“You didn’t kill him,” the prison commander told Radu Codrescu on that July afternoon in 1984. “You only broke his teeth and his ego.”
The man in charge with running the Popa Şapcă jail in Timişoara leafed through a file labeled Codrescu as Radu stood, handcuffed, in front of his desk and described what had happened that morning at the concrete factory in Beregsău. Radu was shaken, but otherwise unharmed, even though he had just assaulted a prisoner-at-large.
“You can’t go unpunished because you did it in plain sight,” Radu remembered the commander saying. “And I will not set precedents in my jail. The worst punishment for you is to go back on trial, this time for aggravated assault. Not that I wouldn’t have done the same, had I been in your place—we all know the guy. I get complaints about him every day from guards and prisoners alike, but I can’t get rid of him. I can’t tell you why I can’t get rid of him. So I won’t send you back into the legal system; I’ll punish you within my system.”
The commander sent Radu back to his detention hall to wait for his sentence. The other inmates in the room were coming back from their work points and they all wanted to hear the details of that day’s big story, so Radu kept himself busy, talking, trying not to think much about what would happen to him next.
“That man generated so much hatred in that prison that my act served as everybody’s emotional release and they all felt great about it,” Radu Codrescu said. “It just happened that he got his punishment through me. It had been a bad day for us and he’d had bad luck.”
The sentence arrived late in the afternoon: three days of solitary confinement. Radu got up, opened his small bundle where he kept a few things from filth, grabbed a pack of cigarettes, and followed the guard. One of the inmates yelled after Radu to leave the cigarettes, but Radu was too overwhelmed to heed any advice.
“That sentence seemed quite easy at the time. Whew, I got off quite nicely, I said to myself. Little did I know that I would come close to dying in there. Solitary confinement for three days, and I almost died in there because I was stupid.”
The cell Radu was taken to was a space no bigger than a coffee table, with a steel door and a bucket dropped in a hole in the floor. Concrete walls all around, no lights, no windows. Once a day, the door opened, and the prisoner could go to the washroom, empty his bucket, and eat that day’s food ration: a cup of tea and a piece of bread. Then the steel door sealed the prisoner in the dark for another twenty-four hours.
Radu sat on the floor, in the dark, for a couple of hours. He was too nervous after the events of the day, too frightened of the new situation he found himself in, so he couldn’t sleep. He didn’t remember if there were any air vents in the ceiling, but he remembered that the ceiling was fairly tall.
“I switched my position a few times, I moved around—if you could move around in there. Then I lit up a cigarette. I didn’t feel anything unusual. After a while, I lit up another one. I had no clear idea when they were going to take me out to the washroom; I assumed it would be that evening. After some time, I began to feel that I wasn’t breathing in oxygen. Every breath was dizzying. Inhaling was like being very drunk. That didn’t feel right to me, so I knocked on the door.”
At first, he just knocked. No one came. Radu’s breath became shallow and fast. He began pounding on the door and calling. No one came. A few of the prisoners in the other solitary confinement cells began to bang on their doors also. Terror trickled down Radu’s spine. He yelled for help, but no one came.
Radu had to do something before he passed out and died of asphyxiation. He searched the contour of the steel door for a sliver of light, but couldn’t find any. He knelt on the floor and felt around the line where the door met the floor. He found a razor-thin space down there. He plugged his mouth to it and took a drag. His lungs opened up.
“You can’t imagine how filthy that spot was and I had my mouth there. I kept moving from one arm to another, but as soon as I took my mouth off that small hole, dizziness hit me and I had to get my dose of air again. That whole night I nothing else. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t rest.”
Radu felt dizzy from hanging head down, blood draining into his brain. He felt lightheaded from his shallow breaths, but he struggled to stay alert. He was terrified that, had he slipped, he would never wake up again.
In the morning, the door opened and Radu took a raspy deep breath. The guard who towered over him had a smirk on his face. When the door closed again, Radu sat down, against the wall, in the dark, quiet and patient.
Radu served his three days in solitary and was excused from work for the rest of the week. People stopped by every day to thank him for teaching that horrible prisoner-at-large a well-deserved lesson. And the prisoner seemed to have learned his lesson. When he returned from the hospital, his face all black and swollen that people couldn’t look at him, he seemed calm and unwilling to fight, which gave the prison commander a great reason to transfer him to Poarta Albă (The White Gate) Prison, where he could feel safe again.
Poarta Albă, on the Danube River, was one of the worst prisons in the country. The forced labor there wasn’t mixing cement or building vegetable boxes, but cutting reed in the marshes along the Danube. Harvesting reed required making platforms out of intertwined stems to step on. If someone took a wrong step and fell through, the reed stems reshuffled and closed over his head in a matter of seconds. Many inmates drowned at Poarta Albă or fell ill from snake bites, bug bites, mosquito bites.
Radu went back to his work at the concrete factory, determined to mind his own business and hoping that the border would be on the list of pardoned offenses of the rumored amnesty. At the beginning of August, the amnesty became official, and the border was on the list. Everybody pardoned was supposed to go home on August 23, Romania’s national holiday, but thousands of inmates—some of which had been sentenced for violent crimes—couldn’t all be set free on the same day, to roam the city and celebrate their freedom. Sorted alphabetically by their last name, they were released two or three a day, beginning on August 23. At that pace, Radu’s turn to go home wasn’t going to come until the end of October, beginning of November.
While technically a free man, Radu kept shoveling concrete at Beregsău. During that time, he received a couple of packets from Florina, but she never visited him again. Iulian and Eugen went home at the beginning of October.
“In prison, I noticed an interesting thing. Maybe they put calming medication in our food, but I was very relaxed and peaceful. I had no problem, because there weren’t any issues going on. Other problems than waking up in the morning, going to work and coming back in the evening didn’t exist. No TV, no radio, no friends, no visits, no bills to pay, a few newspapers… No responsibilities, no obligations, nothing… They gave us a lot of food, I can’t complain, they fed us potatoes, beans, barley, polenta, and some meat. Barley was our desert, but only those who bought sugar could eat it. I was exchanging bread for sugar, myself, one serving of bread for one spoonful of sugar… If there was one thing I missed in there, it was coffee. I dreamed time after time to have a coffee, but other than that I craved for nothing.”
Twice a week, Radu cleaned the floors in the death row section of the Popa Şapcă jail. The cells in that section had no doors, only wired fence, because all the inmates were on suicide watch as they awaited the day when they were going to face the shooting squad. Radu had heard about those special squads when he was in the army. The story went that only a few of the guns were loaded with real bullets, the rest with blanks, so that no soldier felt guilty of murder, even though everybody in the squad had to shoot his gun or be punished for insubordination. The death-row inmates had a terrifying look about them, a mix of danger and resilience that fascinated Radu.
On a cold morning at the end of October, a guard showed up at the door of an almost empty detention hall.
“Codrescu, take your bundle and follow me.”
Radu grabbed his small bundle in which he had his cigarettes, a loaf of bread and some marmalade. He was looking forward to the first garbage can to toss his bundle, when he found himself handcuffed and taken to an armored bus in the prison yard. There, he was shoved toward the end of a long file of inmates, his hands chained to the prisoner in front of him, his ankles chained together and to a heavy iron ball. Radul ooked around and recognized some of the death row inmates, and a few others with long sentences that the amnesty didn’t cover. Radu called on the guards. There was a mistake, of course; he had been pardoned; he was supposed to go home. Somebody must’ve misplaced his file.
“The file is never wrong,” a guard told Radu, “so shut up, thief! You’re going to Poarta Albă!”
“Poarta Albă?” Radu couldn’t believe his ears.
One guard though came by and asked him, “What are you in here for?”
“The border,” Radu said.
“What are you doing on this load? You’re supposed to go home. It’s a mistake, obviously. Go to Poarta Albă and you’ll sort it out there, eventually.”
The long file of chained inmates boarded the bus headed for the railway station. On the bus, a few of the prisoners began talking about their crimes and sentences. Rape, murder, theft—many years to serve. Radu decided to keep quiet, keep his head down and his eyes peeled. Letting the others know he was under the amnesty was not a good idea, especially on a long journey such as Timişoara to Poarta Albă.
The train was like a small jail, secured with bars on the windows and guards on the hallways. The prisoners in Radu’s compartment were eyeballing him, because he didn’t look like them somehow, but luck had it that nobody knew him and they were all in chains, so they couldn’t hurt him. Radu relaxed a little. At Herculane, a guard came in and called for Codrescu, took Radu off the chain and only left the handcuffs on. The other prisoners went crazy. They shouted at Radu, spit on him, kicked and threw themselves against their seats. They were going to Poarta Albă while that amnestied boy wasn’t.
The guard pulled Radu out of the compartment, and off the prison train. He cuffed himself to Radu and together they went to the platform to wait for the next train back to Timişoara.
“I was wearing my prison outfit, I was in handcuffs and dirty as hell, and I was quietly waiting for the train, next to all those clean people with children. I bet some of those parents were telling their children how not to grow up to be like me.”
Back at Popa Şapcă, the guards realized that Radu’s belongings were now at Poarta Albă, so they gave him somebody’s pants and a ragged shirt, and set him free the same evening. They paid him around two hundred lei ($10) for his work at the concrete factory in Beregsău. With that money in his pocket, Radu walked to the end of the block to Hotel Continental.
“I entered the hotel lobby as I was, dressed in somebody else’s ragged clothes, baldheaded, dirty, and I asked for a coffee.”
Radu took a sip of his coffee. It wasn’t the best coffee, but on that cold and gray evening at the end of October 1984, it tasted great. Radu was in no hurry to go home to his wife. He was in no hurry to figure out the rest of his life. He just sat there with his warm coffee.
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.