Our Borders: Doing Time (1984), Part 1

They stood in front of each other, bars between them. Radu listened and didn’t say much. They had only fifteen minutes. Florina said that she’d gone to the militia on a moment’s impulse, a stupid thing to do, yes, but she’d informed on Radu because she’d been afraid, afraid that they wouldn’t see each other ever again, because he would’ve been locked out, shot dead, or locked in, but she never wanted to hurt him, she thought he’d only get a warning and be sent home, not beaten up and almost killed, because she hadn’t known how vicious the border patrol could be, no, the people they’d met at Mangalia hadn’t been too hard on them after all, and she didn’t mean to tell the militiamen all she’d told them, but they threatened her family and… Radu listened and didn’t say much. He had trusted her. Why hadn’t she trusted him too, that he would’ve found a way for them to be together on the outside?

The visit was over. Florina left. Radu went back to his detention hall and to his new life.

Popa Şapcă Jail, Timişoara, Romania (2006)

Popa Şapcă Jail, Timişoara, Romania (2006)

Two weeks earlier, Radu Codrescu and his two friends, Iulian and Eugen (names changed for privacy reasons), had arrived at Popa Şapcă Jail in Timişoara to each serve their eighteen months, the maximum sentence given for an illegal attempt to cross the border (TTFF). In the summer of 1984, most of the inmates at Popa Şapcă were political. In a jail with a capacity of 1500 inmates, more than 4000 people were crammed in just for “the border.”

“The danger there was that we could very easily extend our sentences,” Radu Codrescu said. “Not by protesting, but by committing real crimes. It was very easy for every action to be interpreted as an infraction.”

Prisoners-at-large (inmates with long sentences partially served and who watched over the others in exchange for extra visits, packages and perks) helped the guards keep the peace. Radu, Iulian and Eugen slept in a triple bunk bed in a long detention hall that housed 105 prisoners. Water was rationed and washing clothes required a bribe. The smell in the detention hall was terrible, but it helped that the windows had no panes, just bars. Once a week, a prisoner who was serving twenty-five years for murder shaved the others’ heads and faces.

“With shaved heads and striped uniforms, we felt all lost,” Radu Codrescu said about his first days in jail. “We looked at each other and couldn’t comprehend that we were now those people.”

On their first day at Popa Şapcă, inmates watched a short movie and chose their prison job. First, they could work in the kitchen—sold out. Second, they could build wooden crates for transporting vegetables. Third, they could work at the concrete factory in Beregsău, a few miles outside of Timişoara. Fourth, they could do nothing all day, but get only half of the food ration.

“I actually chose the concrete factory work because I was planning to jailbreak. When they said that for the crates we had to work inside the jail and for the concrete we had to go somewhere outside the prison, my first thought was outside.”

Every day, Radu, Iulian and Eugen got on a prison bus that took them to Beregsău. They marched from the bus to the worksite, passing by the prison’s pigsty, Iulian in front of Radu, with Eugen behind. Iulian was a tall man. His striped prison pants were just long enough to cover his knees, his boots were four sizes bigger, and his vest didn’t cover his midsection. When he marched, his cap, also too small, kept sliding off his round head. Radu laughed at Iulian’s appearance every day, and every day Eugen elbowed and hushed them, fearful of the prisoners-at-large and the guards.

Beregsău Jail (2006)

Beregsău Jail (2006)

Work was hard, under the summer sun, all day. The prisoners mixed cement, gravel, sand and water in a big hole in the ground until they got fluid concrete and then shoveled it into mixers that went to building sites in Timişoara. Concrete was heavy, and, in the beginning, their arms, hands and fingers ached swollen every night. Radu used to curse himself for having chosen the concrete hole, for having thought of jailbreak when he could’ve spent his days hammering nails into delicate wooden crates, but after three weeks of hard labor he could lift the shovel with only one hand and was back to hatching escape plans. At the end of each day, the prisoners had to climb inside the mixers and wash them clean with hoses, so Radu and his friends learned how to stand up in a mixer, how much headroom there was when the mixer was full, and how to keep pacing inside long enough for the truck to leave the prison compound.

There were problems with that escape plan. One was that, if caught, they would’ve added another five years to their sentences. Another was that they didn’t have extra clothes to wear after they jumped out of the mixers. In fact, the matter of clean clothes became a huge problem even besides their jailbreak ideas.

“All you had to wear in there was the prison uniform. That was what you wore at work, at the concrete factory. When you slept, that was your pajama. Can you imagine how that thing looked and felt after working in the concrete hole for a while? It hardened, but not only that. I ended up tying pieces of the uniform with wires I got from work because the fabric crumbled. We were sweating all day, the cement dust was getting into our clothes, and at the end of the day just by moving you cracked the fabric. And that was what you had on when you slept. That was your outer skin, and you didn’t have two of the kind, just that one.”

At the end of July, Eugen developed a blood infection. Boils covered his body, his neck looked like a neck-brace and he had trouble breathing. There was no doctor in prison, only a pathologist who performed autopsies. And Eugen was sick and shivering with fever. One day, Radu and Iulian found a scrape of metal at work and sharpened it on a grindstone. Then they went to Eugen, Iulian gripped him in his arms, Radu grabbed his head, raised his chin, and cut a hole in the skin of Eugen’s neck.

“The way blood gushes out of a pig’s throat when you cut it, that’s how pus and blood gushed out of his.”

Eugen could breathe again. The next day, his fever was gone and he seemed fine except for a long, red scar on his neck. In July 1984, word came that there would be an amnesty that year in honor of August 23, Romania’s national holiday. Maybe Radu, Iulian, and Eugen could go home, after serving only a few months of their sentence. But only if “the border” was on the pardoned list, and only if they stayed out of trouble.

Eugen recovered from his neck “surgery,” but the infection stuck with him. Soon, another huge boil formed on his ankle. His whole leg was swollen and looked dead. Eugen couldn’t move or work anymore, and he was in terrible pain. Radu and Iulian began to think that only amputation would save Eugen’s life now. But first, they would try their medical procedure on him once more.

One day at work, Eugen collapsed. Once the convulsions began, Radu and Iulian grabbed him, Iulian pinned him down and Radu cut his boil open, just as he did with his neck. Eugen screamed and almost passed out. Orange blood ran down his leg. Radu and Iulian set Eugen on some tires on the side of the work point, to let him catch his breath.

It was around noon when a prisoner-at-large spotted Eugen. He didn’t ask questions; instead he went straight for Eugen and stamped on his open wound with a heavy, dirty boot. Eugen screamed as if his brains exploded.

“What he did to Eugen was beastly and in that instant I remembered the beatings from a few weeks before, at Deta, and I knew how hard it had been on my bones, and I knew how deep Eugen’s leg wound was and how putrid the flesh looked, and I knew how much Eugen suffered right then, and I knew how much he had suffered already, and I knew what it meant to be kicked with a boot. That was the only time in my life when I was capable of killing a human being.”

Radu grabbed his shovel, turned it around, and thrust its end into the prisoner’s mouth. The man’s face cracked open. His teeth broke, his palate crumbled and moved up his nose. Radu threw the shovel to the side.

“I was terrified. I was sure that I would be punished for murder and I was seeing my life ending right there with that bastard.”

The guards jumped on Radu , restrained him, cuffed him up and took him back to jail. An ambulance came and picked up the wounded prisoner. Everyone else had to give a statement that he had witnessed Radu’s crime, even Eugen, who was barely conscious, with pus still draining from his leg.

Next: Doing Time (1984 CE), Part 2

Previous: Nineteen Eighty-Four

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.

[Updated on 2/6/2014: changed the protagonist’s name.]

9 thoughts on “Our Borders: Doing Time (1984), Part 1

  1. Powerful! Wow. When he slit his throat to release the poison I was fully engaged in this disturbing and fascinating story. One question; who are these people? I recall reading about Florina betraying [Radu] to the police, but don’t recall who they are to you?????? Sorry. I’m sure I just missed something somewhere. Either way, fascinating.

    • You are so right, Mindy! I lost perspective. I forgot that each piece has to provide the whole context of the story.
      [Radu] is a friend of mine. I met him in Redmond, Wash. in 2001, a few days after I arrived in the US to start my job at Microsoft. I wrote about this in the first post of the series, but didn’t remind the readers in later installments. I’ll come up with something to improve the reading of this series. Thank you so much for teaching me a valuable blogging lesson, Mindy!

      • I created a series, called Our Borders, and labeled all the blog posts that belong to it. Also, I added notes at the bottom of each post that explain how this series came to be and what it is about. I hope this adds enough context now.

      • Okay, I remember now. Thanks.
        And yes, each blog piece should be a stand alone article. If it’s a series then it needs an intro with reminders for the readers, callbacks to earlier sections of the series.
        It’s such a fascinating story and you’re such a wonderful writer I’d hate for you to lose people because we’re just too lazy to peruse earlier post to connect the dots.

  2. The amnesty was on August the 8th,1984. I remember very clear since we were in Timisoara on the 13th and waiting for the next train to Baile Herculane (our starting point of 3 days hike through the mountains towards the Danube river). On midnight of 15 to 16 of August we crossed the river. I also had furuncles in 1982 at Popa Sapca jail and it is true: there was no medical treatment in jail. However, the government used experimental drugs on prisoners (at least when I was there). Luckily, one of the doctors (a gynecologist prisoner – for illegal abortion) knew that I was an engineer and he told me that the stuff was not good for me and he just wasted the poison by spilling it on my skin, instead of giving me the shot.

    • Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment, Michael. I had no idea they tested medicine on inmates, though it’s not surprising. Do you have any idea what those shots were for? Did people feel the effects of the drugs they received?
      I’m very eager to learn more about your story. How was life in jail for you. What it was like crossing the border the way you did, through the tunnels. Your life in the refugee camp. I hope I get to read that story some day.

      • I have no idea what the drugs were for, but everybody was subjected to it. I knew about the fact that the French government had an agreement with Romanian gov. to test drugs on people (mainly in psychiatric institutions – because they didn’t care if the effects were negative, they cared if the effects were positive only) and in return the Romanian gov. would get something. I have visited an institution where they tested these drugs (my best friend was working there and he told all the details about this deal which nobody outside was aware of). I suspected that in the jail something like that could happen and seconds before my turn to be administered the drug, I told the doctor (which was also a prisoner) that I am an engineer and he spared me from that poison. Another bad practice in the jail was the mix of prisoners with TBC with the rest of the prisoners and such exposing everybody to TBC. I have seen very sick people in my first 3 weeks of jail which was the “quarantine” time. No offense, but some people were disgustingly sick (ex: open cancer on leg with big horrible hole). One night, one of the prisoners in our quarantine cell died and the guards left the body on the hall (on the concrete floor) for 3 days until they resolved with the hospital to record it as “died in hospital”.
        About the crossing, I had nightmares in the beginning of my life here in the US and even one nightmare about a month ago. I escaped the soldiers on the Danube river and heard them talking while I was still in the water, but on the Serbian side. I crossed a few tunnels in Serbia and in between I was looking at the Danube river and watched how the Romanian coast guard was scanning the river with a big light looking for us. Some day I will write my story and will share with whoever want to read it.

        • This is all very important history and I hope you will take the time someday to write it down. Some of the details you provide here might be lost to the world otherwise. I don’t know if there are any records anywhere about the drug trials on Romanian inmates – two years later, when [Radu] was there, he was not part of any trial. Also, in 1984, he seems to have had a better life in jail than you did in 1982, so I wonder what caused the change in the treatment of inmates. All fascinating questions for me, so yes, I want to read the whole story someday.

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