Back in the 1980s Romania’s western border witnessed real tragedies that few people know about today.
Back in the 1980s Romania’s western border witnessed real tragedies that few people know about today. Some of the Romanians who tried to illegally cross the border into the free world, got either killed, maimed or served years in prison. Some of them got away and made it to Western Europe, where they shared the stories of those who tried to flee the communist inferno. The accounts of the people attempting to swim across the Danube are truly haunting.
According to a volume signed by Doina Magheti and Johann Steiner, ‘Silent Graves’ (Mormintele Tac), about 16 thousand people tried to cross Romania’s western border illegally. Twelve thousand were captured and served prison sentences of up to six months each, but the exact number of those who died at the hands of border guards remains unknown. Cemeteries with graves of unidentified people whose deadly sin was the desire to live in freedom lie on either side of the Danube. Those who tried to cross Romania’s western border in search of a better life in the West came to be called “frontieristi,” that is, “frontier people” in Romanian. Dan Danila was born in Sibiu and attempted to cross the Danube in a rubber dinghy back in 1986. During the discussion he had with us he spoke about the psychological training he underwent before the crossing.
Dan Danila: “Preparation for the crossing, I mean the psychological preparation, took years. It was a complex battle between fear, despair and courage. After all, courage stemmed from the desperate situation the two of us were in at the time. It wasn’t something we decided on the spot. We had just graduated from university, we were young, but not reckless. We prepared everything, studied maps of Romania and other regions, learnt how to use a compass and bought camouflage fishermen clothing. Instead of traveling towards the Danube from Herculane Spa, as did all those who tried to cross the river, we went in the opposite direction, moving inland so as not to raise suspicions. We went into the woods advancing deep into wild territory, using only the compass. After a couple of rough nights, sleeping in ditches and holes in the ground and wearing our makeshift ghillie suits, we managed to launch the boat, but couldn’t row properly because we were too afraid not to be caught. For a while we failed to coordinate and we moved in circles very close to the river bank.”
Summer was the season mostly preferred by these so-called “frontier people,” the season with the largest number of crossing attempts. Border patrols resorted to all means to stop them; they shot them in the head or ran them over with motorboats. Those captured were beaten unconscious and some of them were killed and buried right on the border trail. Trained dogs were used to track them down, and in some cases dead bodies were left unburied as a warning for others. The Yugoslav authorities repeatedly complained to the Romanian side for the dead bodies that were clogging the pump systems at the Iron Gates hydropower plant. Dan Danila and his friend decided to cross the Danube off-season, so to say.
Dan Danila: “We crossed the Danube in spring; it was in late March, the beginning of April, and we preferred that time because we wanted to take border guards by surprise. It was hot in summer and therefore easier for the guards to monitor the border. When the weather outside was colder, guards needed a break every once in a while, to get warm. The season was not very popular with those attempting an escape. In summertime people even dared to swim across the Danube to Yugoslavia.”
The difficulty of these escape plans was that once you crossed the border, there was no guarantee that Yugoslav or Hungarian border guards would not send you back to Romania. And that’s exactly what happened to Dan Danila and his friend.
Dan Danila: “We managed to cross the Danube and were sent to a refugee camp in Belgrade, where we stayed for a couple of months. Migrating to the USA didn’t appeal much to my friend, who’d have rather remained in Europe. He convinced me to leave the camp and we tried to make it to Austria, but got caught by the Yugoslav guards and sent back to Romania. We had found out that dictator Ceausescu had granted a general amnesty and that’s why we decided to push the envelope a little bit. We knew we would not go to jail. They would have given us a good beating and set us free eventually.”
If we looked strictly at the wording of the law, any illegal border-crossing attempt remains a crime. But when the law is only an instrument in the hands of a repressive totalitarian regime, those trying to leave it cannot not be regarded as criminals. Those who tried to cross the border and live their lives in freedom found themselves alone in the fight against dictator Ceausescu’s criminal regime, and the case of Dan Danila and his friend is illustrative of the way in which the communists used to treat their citizens.