The Romanian Escapees Who Risked Everything To Swim To Yugoslavia


ORSOVA, Romania — Mihai Mick had been plotting his escape from communist Romania for a number of years.

In June 1977, after a yr of meticulous planning, the Romanian dentist waded into the Danube at the hours of darkness, carrying solely nylon baggage that saved him afloat — and a willpower to begin a brand new life.

In his baggage, there was a go well with and umbrella so he would appear like a neighborhood when he reached Yugoslavia, on the opposite facet. He additionally had chewing gum with him to cease his enamel from chattering, and probably alerting a border guard.

Mick knew the river crossing was harmful, however he additionally knew it was worse by land.

“The Danube was wider and fewer guarded,” he defined.

Alongside a southwestern stretch of Romania’s border with what was then Yugoslavia and is now Serbia, the boundary line follows the weaving path of the Danube.

“I advised myself: I’ve to depart, there isn’t any means again. I used to be decided. I received in at Divici (on the Romanian shore) and I let the water take me. I did not swim in opposition to the present and my baggage have been like a float,” Mick advised RFE/RL by telephone.

Near Orsova, the mountains of Serbia might be seen throughout the Danube.

The chilly waters carried him downstream. Hours later, Mick arrived in Veliko Gradiste in Yugoslavia and started his perilous journey to freedom — on foot, by bus, on trains, sleeping in forests, trekking throughout mountains, till many days later, exhausted, he lastly reached a refugee camp in Austria.

Mick, now a dentist in Vienna, was one of many fortunate ones. Tons of, if not 1000’s, of escapees from Nicolae Ceausescu’s oppressive regime have been killed or drowned making determined bids for freedom throughout the Danube into the widely freer Yugoslavia.

‘Bloodiest Border’

Earlier than 1989 when communism collapsed, the Yugoslav-Romanian frontier was referred to as “the bloodiest border in Europe” and now, greater than 30 years later, a Romanian authorities institute is piecing collectively proof to convey some measure of justice to the victims and educate youthful generations born within the postcommunist period.

Romania has grappled with its troubled previous, however that is the primary time the “bloodiest border” has been examined within the public eye. Not like the Czech Republic, Poland, or Hungary, Romania has been much less profitable at lustration efforts — for instance, with the removing or blacklisting of officers who had hyperlinks to the communist-era safety providers. A regulation exists, at the least on paper, banning from workplace individuals who collaborated with the Securitate secret police. However because the recordsdata usually are not absolutely open, it is extremely troublesome to vet officers. There have solely ever been a handful of people who’ve admitted working for the dreaded secret police.

Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu visiting a museum in southern Romania in 1979.

Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu visiting a museum in southern Romania in 1979.

“Romania has an immense responsibility towards the victims of communism. We have to have justice, nevertheless late it’s,” Alexandru Muraru, the federal government envoy for the Holocaust and selling the insurance policies of reminiscence, advised RFE/RL on September 29.

Mia Jinga, who’s in command of researching the undertaking on the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes, mentioned researchers have uncovered proof that exhibits widespread use of violence in opposition to would-be escapees. Institute workers have been combing via recordsdata and interviewing victims, with the goal of with the ability to construct authorized circumstances.

“In April 1989, there is a file exhibiting [how] troopers and border guards shot 98 bullets into a gaggle of 30 individuals, together with 10 youngsters and eight ladies” who have been making an attempt to cross the border, Jinga advised RFE/RL.

An abandoned building in the Romanian village of Teremia Mare on the border with then-Yugoslavia. The building was where border guards interrogated, tortured, and beat escapees who they caught.

An deserted constructing within the Romanian village of Teremia Mare on the border with then-Yugoslavia. The constructing was the place border guards interrogated, tortured, and beat escapees who they caught.

“Sadly, there isn’t any data on whether or not there have been victims,” she mentioned. “Give it some thought: 98 bullets sprayed right into a single group of individuals, [it] exhibits us…the extent of violence and that the border guards have been ready at any second to open fireplace on anybody who tried to illegally cross the border.

“However what concerning the chain of command? Did they get an order? Was there no order? Who gave the order? How excessive up did it come from?” Jinga requested.

There are cemeteries alongside the now Serbian facet of the Danube with 150 to 200 graves of unknown individuals, corpses that have been fished out of the river or washed up and their id wasn’t established, she mentioned.

The Djerdap Gorge on the Danube is one of the biggest gorges in Europe.

The Djerdap Gorge on the Danube is without doubt one of the greatest gorges in Europe.

Actual figures on what number of died making an attempt to cross the Yugoslav border are arduous to come back by. Within the later years of Ceausescu’s rule, there are a selection of documented occasions. The Worldwide Society for Human Rights primarily based in Frankfurt mentioned 400 have been shot lifeless making an attempt to flee Romania in 1988 and “a big quantity drowned” whereas making an attempt to cross the Danube.

In 1989, greater than 50,000 Romanians illegally crossed the Danube both by boat or by swimming, based on the United Nations refugee company.

Whirlpools And Kalashnikovs

The place determined Romanians as soon as made a bid for freedom, Orsova and the world on the banks of the Danube is now an upmarket vacationer vacation spot, stuffed with villas, inns, yacht golf equipment, and nightclubs, a few of them illegally constructed.

The narrowest level of the Danube crossing was referred to as the “Danube Boilers,” named after the whirlpools that bubble on the floor, making the river look as whether it is boiling. At its narrowest, the river is about 200 meters broad, though typically very deep with treacherous currents.

The “Boilers” are as picturesque as they’re harmful, with the river chopping via the mountains to carve out a pure border. Nevertheless it was the dramatic geography that gave defectors room to cover from the patrolling border guards, armed with Kalashnikovs.

If these fleeing have been caught, they have been typically handled brutally. Escapee Richard Schmidt, who fled to Yugoslavia over the land border in 1987, personally knew 4 or 5 individuals who died making an attempt the crossing. A few of them did not even get loss of life certificates, he advised RFE/RL.

Schmidt, like Mick, made his break for freedom in southwest Romania close to the village of Nerau. “I knew I would be lifeless or free the following morning,” he mentioned.

Within the morning, he safely arrived in Mokrin, Yugoslavia.

In Orsova, Romanian-born sculptor Patrick Mateescu, who now lives in the United States, made this statue with his own money to remember the Romanians who escaped to the West via the Danube.

In Orsova, Romanian-born sculptor Patrick Mateescu, who now lives in america, made this statue together with his personal cash to recollect the Romanians who escaped to the West by way of the Danube.

Antoniu Marcu tried to flee Romania in 1989 when he was 11, collectively together with his mom, a household buddy, and the person’s son. They have been caught close to the border by guards who opened fireplace and “threatened to kill us,” he mentioned. “[When they caught us,] they advised us the Serbs would have shot us, or we’d have been exchanged for a wagon of salt.”

They have been handcuffed, incarcerated, and paraded round a neighborhood village “to make an instance of us.” Romanian border guards beat and threatened to kill the buddy’s 18-year-old son except he advised them who they’d paid to take them to the border. Traffickers charged 20,000 lei a head (10 months’ wages on the time), with youngsters half worth at 10,000 lei, he advised RFE/RL.

Marcu and his mom have been despatched again to Bucharest, the place he was not allowed to combine with the opposite youngsters in school and his mom was despatched to a menial job in a haberdashery manufacturing facility. Fortunately for them, the revolution got here simply months later.

Down The Barrel Of A Gun

If the tales of violence in opposition to anybody who tried to flee Romania at the moment are slowly popping out, much less is understood concerning the perpetrators.

On the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes, head researcher Jinga mentioned their group is deliberately specializing in the Seventies and ’80s “as a result of we’re more likely to discover each victims and the perpetrators.”

Valeriu Pera was 21 when he was given the duty of guarding 5 kilometers of river between Romania and then-Yugoslavia.

Valeriu Pera, a retired border guard, is now living in the town of Drobeta Turnu-Severin. "I realized we were 'Romanians against Romanians,' but I couldn't shirk my responsibilities," he says now.

Valeriu Pera, a retired border guard, is now residing within the city of Drobeta Turnu-Severin. “I spotted we have been ‘Romanians in opposition to Romanians,’ however I could not shirk my duties,” he says now.

Border guards have been armed with Kalashnikovs with 60 rounds of ammunition and advised: “Defectors are armed and harmful.”

“There was a threat; some fugitives shot at us,” he mentioned in an interview within the Danube city of Drobeta Turnu-Severin. “We have been younger, and so they have been well-prepared.”

“Generally you noticed them on the Danube, as they have been making an attempt to flee and so they have been disoriented. There have been massive currents and other people drowned. It was harmful,” Pera mentioned. “The water hides lots of risks, sharp rocks, and whirlpools. Within the Danube, no one’s a great swimmer.

“Many drowned and a few have been shot. They’d be warned after which shot,” he mentioned, including that “there have been excesses.” He mentioned he personally handed over 25-30 would-be escapees a yr to police.

Pera’s views of the world, fashioned within the pressure-cooker environment of Ceausescu’s Romania, started to vary within the late Nineteen Eighties when he caught a physician making an attempt to flee. The medic advised him that “the whole lot was going to destroy in Romania” with a scarcity of medical provides, meals, warmth, and primary freedoms, corresponding to the best to journey overseas or learn a international e-book.

“He was the primary particular person to inform me straight out that he wished to flee Romania however received scared when he noticed how broad the Danube was,” he mentioned. “I seen that, from 1987, certified individuals have been fleeing the nation: welders, docs, and nurses. We discovered that the Yugoslavs did not ship them again and so they went on to Austria, Canada, Israel, and Australia.

“I spotted we have been ‘Romanians in opposition to Romanians,’ however I could not shirk my duties. However I received a life lesson [from the doctor], and I attempted to do my job however not as zealously as earlier than, and [I tried] to hear and perceive,” he mentioned.

Gone To Spoil

Life grew harsher in Romania within the late Nineteen Eighties as Ceausescu tried to repay the nation’s large international money owed: meals, heating, and vitality have been all rationed, and any dissent was crushed.

Not everybody who fled was a dissident or suffered hardships. Even individuals doing comparatively effectively below Ceausescu’s brutal and backwards rule have been in search of a means out.

People gathering in front of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest, after Ceausescu fled the building by helicopter on December 22, 1989.

Folks gathering in entrance of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Get together headquarters in Bucharest, after Ceausescu fled the constructing by helicopter on December 22, 1989.

Additional north up the border and much away from the Danube, the city of Sannicolau Mare may be very near the place the Romanian, Serbian, and Hungarian borders converge. Because the regime crumbled within the late Nineteen Eighties and as individuals suffered extra from the shortages, round 30 individuals would flee the triple border city every night time.

Cristian Anghelescu, 57, was a goalkeeper for Universitatea Craiova, a soccer group in southwest Romania. He had a great wage, entry to Western items and garments that have been denied to most Romanians, and was in a position to tune into Serbian tv, extra entertaining than the 2 hours of Ceausescu provided by Romanian public tv on the time.

However even he wasn’t spared the shortages of Ceausescu’s later years — the destroy the escaping physician had predicted.

“I needed to stand up at 3 a.m. and stand in line for seven to eight hours for milk formulation for my son,” Anghelescu mentioned. “‘I am not staying right here,’ I mentioned. ‘I can do higher than this.'”

He escaped throughout the Danube in 1988 and reached Belgrade, however was then arrested and despatched again to Romania, the place he was overwhelmed and despatched to jail. He received “an extended sentence for having arduous forex than the unlawful crossing,” Anghelescu mentioned.

“Once I got here out of jail, I used to be a pariah. No person would make use of me as I had a legal file,” he mentioned. So he tried to flee once more via Hungary after which Czechoslovakia. As soon as once more, he was caught and despatched again to Romania, earlier than lastly managing to flee by paying Serbian and Albanian smugglers 3,000 German marks and a gold watch to take him to the U.Okay. within the trunk of a automotive.

“I crossed all of Europe and we drove in the course of the night time,” he recalled. “I nonetheless have trauma from what occurred. I get up within the night time in a sweat and suppose I’ve forgotten my [goalkeeper’s] gloves.”

Uncovering The Previous

In Romania, information of the escapes was by no means reported, as Ceausescu repressed something that will be unfavorable to his regime. There was, nevertheless, one notable exception.

The defection of star gymnast Nadia Comaneci from Romania into Hungary on the night time of November 27, 1989, was an enormous international story, nearly as massive as her good 10 on the 1976 Montreal Olympic Video games.

Whereas Romanian society remains to be sluggish on its reckoning with the previous, organizations just like the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes are shedding extra mild on the daring escapes and their typically brutal repercussions.

“Romania continues to have a giant downside with ‘transition’ justice, regarding crimes from the communist period in contrast with different former communist international locations in East and Central Europe,” the federal government envoy Muraru mentioned.

“Other than trials in 1990, which got here on the heels of the 1989 revolution and the 2 well-known trials of [former communist prison commanders] [Alexandru] Visinescu and [Ion] Ficior, that are emblematic circumstances, Romania hasn’t investigated one other case since then,” he mentioned.

The Danube as seen from Orsova.

The Danube as seen from Orsova.

There are plans for Romania to treatment this by establishing a division within the prosecutor’s workplace that may deal with crimes dedicated within the title of communism, crimes linked to the Holocaust, and crimes linked to selling conflict criminals and acts of anti-Semitism. Eight prosecutors, who’ve coaching in these areas, will particularly pursue circumstances, Muraru advised RFE/RL.

Mick, the Romanian dentist in Vienna, mentioned he felt like a misfit residing below Romania’s communist regime.

“I thought of myself European however was shut off and could not meet individuals from different nationalities. It was absurd,” he mentioned.

Like others interviewed by RFE/RL, Mick mentioned that he wished the tales of people that fled communist Romania to have wider public recognition, particularly those that died. Former footballer Anghelescu says it is essential for escapees to not be tainted by the label of “frequent legal” or be acknowledged as “political fugitives.”

Researcher Jinga mentioned victims “must be given their place alongside different victims of communism” and hopes to current a couple of circumstances to the general public by the tip of the yr. Romania commemorates the 1,300 individuals who died in the course of the revolution and has taken steps to acknowledge the a whole lot of 1000’s of political prisoners who have been locked up from 1945 to 1964.

“It is essential to pursue justice,” Muraru mentioned. “The clock is ticking away. Day by day there’s much less probability for the survivors and for individuals who are responsible of homicide and abuse.”

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