Radu Codrescu, his wife Florina, and their friend Iulian were safe for the moment on board Sunshine, a Kuwaiti-owned handysize coal bulker operated by a Bulgarian crew. But if Captain Nicolai reached his cabin and called the Romanian border authorities in Mangalia, things were going to change for the three fugitives.
It was after midnight, on Monday, August 22, 1983. They walked behind the captain until he reached his cabin’s door, and, there, Radu asked him if he really had to send their names to Mangalia. They were soaked, barefooted, and exhausted. Captain Nicolai told them to close the door and asked them what was going on.
There was no point in lying. Radu told the captain that they had been trying to get to Turkey. Captain Nicolai shook his head. It was too bad that the crew had seen them. He could’ve hidden them inside his load of coal and dropped them off in Turkey on his next trip there. But he had a son in the Naval Academy and couldn’t risk helping them. Not openly, in any case.
Captain Nicolai sent for food and dry clothes, and the four of them spent the next few hours talking and planning every detail of the story they were going to tell the Bulgarian and the Romanian authorities. They went out fishing and got lost. The wind started, the waves were high, they almost drowned. Sunshine came and saved them. They asked to be taken to Mangalia, back to Romania, but Captain Nicolai refused because he had to be in Varna. So he took them with him for a few days.
Around 3 a.m., the captain told them to go get some sleep. An aide took them to the captain’s quarters, where they laid their wet clothes on the warm radiator. Iulian slept on a couch, and Radu and Florina in the captain’s own bed. Sunshine was supposed to arrive in Varna at about 6 a.m. and the Bulgarian coastguard was going to make an appearance soon after.
When Captain Nicolai woke them up, Radu took a while to remember where he was. His head was heavy. It was 1 p.m. and the coastguard was arriving in half an hour. Sunshine hadn’t reached Varna at dawn because Captain Nicolai had called the port and said that his ship had an engine malfunction. For a few hours, the bulker had stopped in the open waters outside of Varna so that the Romanians could get enough rest to make it through the first round of interrogations.
Half an hour later, Captain Nicolai, his First Mate and the coastguard officers went into a conference room on the ship. Then the Romanians were brought in for questioning. Captain Nicolai kept interrupting and helping with the details. He figured that Radu, Florina and Iulian might attempt to flee from Bulgaria, so he offered to buy their orange inflatable boat for a good price—as a way of providing them with some money. But the coastguard officers didn’t allow it. The orange boat was evidence in an open investigation.
Radu, Florina and Iulian said goodbye to Captain Nicolai and boarded the coastguard vessel. At the militia station in Varna, they wrote their statements in a mix of Romanian and English. The Bulgarian militia had no reason to arrest, hold, or fine them since they hadn’t cross illegally into their country; Sunshine had brought them there. In fact, the Bulgarian authorities didn’t know what to do with them. The first night, they sent the Romanians to a detention center in Varna.
“I remember how tired I was and when I saw that bed, I was so excited.” Radu Codrescu said. “I remember that it was a clean, white bed and I just threw myself on it. But the bed was nothing but a wooden plank covered with a sheet. It took me a while to fall asleep after that blow.”
The Bulgarians alerted Mangalia about the three missing fishermen. Nothing happened. Gasoline was in short supply in both countries and neither side wanted to waste fuel driving between Varna and Mangalia. The second night, the Varna militia refused to shelter the Romanians again. They had their own bad guys to deal with.
“They took us on a ship again. They had normal beds there, but I made sure to feel the bed first.”
They had to stay in touch with an immigration officer in Varna, but otherwise were free to do as they pleased. Radu, Florina and Iulian began to hatch a new plan. It was possible to reach Turkey from Bulgaria, on dry land, a distance of over two hundred kilometers. But they were exhausted, had no money, no food, and didn’t know the language. If the Bulgarians were to keep them there for a few more days, they could rest and gather some provisions. They still had their boat, a box of cigarettes and two bottles of whiskey, which they could sell in Varna.
“Fleeing again was a dangerous business. Had the Bulgarians caught us, they would’ve figured it all out, from the beginning, and we would’ve involved Captain Nicolai and his First Mate too. We were tired, and we just couldn’t do it then. We just couldn’t do it. We were tired.”
On the third day, the Romanian and the Bulgarian authorities reached a compromise: they were going to meet at the border, in Vama Veche, and make the exchange. A major and a lieutenant from the Romanian border patrol forces in Mangalia were waiting for them.
“When we arrived in Vama Veche and saw the soldiers, we immediately started smiling, showing them how happy we were to be back home, in our beloved country. We served them with cigarettes and whisky; we were very friendly. The major took some, but the lieutenant, perhaps focused on growing in ranks, refused to touch anything.”
They were handcuffed, thrown into a van, and taken to Mangalia. There, they were put in separate rooms and asked to give their statements again. Their offense list was long (crossing the border illegally, not owning valid passports, etc.) and could land them in jail for years. Radu, Florina and Iulian had been through the story quite a few times and had no problem writing it all over again.
The officers didn’t believe a word of it, even though they had read Captain Nicolai’s statement, his First Mate’s, and the report from the Bulgarian authorities. Still, nobody laid a hand on them because there was a slight chance that they were telling the truth. Then again, many fugitives had been captured on that part of the Black Sea, and the coastguard was suspicious of anybody who ended up in those waters. But most fugitives had a different strategy: they rowed forty kilometers eastward and got on the ship route. In international waters, they could choose to board a ship or not, so they waited for a friendly crew to take them onboard. The Romanian coastguard couldn’t reach them there, and it didn’t have enough fuel to go hunting for fugitives even if it wanted to.
“As I was writing away with poetic flair about winds and waves, an officer entered the room and told me that there was no need for my statement anymore because my friend, [Iulian], ratted on us to get away with trying to flee the country. That was a tough moment. Though we had already decided to stick to our story, there was always the question: ‘What if the others don’t do it and I’m the one taking the fall?’ The officer took the pages I had written, gave me new ones, and told me to give my statement again. The truth this time. And I took the paper and I sharpened my pencil and I started again, with the winds and the waves, the same poetic flair, the same to the comma and the period. The officer took my statement, looked at it again, shook his head and asked me: ‘Are you making fun of me?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m not able to make fun of anything or anybody right now, in this condition.’ ‘We’ll talk about this when I come back,’ he said, and left. He never came back.”
The same thing happened to Iulian and to Florina. But they both kept to their story about their going out fishing and getting lost in the storm. While Radu was in the interrogation room, a few soldiers stuck in their heads and told him to keep to his story, because there was nothing the officers could do to them if they all did.
The prisoners spent the night in the soldiers’ barracks and were left in the care of a guard the next day. In the evening, the major arrived after a whole day of shooting practice, and he was angry. He ordered his stubborn lieutenant to send Radu, Florina and Iulian home because there was no proof that they had done anything wrong.
Radu couldn’t believe his ears. They were going home. But the lieutenant was not ready to fold yet. It wasn’t fair, he argued, after all they did—planning to flee the country, getting away from under the coastguard’s watch, fooling everybody with their make-believe stories—to just get away with it.
The major listened to the lieutenant’s complaints. Then he turned to Radu.
“Come on now,” Radu remembered the major saying. “Come on, guys, now tell me how you did it. How did you get away from under our noses?”
Radu thought for a while. At every turn thus far they had had people’s good intentions (and, sometimes, incompetence) on their side. If they kept on the deceit, was the major going to agree with the lieutenant and turn against them?
“Well,” Radu said, “we left from Olimp, not Mangalia…”
“How come you left from Olimp and nobody saw you or called on you?” the major said.
“Maybe they did call on us to stop,” Radu said, “…but we didn’t hear them…”
“Then say that they did call you with megaphones, but you didn’t hear them,” the major said, looking relieved. “Then I’ll fine you for going out at sea and for not answering our soldiers’ calls to stop rowing. And see what happened if you didn’t listen? You got carried away by winds and waves and ended up in a storm. Next time you should listen.”
It was a win-win for everybody, except for the lieutenant: Radu, Florina and Iulian didn’t end up in prison, and the major and his peer in Olimp didn’t look like they had a loose control over the border. The major was even nice enough to show them in the frontier guard’s handbook what fines they were going to get: fishing without permit, not answering a soldier’s call to stop, plus the price of gasoline from Vama Veche to Mangalia. Both ways. Two thousand lei each (more than a month’s average salary), but if they paid within forty-eight hours, the fines would be only 400 lei each. They didn’t pay a dime, not in forty-eight hours, not ever—and with no repercussions.
Radu, Florina and Iulian were back in Romania. They left the militia station barefooted, with their orange boat on their backs. They walked in silence under a cloudy summer sky. Things had changed for them after those hours in the storm, when they had thought that they were going to die. Yet they felt lucky. Nobody had been hurt, nobody had been arrested or implicated in their plan to flee the country.
On his next attempt though, Radu wasn’t going to be so lucky.
Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.