family. I was expecting the worst because I knew the system.
– Wasn’t it worse if you tried to run again? Were you planning to run away and then bring them with you?
– My brother knew the second time. I knew it for the first time.
– How old were you?
– I was 12 or 14 then. We crossed the second time, the same way, so to me the route was familiar. I got close to Italy. I got to where I needed to be, Kikinda. There we had to cross an irrigation canal 6-7 meters wide.
– So it was not only hard to get to the Serbs, but afterwards it was just as hard to make sure you didn’t get caught.
– That’s right. With the same fear you left home with, you had to stay until you reached your destination. We got there nice and easy, we got off in Kikinda, I had a guy who was scared of snakes. We got to the irrigation canal exactly according to my map. I’m not exaggerating at all, we had to pass just a piece of land from here in that back wall. That’s all and we would be free. We’re getting on our bellies. We passed the watchpoint of the Serbian border guards. They were sleeping. They had a wolf dog, God damn the dog. We arrived near the canal and this friend, Ionel, when he saw the snake, started screaming. It was enough to wake the dog. The guard didn’t wake up. The dog followed us. He jumped into the water, crossed the canal into Italy, and me and this other colleague ran back to Serbian territory. The Serbian border guards caught us, same route. We ran for fear of the dog and the dog put us to the ground. This guard dog immobilized both of us when we tried to fight back. I had the knife in my jacket, I wanted to slit the dog’s throat and get us through. I knew the route.
They take us to a restaurant, buy us cigarettes, buy us food, take us to interrogation, get us an interpreter. But they found me in the database. They were calling me the champion. How did I manage to get through twice in such a short space of time? That was cool. Now I was working there, loading bricks. That’s where I found a Romanian truck driver. I was working at the brewery in Belgrade. He said, “I can hide you under the tarpaulin!” But I thought maybe there are legal ways and I’m lucky. It was his proposal. But I was also thinking about my colleague: how could I leave him alone? He showed us a cop who was undercover as a civilian, working at the factory. Here, take this bike and go there and there, he taught me the routes to escape. He told me to run. He was on my side. I could tell he meant well. This time I didn’t go to jail. I went to the Thousand and One Roses Immigration Center. There were a lot of us. There were more Romanians than the population of Coronini. Most of us were Romanians. It was good. Free program. We had IDs. We could go out around Belgrade in a radius of 35 km. They didn’t force you. We had accommodation, food. I had a good time.
The 28-day period passed. I was staying in the room. My roommate was not there. When I step out into the hall, there were a lot of cops. All nations. I go back to the room. I had my luggage packed. At some point the police come in. All the embassies had representatives. They searched us. Then they left. The night before, some Romanian bad guys raided an Italian truck park. It was a carnage. Twelve drivers were beaten and two dozen Romanians. Outside were the buses. They were waiting for us. I had my denim jacket on. In those 28 days, I managed to make more than a thousand dollars. They put us on the buses and I could already see myself on my way to Sweden. I had interviewed for the country we wanted to go to, for asylum. In a nutshell we left around September 29. It didn’t take us on the right route, because I knew the route to Belgrade very well. There were more than ten buses.
Somewhere around 4 in the morning we were approaching Romania. When I saw the lights at the Iron Gates, I told my colleagues that we were Romanian prisoners.
– How did you feel at that moment?
– I could already see myself as a prisoner. I was thinking of hitting the guard, shooting him, hitting the driver and turning the bus over. I had no chance, because there were nine other buses behind us. We arrive at the customs in Kladovo. I wish they hadn’t brought me here, I wish they had taken me somewhere else, so that the Romanian guards wouldn’t recognise me and beat me.
– They already knew you’d tried before.
– It took a long time for the transaction of prisoners, until they made all the documents. I told the Serbian guard I wanted to go to the bathroom. He said no. I knew what to do then, I’d jump in the floodgates and go back to the Serbs.
– Did you have a chance of survival if you jumped in the floodgates?
– Let’s not forget I’m a good swimmer.
– Well, yes, but still…
– Do you know what a floodgate is? It brings the water up. That was my intention, if you’d let me go to the bathroom. The moment they saw me…
– Did they recognize you?
– How the hell not? The intake staff was the same. When they saw me they said: “Fuck you, you’re here again! You’re an international scumbag, you passed another group!” So they didn’t just say I passed, they said I was a guide for other groups. He took us to the Gura Valii guard post, I was with my colleague. It just so happened that the border guard officer who had been there the first time I ran away, was there now, too. He recognized me and said: “Hey, man, you again?” He brought me food, took care of me. “Watch out, man, they’ll beat the shit out of you.” I knew what was waiting for me. I weighed 92 kilos, I was like a punching bag in those days, they could beat me.
The next day they didn’t have any work, there were 21 of us at Gura Vaii. They didn’t have any work for any of us. “Ion Strainu!” Hands up. I knew it. I was already uptight, waiting for them to hit me. No. Not this time. Nice, until the statement. They asked me who I met. I told them I might have seen some people, but I don’t remember names. He slapped me on the head. It was a “human” beating. The rest who were from different parts of the country were taken away. There were just six of us left.
The next day they come to pick us up and take us by boat. They put us in the engine room and handcuffed us down there. I was a sergeant in the army. I knew how to uncuff. I’m coming out of the wardroom. The border guard officers were sitting on the boat telling stories with sodas and food. That’s when I had a chance to jump from the ship again. In Cazanele Mici. But you don’t get much of a chance. There’s steep rock on both the Serbian and Romanian shores. It’s narrow and the current is strong. You’re either a climber or a diver. All good.
We reached Moldova Noua under escort. We arrived in the village and the names of the prisoners were shouted over the loudspeaker. But from the port to my family’s house was a long distance and it was impossible to hear anything. As soon as I got to Moldova they had no issues with the other prisoners. They beat only me, so badly that I ended up in the Military Hospital in Timisoara for three months. I took a beating because being a repeat offender, I was considered to be the organiser. I had nothing to do with the others who passed the same day as me. As proof, they tried me in Coronini, at the Cultural Centre. They gathered people from the street. I didn’t have the strength to stand, they were leading me by the hands. I had a double mandible fracture, a detached pleura, a broken eardrum. Anyway, I woke up in the military hospital. I took another beating here. There in the village they could beat me any more because my family protested.
– And what did people say?
– They didn’t have much to say.
– They weren’t angry?
– Yes, they didn’t let the guards beat us up. In Timisoara I was in hospital for three months. The first time, I remember… I had a German doctor. He was interested in me crossing the border with him again. He took care of me like his own child. I was under arrest, I was exhausted, the cops were standing near my bed, keeping an eye on me. At some point he forbade them to do that. He said to me: “My friend, listen, I’ll make you well, your way from here is to Popa Șapca. But I’ll take care of you there too. But when you get out of jail, I’ll be in touch.” “OK!” I remembered the doctor’s name. He told me to drop by after prison. I escaped the hospital, they put me in jail. A year and eight months. Three months in the first phase, a year and four months on appeal and then they gave me another four months because I broke a guy’s jaw in prison. I got out in 1986.
– Were there many people trying to run away then?
– Yes, a lot, but not just from the village. For example, after prison, if I had gone to see that German doctor, I might not be here now. If I had to pass a third time, when I came back I was a criminal. If I saw a guard, I was terrified, that’s how the prison traumatized me. You go to jail like a normal man and it destroys you mentally. I worked at the prison, I worked in Timisoara at the AEM factory (producing electrical, gas or different type of counters). I was a foreman, I was doing technical quality control. I was making 320 counters. I had ten percent of a civilian’s salary. That’s where the work consisted of: money, work and beating. If you didn’t make your shift, you got beaten.
– And after you got out of prison, you never thought of doing it again?
– I got married three months later. I stayed at Socol. Border area on the mainland. Nera river was knee-deep. Life was good. They wouldn’t let me go back to the mine because they were working with explosives. And the Romanian state thought that if they let me back in the mine, it would blow up the border guard unit. The mine had a canteen for the miners, it had a cow farm. I was obliged to get a job within fifteen days because otherwise I’d go back to the mines. And I went to the cow farm. God what a relaxation that was for me! It was super cool. A hundred and twenty cows. Alone. I was getting paid like a miner, but I was staying above ground. I’d stay out in the Danube, catch a few fish. That period passed. While I was at Socol I was under supervision, every week I had to go to the police station.
– And how long were you at Socol?
– I was there for a year or so. Rehabilitation period. I was monitored every day. But every week, every day, I signed in. The first time I signed in without reading. I thought maybe they’d make me another file. Then I reintegrated into society. A second cousin urged me to run away together because he thought I knew the process. I had a little girl, she was three months old. I gave her a dose of Romergan (baby medicine), for her to sleep when we pass the border, so that she wouldn’t make any noise.
– So you thought of running away again?
– I left home, I wanted to try to run away abroad for the third time. On the Nera, overland. That’s where my cousin knew the route. I arrived there, the border was so close. But I could see myself again at Popa Șapca prison. I went back. I endured so much beating and fear that I turned back from the road. My cousin crossed the border and arrived in Denmark. Someone was expecting us on the Serbian shore.
– But everyone has crossed?
– I don’t know if there’s anyone who didn’t at least intend to cross.
– So before ’89 there were people who helped others to leave and others who gave them a hard time?
– Yes, but we didn’t really know each other. We knew each other as villagers, but we didn’t know what each other was hiding. There were some informers among us. When my brother left, I came back home and started crying and my mother asked me why I was crying. And I told her that I knew what was going to happen. Your crying brought me misfortune. (laughs)
– Have you had loved ones or friends die trying to cross over?
– I had a friend right here, he crossed before I did, together with my cousin from the village. He drowned because it was difficult to swim in the Danube. So you were leaving for a cause. I was aware that if I got a muscle cramp, the Danube would drag me down. The second watch was about to drown. When you crossed the Danube you sealed the bag with clothes and food that you took with you. The heavier the bag the harder it pulled you down while you were swimming.
– Do you know of others who were shot to death?
– One example, after I got out of jail. His family came looking for me, a cop’s kid from Deva. The police caught him driving without a license. We met in prison. There were checkpoints, at Naidăș. He came with his motorbike to our house and I gave a statement there and told them he could come to my place because we knew each other. He came, he called me from Deva, the border guards called me, but he never reached me. His father called me two weeks later. I told him he never got to me. Neither there nor back to the family. With all the bodies they found back then, who knows…
– Were there really that many bodies in the Danube?
– They were people who came here on the pretext of working in the mines. But the locals didn’t know them, didn’t know their names or who they were.
– They were from other parts of the country.
– So the ones who died were mostly from elsewhere?
– Yes. Or the ones from the area who couldn’t swim. They drowned, the river would bring them to the surface.
– Did they go through Ostrov?
– Not so much. These people from Moldova Veche would take the immigrants, put them on a boat, arrive at Ostrov, take their money and leave. Ostrov is all Romanian territory. Tomorrow, if you come, I’ll show you the place.
– The false guards were in fact collaborating with Securitate?
– That’s right.
– I understand there were many young people who crossed illegaly, how old were they?
– At least 18. If you were underage, the Serbs would send you back. They even went across the Danube using a door.
– What do you mean, with the door?
– There was this guy, Pătru Mișa, he took the door from the garden, put it on the water and left. He floated and arrived. He smoked while he floated on the water. When the border guards passed by him, he put out his cigarette and got underwater, under the door. We knew what he was going to do. He told me I was going to die and I wouldn’t make it. There was competition.
– What was the motivation for people leaving?
– Poverty. The only way to get to Denmark was through the Red Cross, for example. Switzerland didn’t receive any runaways/immigrants. Better living.
– So there was no stuff to buy.
– Not necessarily. Look at me, if I was in Ceausescu’s time, this radio wouldn’t be on the wall. I’m a Serbian music lover. If they caught me listening to Serbian music, they’d take me away. I wanted freedom. Freedom. All of us who passed wanted freedom. Freedom. It was movie night. You had a curfew when you had to go home. You had a curfew when the disco was on. You had a curfew when you had to go home. We had Youth Thursdays, Sunday disco until 10-11, two or three times a week you had movies. But I wanted to listen to music day and night. Look at me. I said to my wife: when I die, put this (the radio) with me in my grave. So that’s what I’ve always wanted. I have music playing non-stop. My brother drowned, we had our own song. I recorded it on two cassette tapes side by side. I didn’t sleep with anyone for four months. A nice Serbian tune.
– You couldn’t listen to Serbian music back then?
– No. There were a lot of restrictions.
– Are you Serb?
– From Baziaș, where the Danube enters the country. Three quarters of Baziaș are emigrants.
– And at that time your freedoms were restricted because you were Serbs?
– No. There was no difference between Romanians and Serbs. In Socol I learned Serbian and Russian. We spoke in secret. We had our own groups and kept in touch, but through one man. We were wary of people we knew were working with the Securitate.
Photo credit: Diana Bilec