Early Christmas morning in 1992, the port of Antwerp (Anvers), Belgium was bright with blinking lights of all colors, with flashlights and spotlights and searchlights. At 5 a.m., police, firefighters, paramedics, TV crews, and curious people were all waiting on the main dock for the door of one particular cargo shipping container to open. And when it did, three men walked out into the blinding light: Radu Codrescu and his two companions, Paul and Doru. Their clothes were stained with oil, they all had week-old beards, and they looked weak and pale. One of the three men, Doru, was in pain with acute tonsillitis from living for a week inside a freezing freight container, but when he saw the commotion, he forgot all about his pain and tried to flee the scene.
Hubert (name changed for privacy reasons), one of the senior port security officers, handed the three men over to the police for interrogation. But the police was not very interested in their story, only in the container where they had been found. Once the cargo was checked and a few questions answered, the trespassers were released from custody.
At the time, Radu Codrescu, 30, lived in Stuttgart, Germany with his wife and young daughter. When Germany refused to grant them asylum back in November 1992, Radu came up with a new plan: get on a ship to Canada. He had applied for a Canadian immigration visa, but had been rejected because he didn’t have a college degree. (Radu’s brother, who had a college degree, had secured a visa after a couple of tries.)
“But that was not something to stop me,” Radu Codrescu said. “They didn’t know me.”
Radu picked Antwerp, Belgium, because it is a huge port in northern Europe with solid trade links with Canada. He applied and obtained a Belgian visitor visa.
“All I needed to do was go out in the hallway of the rundown building we lived in, and yell that I was going to Canada, who wanted to come with me, and I would always find a few clients for the trip.”
In December 1992, Radu, Paul and Doru began their attempts to board a cargo container headed for Canada. During the day, they hid in the swamps near the harbor, and at night, they came out of the cold water and tried to find an open container on the docks. They did that for two weeks and always got caught. Each time, the Belgian police took them over the border to Netherlands, and released them. Each time, the three men walked back to Antwerp, found their car—a beat-up Mercedes—and rested and slept in it until it was time to head back for the swamps, the following night. As the days went by, they looked more and more tired and in bad shape. One night, a port guard took pity on them.
“Boys,” he said in Flemish, “I can help you get inside a container tonight. I’ll even seal the door once you’re inside.”
They followed the guard to a container that transported four bulletproof military vehicles, two on top of the other two, to Edmonton, Canada. After the guard locked the door and sealed it, the three Romanians settled into that big, cold steel room. They had everything they needed: sleeping bags, lamps, batteries, food, water, lots of plastic bags to go to the bathroom in, and even a hammer and a chisel. Now they had to wait to be loaded on a ship.
“We lived in there for a day, two, three. We heard the cranes outside moving the cargo. Sometimes they moved our container around, but never on a ship. It was very cold in December and we were pretty much living in a metal box, outside, for days. Our breath condensed on the walls and on the ceiling and after a while small drops started to fall on us. We were cold and wet. We had been there for a week and our container was still on the dock.”
The military vehicles were covered with dark oil to protect their paint until they reached their destination, and soon the three men’s clothes were stained with oil too, on top of being damp and cold. The cargo container had six little holes in each corner, but not big enough to get fresh air through. People in containers sometimes died asphyxiated during cross-ocean trips—as the news on TV sometimes mentioned. After a week in the container, the three men were running out of oxygen. Their lighters sparked but didn’t burn anymore.
“We could tell that we were running out of air by our constant panting. We didn’t feel dizzy yet, but we kept panting, as if we had been running for a long time.”
Meanwhile, Doru’s tonsils had turned red and painful and his throat swelled.
On Christmas Eve night, Radu and Paul decided to break out of the container, to save Doru’s life. They took turns with the hammer and the chisel, trying to make a hole in the metal wall of the container, close to the door handle on the other side.
“The noise was deafening for us inside, like being inside a big bell.”
They got in fresh air as the hole got bigger, but Doru still couldn’t breathe. He was overcome with pain and kept panting. When the hole was big enough, Radu put his hand through, looking for the door handle. His hand hit another container. He stuck his head out.
“While we were in there, they had moved us around and now we were in the middle of a sea of containers. They weren’t touching each other, but also, there was no way of getting out of our container. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown when I saw that: containers everywhere, around ours, and on top of ours. And nobody had heard us banging on the metal wall. For two hours we screamed and banged with the hammer on the walls, but nobody heard us on that Christmas night.”
At three in the morning, a guard finally heard the noise and yelled something back at them in Flemish. In another half an hour they heard the cargo crane on its long legs moving forward and backward and sideways and lifting containers.
“But that cargo crane needed somebody to maneuver it and at three in the morning, a very happy crane operator was summoned from his warm bed on Christmas night to look for some lunatics in a sea of containers in the harbor. It took him two hours to find us and we kept screaming that we needed an ambulance.”
Their container was jolted up and, after a few maneuvers, lowered on a platform. The door opened and the three men emerged under the bright lights of the TV crews and news photographers.
“Police came to assess the damages. It turned out that we had damaged a very expensive container; we pretty much ruined the door with the hammer and the chisel. It was worth $50,000, we were told. They took our fingerprints because we were found in a military container and they wanted to make sure we didn’t damage the load as well. Those were serious military vehicles and they wanted to see why we were interested in them. We were not interested in them! We just lived next to them for a week. We couldn’t even get inside. Maybe we peed on them from time to time, but nothing else. We didn’t break them or anything—they were fucking cold!”
Once the police figured out that the three men were not a threat to the military cargo, they didn’t even ask them how they had got inside the container to begin with. They took the three men out to a field and set them free. That morning, the three Romanians walked back to the harbor’s parking lot, to their old Mercedes.
“We got to the car; the car had been broken into. They’d broken the windows, stolen the cassette player, and broken the steering wheel. We took our car and headed back to Germany. We were dirty and unshaved and exhausted and our car looked like it belonged in the scrapyard.”
Doru got well soon, but never again tried anything that dangerous. He returned to Romania where he now lives. Radu spent his New Year’s with his family and was ready to try again, come January. Radu and Paul found another man, Claudiu, a musician, to join their gang in Doru’s place.
They spent the first night in Liège, Belgium, in the house of a friend who offered a transit place for fellow Romanians in need. The second night, they went back to Antwerp and looked for the same guard who had helped them before. They let themselves get caught so they could talk to the man in private.
“I don’t have the guts to do it again, after last time,” the guard told them. “We had a lot of inquiry after you were rescued about how you got in the container in the first place.”
The guard put them in police custody, and the police took them over the border, to Netherlands, and released them there. Radu, Paul and Claudiu began their 20-kilometer walk back to Antwerp, as they were so used to.
Morning had come, and, as they were walking on the side of the road, a van drove by and they waved at it hoping to catch a ride. The van stopped, the window rolled down and Radu stared at Hubert, the security guard from the Port of Antwerp. They knew each other well, especially after that last Christmas.
“Let’s have a coffee,” Hubert said, and opened the van door for them.
It was January 19, 1993 around nine in the morning. Radu, Paul and Claudiu leaned in close to Hubert around a table in a coffee shop in Antwerp.
“What I don’t understand,” Hubert said, sipping his coffee,” is why you keep trying to flee during the night. Why don’t you try during the day? At night, we are all on duty, alerted, we expect people to try to sneak in. We have searchlights. We always catch you. Rarely does anyone sneak past us. Try during the day.”
“But,” Radu said, “how do we do that?”
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.