I stood on the windy bluff above the Danube, at the foot of the monument. My heart was racing. What if I forgot the words?
My mother had bought my outfit weeks before that cloudy autumn day. The polyester clothes smelled like new toys: the white shirt, the black pleated skirt, the white knee-length socks. The colorful Romanian coat-of-arms adorned the buckle of my brown plastic belt, and also the blue rectangular piece of cloth sewn on my left sleeve, and the small badge pinned on my shirt. The night before, my father had shined my black leather shoes. My mother had starched my white pompons and fastened them to my white plastic headband. That morning, she put a transparent plastic ring in my pocket and a folded red scarf in my backpack.
My heart was racing. When my turn came, I gave the plastic ring to an older pioneer. He ran the red scarf around my collar, tucked it under my epaulettes, and passed its ends through the ring. There! I was a pioneer now, just like the older kids in the school. I filled my lungs with air smelling of river silt and moldy leaves, and curved my lips around complicated words such as “undaunted,” “compatriot,” and “youthful enthusiasm.”
I came home beaming. Twenty-four years before, when my mother returned home with her own new red scarf tied around her neck, her mother had welcomed her with these words of wisdom: “You’ll learn soon enough what a stupid thing this is.” My mother’s little heart had been crushed. Now, my mother welcomed her little pioneer home, but didn’t share any words of wisdom. She let me enjoy my day. I’d learn soon enough.
On the night of June 13, 1984, Radu Codrescu, and two close friends, Iulian and Eugen (names changed for privacy reasons), slinked along the flatlands on the Romanian-Serbian border south of Deta. They wore black pants, black shirts, black sweaters. In his pockets, Radu carried a few Deutschemarks, his identification papers, and a Romanian-English dictionary. The three men had stayed in hiding during the day and had used a compass and a flashlight to move at night through villages where the locals knew and were known to the frontier guards.
Radu was twenty-two and full of hope. He knew the terrain after days and nights of close observation from the safety of a patch of tall, green corn plants nearby. The buffer zone between Romania and Serbia was a strip of land a hundred meter wide between Gaiu Mic and Stamora Germană. It was plowed clean of vegetation so that footprints would show in the dust. A system of ditches allowed the soldiers to lie in waiting, if they needed to. The German shepherds were well fed and happy.
After recon, Radu and his friends went back to Timişoara to prepare and to say goodbye to their families. Florina (name changed for privacy reasons), Radu’s wife, wanted to come with them, but Radu said no. Not after what had happened on the Black Sea the year before, not after he had sworn he would never put her life in danger again. He was going to take the risk alone. Once out, he was going to find a way to bring her over. What scared Florina was that years could go by before they would see each other again—and they had been together since they were fifteen—but in the end she agreed to let Radu go.
Radu slipped soft-footed over the crumbling dirt, counting the steps toward the first ditch. The night was quiet. Crickets chirped in the distance, from the corn fields. Then the night exploded with angry demands of surrender, bright lights, and dogs leaping out of ditches. Soldiers surrounded them, but didn’t shoot. Before they knew it, the three men were in handcuffs, on their way to the frontier military base at Deta. There, they were taken to the mess hall, lined up against the wall, and cuffed up to the radiators. Radu thought of Florina, safe at home—and that was the only good thing about the situation.
“To hear about beating is one thing,” Radu Codrescu said, “to see somebody being beaten is something else, but to be the subject yourself is a completely different experience. After a while, you get to not care anymore, about defending yourself… When they hit me, I wouldn’t feel anything after a while. When I felt something, it meant that that spot hadn’t been hit before. It hurt, but only one time.”
The shift changed every four hours. Rested soldiers, rested fists, same three prisoners.
“I wasn’t thinking about dying, I wasn’t thinking at all. I was reduced to a piece of flesh that was hurting, but I wasn’t afraid of anything. I was just hurting.”
The people who were afraid that night were the soldiers. Their brutal reaction to such a minor infraction that Radu and his friends were guilty of at the time—being caught at night close to the border—was the result of careful indoctrination that was state policy. When soldiers joined the ranks of the border patrol units, they were told stories and shown pictures of frontier guards killed by people trying to flee the country. They were punished if anyone escaped across the border. The punishment was not much—a day’s arrest, a Sunday in the barracks—but there was also the stigma of failing among fellow border guards. Between the real fear of fugitives and the high that the soldiers got from having so much power over defenseless fellow men, the beating was the norm, not the exception.
The next day, around noon, Radu found himself lying in a bed, in a dormitory, all tied up. He felt bandages on his forehead. His arms hurt in their tethers when he tried to move.
“We were all covered in blood, all three of us, none better than the other. And I lay there, maybe for an entire day, until I finally managed to move a bit, move my head and look around. But I was conscious all that time. To be honest, I thought that was the end for me. I was in a lot of pain. I remember thinking that this is what dying must feel like. But I didn’t care much; I was mostly analyzing my situation rather than living it. An experience like that affects the way you feel and think, your normal senses are gone, the violence changes you.”
There were no doctors at the military base in Deta. During the day, a handful of officers came to see the prisoners to their beds. They came close, checking their wounds, touching their swollen bodies. They asked the prisoners how they felt, but the men couldn’t answer. Their mouths were swollen shut, their throats crushed, their lungs barely took in air. The officers looked worried. Yes, beating was encouraged, but death while in custody was not.
Soldiers and officers started to treat the prisoners better. While they didn’t call a doctor, for fear of getting the word out, they took shifts nursing the prisoners. They gave them bread and water. They helped them to the bathroom once a day, and to the showers when the prisoners didn’t get to the bathroom in time.
“I was hurting everywhere, my head, my stomach, my kidneys, everywhere. I was peeing blood. I was throwing up blood after eating or drinking.”
For an entire week the soldiers took care of Radu, Iulian and Eugen, until the Timişoara militia arrived to take the men in custody.
“The first time the militia came—and I cannot imagine how terrible we looked the week before, swollen, like boxing bags, askew—they refused to take us in because they were afraid we might die in their custody. They didn’t want to get in trouble. And they left, without us. They came back ten days later. We were in better shape then.”
The soldiers at the military base in Deta dialed back the beatings given to new arrivals, and they never touched Radu, Iulian and Eugen again. From those soldiers, Radu heard a rumor that the border patrol had known about their plan to cross the border. Each of the three men had family that knew about their attempt to flee, and somebody had talked.
Three weeks after the beating, Radu was able to stand up, walk and get into the van that took him and his friends to a detention center in Timişoara where they were separated. Radu’s cell, intended for six inmates in triple bunk beds, held twelve inmates. Radu slept on the cement floor with a blanket.
After a few days there, Radu was brought into a small room furnished like an office, but with bars on the windows. He wasn’t handcuffed and he was allowed to sit in a chair. An officer began asking questions about the night of June 13th. Radu told him that he and his friends had got lost in the woods. The officer called him a liar and cursed him. Radu maintained that they had got lost in the woods. The officer yelled at Radu and threatened him with long years of prison.
“I laughed in his face when he hit me, although I was barely recovering and I was still all bruised and swollen. It was painful of sorts, but it didn’t hurt as much as the first time, a few of weeks before.”
When the officer grabbed a chair and threw it at Radu, across the room, the door opened and a major stepped in. He sent the interrogator out, to chill, and asked Radu, in a calm voice, to stop wasting everybody’s time. He handed a signed statement to the prisoner.
“I don’t believe it,” Radu said after he read it.
“Fine,” the major said, and he brought Florina in.
Her expression changed from shamed to shocked at the sight of Radu’s bruised and deformed face.
“She lied,” Radu said.
“It doesn’t matter if she lied or not,” the major said. “This is her statement and we will prosecute you with it.”
“That was a blow nobody wants to suffer, ever. I felt like dying there on the spot. Like dropping on the ground and disappearing. Nothing made sense anymore, it was like a short-circuit in my brain. I wanted to drop dead, flat. That’s what happened.”
After a while, Radu understood: Florina had tried to stop him from leaving—leaving her—in a way that almost got him and his friends killed. He flew into a rage, banged his head against the wall, hit the walls with his fists until his knuckles turned to bloody pulp.
“I was desperate to deny reality. For days, I forced myself to sleep so that I could get away in my dreams. Oh, how good dreams are sometimes! In my dreams, things were the way I wanted them to be. When I woke up, I felt the cold terror of reality on my back. I didn’t want to wake up and live through the day, in that world. I couldn’t eat because I felt like throwing up when I put something in my mouth. It took me some time to adjust to that new world, where [she] had betrayed me and she would be gone forever.”
In the end, none of the three men signed any incriminating statements. They went to trial, no lawyer appointed to them. The judge asked Radu why he had carried a Romanian-English dictionary with him, if he was just strolling through the woods. Radu told her that he didn’t know that English, a foreign language taught in school, was reason enough for putting people in jail.
“She started laughing. But it was obvious that we had to go to jail. And she did send us to jail.”
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.