– My story started like this: I was sent from Moldova Nouă to Bucharest for a specialization course.
– What was your occupation?
– I was working as an electrician and they sent me to a specialisation course for automation technicians in Floreasca, Bucharest. And when I took the course there, I had some bosses, engineers who said to me: “Hey, you live over there by the Danube and you still live in this country?” And that’s when I got the bug, that I want to leave abroad. And I was thinking: “Man, what do these people know that I don’t know? I’m from there…”. They were asking me: “Hey, can I come over to your place and you help me, so I can cross the Danube?” They were educated, trained people. And when I came home, I think it was around May ’80, I started to get excited with another friend, we said we had to see what was over there. I couldn’t take it anymore. We made some plans, we wanted to cross over. The brother of the one I wanted to cross with overheard us talking, there were four 17-year-old boys and they crossed the Danube before us. They had arrived in Italy and we thought the terrain was OK. On 15 September we decided to leave, four of us left, three arrived over there, one drowned. He was 19 years old. He drowned and left his wife pregnant, he has the boy here in the village. He didn’t know how to swim. We were ready to leave and he said he wanted to.
– So the plan was for three of you to go and he joined?
– At the last minute he said he wanted to join. If he can swim, it’s okay. We went past the picket line, past the border guards. They knew us, we were from the area. I had a vineyard in the place where we passed. I had a reason to be there.
– And did you talk to the border guards when you left?
– Yes, I did. Two people came across the road, just like that and me and another one, a kid, whou could be suspectable, came from up hill.
– But why did you say you were suspectable?
– Not me, this one, Pil, who was a very good swimmer and is in Australia with me, when he drinks, he still talks. And they suspected him. And that’s why I passed him over. They didn’t suspect me because I was a good boy. We made an appointment to meet, they went past the picket line, to the border guard and shook hands.
– And what did they tell them?
– That they were going for a walk along the Danube, nobody had any business.
– Didn’t they see them go into the water?
– Nobody saw that. After the picket, at the Wood Roll, we came down from above and there’s a big pipe under the road. We went in, took our clothes off, put them in a bag and tied them behind us and in 10 minutes we were on the Serbian shore.
– In only 10 minutes? And what did you have on you?
– Our clothes. That’s it.
– We had ID and some dinars.
– And how long did it take to plan everything?
– I wanted to leave, but I was afraid. I didn’t know anyone. We were supposed to leave on a Sunday. I remember we played cards, 21, lost the money. And I said, “Come on, there are waves on the Danube now, let’s leave it till spring.” And I remember we had a disco, I used to organize discos here, I was with the music. Music is my life, it’s everything to me. And we did disco night and said we’re leaving tomorrow. Tomorrow I was supposed to start the evening and my mother came and I had to look for fish for her foreman. And when Elijah came and knocked on the window, I said we were going. I put my pants on and my ID in my pocket.
– So, nobody knew?
– Nobody. The night before we had a party here behind the gardens and we had the tape recorders we used to keep the disco going and we played some tunes and then… “Kiss me and then go without saying a word”. Those were all recorded, my mother was listening to them and crying in the yard, we were already in Serbia. Naturally, our intention was to get to Italy. When we passed, a boy lagged behind and Pil said, “Hey, I’m going after him!”. The military boat had already left after us. They didn’t make it because they weren’t allowed to cross to the Serbian shore. This boy ended up in the middle. Then a Serb, who knew Romanian from there and had a boat, said he was going, but he didn’t make it because he went underwater and didn’t come out. If you’ve been and looked, there’s a bit of a bend there. The water brought him dead to the Serbian shore. And then they brought him home.
– After you crossed, did you surrender?
– Yes, there was one who told us that if we didn’t do murders at home and we’re clean, there’s nothing to be afraid of, that they’ll let us go where we want to go. We had nothing to hide. We wanted freedom. And to see what happens in the other side of the world.
– So, the Serbian border guards didn’t send you back?
– No. Someone who worked at the quarry took us, took us up to the castle in his car, that’s where the Serbian police car was coming. There he stopped, they put us in the police car, brought us to the police in Golubac. We stayed until the evening. There we saw that those who passed before us had written on the walls that they had passed through there. From here they took us to Pojarovac, where we were detained for 15 days. There they checked us. They were working with Romanians. We said we wanted to be free. At home, at 10 in the evening they came and closed our disco. We were young. We wanted to be free. To listen to music. I had one of those Albatros radios and they asked me why I listened to foreign music. But to make the disco I had to dig Dumbravă’s garden or whatever his name was. I was sick of them. And when I got to Austria I wrote an open letter. “If this one stays there much longer, you’ll lose all the young people in the village. There were 12 people that ran away abroad in two months.” From here, from our village. There were 300 houses. And after that, more ran away. When I left Pojarovac it was my birthday.
– How old were you?
– 23. I passed on the 15th, the 30th was my birthday. I told them to let me have at least one beer on my birthday and they refused. They took us to Belgrade, there they put us in prison again. They took us to interviews, that’s where we said where we wanted to go.
– Are you talking about the famous camp in Belgrade?
– It was a camp, but they kept us there. We were imprisoned for illegal border crossing in Pojarovac. But when we arrived there because our Romanians fought with Serbian prisoners, they locked us up. There were about 170 of us in one room and I think 90 percent of them smoked. I am not a smoker. There was a smoke in there…that’s all I had in my head! We were sleeping on the floor. They used to let them loose. But because they got into a fight… I was lucky I only stayed 8 days. Although we asked to go to Italy and final destination Australia and they changed our plans. One came, Olga, and they picked us up and put us in the car and said, “That’s it, we’re going to the border!”
– Which border did they say?
– Yes, yes. They took us to Belgrade, to the train station, they gave us tickets, they told us that “this is the train, go to Austria, to Vienna.” They gave us some pocket money. We bought sausages and stuff. We had about 1500 dinars, we said: “What do we do with dinars in Austria?” They gave us a piece of paper. Because we went through their channels, we were controlled by them. When we got to the border in Maribor, the Serbian customs came. Everything was okay. The train left. Austrian customs came. “Pass?” We didn’t have a passport. We only had our tickets. They wanted to take us off, but we were already in Austrian territory. In Graz they stopped us. We spent 3 days there again in detention. Fingerprints, chores. And a car came once a week from Vienna to collect migrants. They took us there, where they kept us locked up again for 15 days, but all nations were there. Pakistanis, Indians, Poles, Hungarians. We were one floor up. We were locked up, we weren’t allowed to go out. They interviewed us about where we were going, why we left.
– What did you tell them?
– We had instructions from others who had passed. If you said political reasons, you had a chance of getting political asylum. If you got political asylum, you could stay in Austria as long as you wanted. If you gave economic reasons, you had a chance to be sent back. We said that we wanted freedom, that we are young only once and we want to live our lives. They kept us like dogs in a cage, we worked 7 days a week. At the Mining Enterprise, we had no days off at all. No Easter, no Christmas. And we said, “We’re not going to be off. But we want to live our lives, because we’re not going to be young forever!”. Those were the reasons, we got political asylum in Austria. But anyway, from there we went to the Australian Embassy, they asked us what we knew about Australia. We said it’s a new country, we see a future, we are young, we can grow with the country. That’s how it was. They accepted us, they paid for our plane. When we arrived, we already had accommodation, canteen. It was in one of those migrant camps. We were no longer refugees, we were migrants. In Austria, we were refugees.
– What languages did you know?
– No, nothing.
– I learned Serbian in Australia. After 3 weeks, I started working for the company that I left now, after 40 years.
– What did you work?
– At first I made pipes, for water, oil and gas. That was in Sydney. Then I moved out of Sydney after 8 years. So on January 7, ’81, I went to Sydney, started work. There again I had some adventures. A month after I started work, I had a car accident. I went with someone to work, he crashed his car into a pole. I ended up in hospital with a broken jaw, broken ribs. I was in hospital for a week. I had my leg in a cast. I left with my leg in a cast, as there was a disco near us, maybe Suzi Quatro was playing. She’s Australian. And we went, we had to see. We went there, these guys got in a fight, the guards took them out. They ran off, I went down the street by myself, a car with about five people stopped, they beat the shit out of me, broke my ear. My leg was in plaster, I couldn’t run away… I went to the hospital, the nurses were crossing themselves. “You again?” I survived. The company paid me for three months, because I was out of work. Because I was on my way to work, after about 4-5 years they paid me compensation. The police also paid me because I didn’t even know “Hello!” to say. Life went on.
– When you arrived at that time, what did Australians think of Romanians?
– Romanians were hard workers. You could find work.
– Weren’t they marginalised?
– No. Well, there were other generations. So, at the company where I worked, there was a Romanian who came to Australia from Timisoara in the 1950s. After the Second World War. It was like anywhere. And here we have good people and bad people. I don’t judge a nation by two or three people. I have Vietnamese and Thai and Serbian and Roma friends. Of all nations. They’re all good and bad.
– Do they know what the regime is in Romania?
– Of course they know. When I told my boss about it, he asked me why I didn’t write a book about it. “Should I write a book? That’s the reality I’ve been through and that’s been my life.”
– And what did the Austrians say about the Romanians who kept coming?
– The Romanians were good. In Austria, the worst were the Albanians. They were fighting. It was a disaster. I was lucky I only stayed 15 days. They took us down by the Danube to a resort, because we were ready to move on. We only went to pick grapes for a few days. We made some pocket money. And in Austria there were these religious associations, like Caritas, that gave us clothes, pocket money. They put us in a storeroom to pick out new clothes, the ones we wanted. By size. Caritas worked with Christians. They didn’t care if you were Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist. If you said you were a Christian, they helped you.
– How long afterwards did you get in touch with the family and how?
– We sent postcards. And then that open letter. I understand they changed that policeman after a while. We also reported about that boy who drowned. I think I even spoke to my mother on the phone, she worked at the town hall. I also called from pay phones. I had a Polish guy, he knew a trick. 17 years old. He was tying up that money that goes in the phone. And he’d put it in and take it out, put it in and take it out. He went to America. They wouldn’t let him emigrate until he was 18. He was nice. We started speaking Polish.
– Did America take in political asylum seekers?
– Yes, so the most popular were America, Canada and Australia. We also tried Switzerland, but only if you crossed illegally, you had to cross the Alps, more complicated. We already knew someone who ended up in Australia. They said Australia was all kangaroos and sheep. When we arrived there were three women per man. As a statistic. The first few days at the disco we already had chicks. I didn’t know a word of English.
– And how did you learn English?
– It took me maybe a year. It was hard at first. The first word I learned was „stinky”. My classmates kept writing it on the pipe. They called us walks, those of us from Europe. And those who came from England they called POM’s. Prisoners of Mother England. And we integrated. I studied there and then I started going to classes in the evenings because they were free, paid for by the government. When we got to the camp they gave us a bank book with some money in it, they gave us unemployment benefits. 23 dollars we got. And then we started work.
– And now you’re back for good?
– No. No way, no way.
– How long after you left you first came back?
– It was in ’89. Just before the Revolution.
– Did you have citizenship?
– You see with this citizenship, the world wasn’t free. When I got there I went to the Australian Embassy in Sydney and said I didn’t want to give up my citizenship, they gave me a passport as a Romanian citizen living abroad. In a while. So here in Romania if you asked for it you got it.
– The people here, if they knew you’d run away…
– They knew I ran away, I told them everything…
– And when you entered the country you had no problems with the people here?
– No, I didn’t. Well, I also had Australian citizenship. And a passport as a Romanian living abroad. My wife didn’t have one. We met in Australia, we didn’t know each other before. She’s Serbian from Moldova Veche. They came after about 4 years. I came with a small child, my son George was one year and three months old. We flew to Istanbul and from there we came by train to Belgrade, and from Belgrade we took a taxi. And these idiots kept me in the customs for about 5-6 hours, I was alone in the customs with my wife, the baby in the cart was crying and they were sitting inside and they didn’t even come out to look at me. They were picking on my wife for not having a Romanian passport. She didn’t have it regulated. You could have gone to the Embassy to sort it out, but she didn’t.
– And if you got your passport immediately, why did you come only in 1989?
– Well, it wasn’t exactly like that. I arrived in Australia in ’81. In ’83 I bought a house. On my own. In ’86 I got married and took my mother there. The problem was financial. I took my mother to Australia during the communist era.
– Was that possible?
– Yes, it was.
– You had to bring her back?
– Yes. She came to visit. She stayed more than three months. It was ’86 and then ’97.
– Was it easy to do that because you were an Australian citizen?
– I don’t know how it was, it was all political. I normally made the first call to my dad, I wanted to take my dad. But unfortunately he died in ’84. I got my citizenship and I called him because I knew he worked hard. The problem with him was that he told someone at the pub that if he was happy in Australia, he wouldn’t come home. And someone at the pub turned him in and they wouldn’t approve his departure. I called him again. And two weeks before he died, he got approval. He never made it. Then I made the call to my mother. In ’84 my wife came with her parents.
– How did they leave?
– With a small traffic passport. They crossed the border to Serbia and never came back. They had some acquaintances in Belgrade. I took them in, they stayed at my place. And now… chemistry… we’ve got hooked up. I also called for my mother.
– You had to justify what she was coming for?
– No, she came to visit.
– And what was checked before she got approval?
– I don’t know that. My mother was a party member. She was a tax agent, paid all the teachers. She had four classes. Nobody had my mother’s handwriting. Everyone who had a request in the village came to my mother. She had calligraphic handwriting that I keep in my frame at home. We’re four children. We don’t write like my mother.
– How interesting that you said “home”. Do you consider Australia more at home?
– I can tell. When I leave there and come here I say I’m coming home. But that’s home. The family I’ve made is there. The others are relatives, they come second. I’ve been here several times with them, ’92-’93. I opened a firm here, I stayed 11 months with my wife. I opened the firm. My in-laws have repatriated and we the Australian side. We were foreign investors. But I couldn’t. Then there was the embargo. You could make easy money. But the bureaucracy and the stealing and how they treated you… If you don’t know any different, it’s okay. But when you know that abroad by phone you solve everything…here when I came for approvals it was a mess. I can’t step on dead bodies to rise up. This is me.
– So you left for the idea of freedom. Because you caught the period with the cards and rationing.
– Man, I didn’t catch that period. When I was in Bucharest in the ’80s, you could find anything you wanted on any corner. We used to eat in restaurants. Here it was more of a crisis. But it got worse later. In the army they terrorized me. I started in the army at the Securitate in Craiova because I had a vocational mining school and they put us all in the mines. I was a sportsman. I got out of the army with water in my lungs. I worked on the front with the miners there, they got 5000 lei, I got 500. I got out of the military hospital in Sibiu with water in my lungs. Since then I started to hate the system. I had no rights. When I got to Bucharest I ended up connecting the dots. I used to believe what they showed us on TV, homeless people sleeping on the floor. Of course there are those everywhere. But let’s look on the bright side. When I got to the station in Yugoslavia, I saw a difference. And Vienna. I thought it was heaven on earth. When we left Vienna it was minus 5 degrees. When we arrived in Australia it was 42 degrees. They took us by bus, no air conditioning. Open windows on the buses. I said, “We’re dying here. They took us to the camp, we took our clothes off, they were shouting at us that we were getting skin cancer. From the very strong sun.
– And there were groups of Romanians there when you arrived? Were there meetings?
– They were already in Sydney, it was ARA, the Association of Romanians in Australia. The guy who hired us was involved. I was dancing folk dances from the country. And they had a dance one night. I got some costumes and I danced and they were very excited and they immediately welcomed me into the Association.
– And you say you liked the music. Is that where you made music?
– Yes, I did. I taught three generations to dance. The third generation was here in Brisbane. It’s about three or four years since I left. I got a space there and young people were coming. I did a lot of folklore in the Serbs. I was doing meetings with the Serbs. I was the ambassador of Yugoslavia. I was in Romanian costume and I was leading the Serbs. We played dances from all over Yugoslavia. Bosnian, Macedonian, Croatian. All in a row. They were united. Bosnians don’t speak Serbian anymore. Croats speak Croatian. But that’s still it. My wife is Serbian. But mixed, too. Slovak. From Nădlac. Haiduc. My wife knows the Germans better.
– Do you feel lucky you got through so easily?
– Yes, very lucky. Blessed. So I didn’t know where I was going. With my eyes closed. I didn’t know what was waiting for me at the next step.
– I’m strictly talking about this side of the water. Or did you go so confidently that you said “I’m going through no matter what!!!”?
– No, no. So anyway I did a bit of training before I went, I didn’t go just like that. I swam halfway across the Danube and back without stopping and I thought it was ok. So with the past of the Danube there were no problems. Then I said I didn’t know what was waiting for me there. And with the Serbs you were… they sent some people back, some didn’t. It depended on what you were talking about.
– What was the rule?
– I don’t know. They also had an agreement with the Romanians. Out of a hundred people, give me 20 back. I’ll say. That’s a guess. So they’ll be happy. They were rumored to give them salt for those they returned. Depends how well he paid them. And if you didn’t have a vision, they sent you back. I took a high risk.
– Did you know the risks?
– Of course you did. That others had gone before. But our advantage was that we were local. We walked along the Danube every day. They couldn’t have known what I was thinking. And I knew that at 2 o’clock the military would leave and by 6 o’clock no one would come. And if the alarm was sounded and the boat came, I’d be on the other side until they came. That’s why I couldn’t help the other boy either. We were speeding. When I saw him on shore, we stopped for a while and I said, “Go back, you have a wife, you have a child!” He wasn’t ready. If he had a ball or a camera with him, he’d get across. If he didn’t the boat would catch him. We wanted the adventure. We didn’t leave the family alone.
– There were no repercussions for the family after you left?
– There were, as I understand it. But my mother was close to retirement, my father in ’84 died. They couldn’t control me. It wasn’t their fault. Nobody knew. Only one boy knew who it was when I made the records. I said if we’re not at the disco tomorrow night, we made it. And my cousin, Lenuta. She was at the sheep farm. I never kissed her. But then I kissed her. And she stayed a little… wow, we’re leaving. And when she looked we were on the Serbian shore.
– And before you left, did anyone else leave the village?
– Four kids who heard me talking about planning. And they left before us.
– And from other parts of the country?
– Yes. We worked for the school here. And we were instructed that if we saw any strangers in the area to notify the military. I personally didn’t, but they were the ones who did. An officer from the border guards would come to our school and tell us they were criminals, traitors to the fatherland. They used to beat us up when we were in elementary school. We were brainwashed. I was lame until I got to Bucharest. One of the four ended up in Australia. Another in Italy. You can talk to him, he’s back in the village. He probably didn’t like it. After us came four others. Four of Misha’s went through his mother’s door. He took the toilet door, put the door on the water and left. Dead drunk he ended up in Serbia. He ended up in America. Now he’s back in Timisoara.
– So if you got in the water, you were as good as gone?
– Of course the military would see you in the water, fire the red rocket. The red rocket meant: there’s a criminal in the water. Then the troops would immediately leave the picket line. They tried to catch them, some they caught, some they shot and let them go across. Or shot with a hook. The ones they caught, they beat to death. I had a chance. I’m okay. I’m not rich, but I got everything I need. The health system scares me here. There if I go to a public hospital I’m treated like a king. Here you only have to sit with the envelope…
– Have you heard any other interesting stories of people who’ve passed on?
– People with tires, with oxygen tubes. They’d put the tube in the water and let off the oxygen and get to the other side. It was hard to stop.
– Was there a barge that used to do the Danube transport?
– And they didn’t jump off the boat?
– The ones who didn’t know jumped. They jumped from the port of Orșova and crossed to the other side. And on the other side were the border guards. My brother caught some of them. He worked with the guards. It was easy for us in the area. At that time, Germans came from the GDR to cross into the FRG. They came through Czechoslovakia. To Romania. Serbia. And then Austria to get to the FRG. I met someone. I met Germans here trying to cross.
– So you know the stories about the guides too.
– Yes, there were guides who took their money and handed you over to the border guards.
– They didn’t get word?
– Well, they got caught. Now they’re dead. There’s a lot to tell.
– Do you personally know the families of those who were shot?
– I haven’t met any, just stories I heard. There’s also a cemetery here in the village, where they used to bury those who were pulled out of the Danube dead. Drowned. Unidentified.
Photo credit: Diana Bilec