– Were people only passing through here from the area or from the rest of the country?
– They came even from Oradea and Bucharest.
– But from here in the area they left?
– They also left from here. They never caught those from here. They knew. They jumped into the water there at Gaura cu Musca – there where that rock is up there – they jumped in the river and quickly they were on the Serbian shore.
– Well, weren’t there a lot of guards on picket duty in that area?
– There were, only local people knew and waited until the soldiers changed, the shifts.
– And when was it easier to cross, day or night?
– I think during the day, because during the day you could see them (the border guards). At night you didn’t know where the soldier was coming from. It also put fear into the soldiers, that if they didn’t catch them, they would be locked up.
– Did they give the soldiers anything extra if they caught fugitives?
– They gave them passes to go home, because that’s the way it was back then. But they never caught the local ones. They couldn’t catch them because they knew how things worked here.
– And here, where the river is wider, they could cross?
– No, there used to be no bus to Orșova. There were those cliffs, there was no wide road. We had a boat at Moldova Noua, it came at half past seven and left for Orșova. Here, where the Danube was wide, it didn’t shut them in. Where it entered the strait, it closed them in. When they said: “Everybody in,” then one or two people would jump in, but not all the time. In the morning they’d go down and in the evening they’d come up. Those were the times.
– Weren’t there guides to help them, to pick them up from Orșova or Drobeta and bring them here?
– It was very difficult. There were, I’m not saying no. They also came over the mountains, from up there in Bozovici they came down to Sichevița. They also came here through the forest, people brought them, but it was rare. They were worked against each other. Also worked with the Securitate.
– I mean with the guides.
– Yes, that’s what they said. Mostly the doctors went. Pay and go. A few families.
– So I read that it was safer here than Drobeta.
– No, no, everywhere was just as hard. Here, at the picket, there were two military ships guarding at night. One went up and one went down. Soldiers were every two kilometers on the shore.
– Did they have lights or how did they see?
– You could see it, feel it, hear it. There were traps set on the shore, empty tin cans strung out on a rope. When you went into them you could hear them, they were thundering.
– Did they have orders to shoot directly?
– Yes, they did.
– So not with a summons?
– They’d sleep on it. A sergeant major found someone’s luggage downstairs and executed them on the spot.
– How many got through and how many died?
– God knows. And the Serbs maybe… who knows how many they killed.
– It didn’t mean that if you got to the Serbs you were safe.
– No, because lately Ceausescu was giving a wagonload of salt to them (defectors). Or what, a ton, I don’t know.
– Why did they need so much salt?
– I don’t know, but even in our country, for the first offence (crossing), he gave you a 1.000 leii fine.
– Wasn’t that much later? Around ’85-’88?
– Yes. Something like that. They didn’t lock them up anymore.
– There were too many.
– Yeah, there were. It was hard, it was hard for everybody. For the locals it was good, I had a small traffic permit when I was sixteen. By 1992 I was in the army, so that was before the revolution. When Ceausescu died, I was 17.
– How long have you been fishing?
– I’ve been fishing as long as I can remember. I never had another job. There was also the mine, but I didn’t like it. That’s what I’ve worked all my life.
– And what did you do with your little traffic?
– Petrol. Well, the whole area did. Didn’t it go to Timisoara?
– And that was before ’89?
– In ’93-’94 the petrol thing started. They worked there too, not only here. Not to mention that Timisoara was working with the pipeline.
– Before ’89, what was going on?
– You took it from there and brought it into the country?
– No, no, we didn’t.
– Wasn’t it during Ceaușescu’s time that we had this story about the crossing the border, for a free days, 12 times a year?
– Yes, but I meant what we were taking by boat, the embargo, not the legal passage through customs. You took all the crap, Chinese stuff, you took it there. You’d sell them and get jeans, denim shirts, watches, cigarettes, crap like that you’d sell here. Make a buck. Twelve times a year you were allowed.
– And where did you go?
– Through customs at Naidăș..
– Ah, around here.
– Yes, on the road to Timisoara.
– And where did you go to the Serbs?
– As far as Vârșeț. There was a market there. You could stay seven days in Yugoslavia.
– And did you give anything to the customs officer?
– Of course. Well, isn’t it the same now? Everybody lived well. And now it’s like this. Not everyone does, but they still do. Not just here, everywhere.
– Do you have any idea how often did they run off from here?
– There were days when there were no crossings, there were days when a group of seven or eight people would pass.
– Did they come in groups?
– No. So the locals here would go in groups of seven or eight.
– Did they take them to the police station?
– To the picket post, and from there to the battalion and then to the court, to Oravița, that’s where they took them. Or they would take them to the cultural home in the village, so that the villagers could see them and put fear into them. They’d beat them and then they’’d go to jail, for about ten months. The second time you did something wrong, you went to jail.
– If you tried to pass Moldova or Orșova they would question you?
– Sure. So if you came from Timisoara, from there to here you were stopped three or four times and you had to say I’m going to Ionescu or Popescu in Coronini and they would check you. It was hard to get into the area. And here at the entrance to the village there was a barrier.
– So people who came to the area had to make up stories?
– Well, they invented that they were getting a job, that they were coming to a relative’s house, so they could enter the area. They also came with guides over the mountains.
– And you’ve never tried?
– I didn’t have to. I didn’t want to get rich. But I always had money. It was good. Maybe if the Revolution didn’t happen, I would have gone away too.. So I wasn’t thrilled to go. I told you, for the area where the border was, it was good that they let you make an easy buck. Whoever wanted to, at Socol, you could cross over land.
– And here they still caught them on Ostrov? Did the fishermen catch them?
– Not the fishermen. For example, I used to go fishing in the morning. I was a kid, I went with an older man. The man couldn’t go on, he’d get on a willow tree and you’d have to carry him back. If he wanted to pass, I’d tell him I didn’t see, I didn’t hear and he’d go away. If he couldn’t, I’d put him in the boat and take him to the stake.
– So you took them to the picket line?
– Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t be working with fish tomorrow. I’d get 350 lei from the fish market. But people didn’t see them, even if they saw they were strangers.
– You couldn’t get to Ostrov from land?
– There was nowhere to go. You had to cross the Danube. There’s another Danube from that mound, it’s wider. There used to be soldiers on Ostrov too.
– No one was shot on Ostrov?
– No. They didn’t shoot at the rest, I don’t know.
– You don’t know of any cases of soldiers crossing?
– No, soldiers didn’t pass. They were afraid. It was desertion, not good.
– And around here, where it was narrower, if they saw you at night by boat, they didn’t shoot?
– No, no. Only if they were stupid. There was no shooting, no killing. You only heard they got one, they got another. You could see they were tied up and put in the van. We were kids, we were playing and we saw them. We were friends with the border guards. They’d give us apples and candy and we’d tell them if we saw strangers.
– So people from here didn’t try to get on the other side.
– Those who tried were mostly from other parts of the country. They came from here too, they knew where they could cross. They’d load up a rubber dinghy or go through on the tractor room. On oxygen tubes, all sorts of contraptions. The locals knew how to swim. They’d jump off the rocks and be in the water until the border guards came.
– I’ve seen the steep bank here.
– They did, too, but they’d climb up and somehow get to land. If the Serbian policemen came, they took them to the camp. Later they’d give them back.
– Do you have any acquaintances who ran away and came back?
– Yes, they went to Italy for a year and came back. Or if a member of my family ran away, they would keep my papers. Some ended up in Australia. The Serbs would take them to the camp, keep them for a month or two and there you chose where you wanted to go next. The camp was in Belgrade and I think in Smederevo.
– The Serbs had guides?
– There were, there were people who had contacts.
– Weren’t any illegal crossings through the border control pass?
– Harder, because those old Dacia cars were small. They’d get through with a little traffic and leave for good. They had connections, they paid a Serbian person and he’d fix their way. They got beaten up. It was that fear. Maybe he’d kick them out of the army or something.
– Didn’t they die when they beat them?
– If something else broke in you, fuck knows. Now they don’t beat them? Look here, where Golubac village is, there are villages where people speaks in Romanian.. Since the embargo we’ve distanced ourselves. I used to get on the boat and drink coffee there. I also learned Serbian. I used to carry petrol.
– What about the news?
– We had Telejournal and then another hour or two. But I caught the Serbian stations. I don’t remember what they were called. All night long you had something to watch.
– There was Militia everywhere… couldn’t they see the antennas?
– Well, we used the same antennas for Romanian TV and Serbian TV.
– Didn’t they say on the news that life in Romania was bad?
– No. They were talking rubbish. The Romanians were assholes to the Serbs with the American incident. When it was Constantinescu.
– Did you listen to Radio Free Europe?
– Yes, we did, but only eavesdropping, because Securitatea was on the line. They were here at Moldova Noua.
– Did you know who the informers were in the village?
– We knew, sure.
– And the fishermen didn’t help people before?
– You couldn’t, because you weren’t allowed. You’d steal fish, leave them on the shore, but the soldiers would see you if you pulled the boat ashore.
– How long did it take you to swim around Ostrov?
– It takes a while. The waters are fast and they carry you away.
– And here, where it’s narrow, how long does it take you to cross?
– You realize you’re scared, you’re waving your hands and feet, you’re going fast. There were also boat guides, they were making money with the Securitatea. They arranged things.
– How much did a guide cost?
– I don’t know.
– But you don’t know anyone who did that?
– I don’t know, but there was talk. You’d see them building another annex or a room. You knew what they were. The ones that were, they were old, they are all gone. I was 12-14, they were 40 at the time. Who did this, they were hand in hand with Securitate. The ones who were messing around were taken away, they took money from them and passed it on. It’s a lot cooler with them than with us.
– Even after ’90 you didn’t want to cross?
– No. Although the prices are lower than ours.
– And with this embargo, you had your own customers?
– No, because the shore was full of cars. You sold it directly. After a while I had my customers. If they told me they needed ten tons, I’d take ten tons. I put 1.500-2.000 kilos in the boat at a time. I had people on shore loading. The Serbians over there had people waiting to unload. That’s how it was. And a lot of people died at the embargo. They came from all over the country. And they didn’t want to work with jugs anymore. They got 10-20 marks a night. And these guys got 50 marks a ton. The water got into the boat and because they were in a hurry and wanted to make a lot of money in a short time, they didn’t realise and they sank. It lasted a couple of years. Serbs were coming with their boats.
– And with the Serb villages you always got along well?
– Yes, we did. We also have a Czech village up there, St. Helena.
– Are there still people there?
– There are, but many have left. There are still old people who worked in the mines, but the young people have left for the Czech Republic, because there is no work. There are 30 fishermen and a few hostels. Many have gone over there to work.
– Do you know anything about the Nicolinț hermitage?
– No. If you want to find more people, go towards Socol, Zlatița, there you might find some. There used to be arable land here, where you can see those nozzles. There used to be corn in the islet, it flooded. There was only a canal here before.
– Are there still families of people who fled here?
– Yes, there are. There’s one who’s now come from Australia, one’s gone and there’s Kenta, ask for Kenta. He went to Italy and came back. And the one from Australia is called Referenta. Go up the street and ask for him.
Photo credit: Diana Bilec