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.
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.
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.
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.]