„No one came to inquiry about them.” The defectors the Romanian State keeps into oblivion
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Two weeks short of ten years ago, I strolled on the Serbian bank of the Danube River, among Romanian speakers, in Kladovo, Negotin, Tekija, or Donji Milanovac. They were people of all ages, friendly, open to share all they knew first-hand or heard about the Romanians resting in their cemeteries.
„No one, no one came to inquiry about them”, they kept on saying, still wondering how could that be, since there was no cemetery on the Serbian bank of the Danube River to not have Romanian defectors interred.
We also visited then the Novi Sip cemetery „of the unidentified”, or „of the Romanians”, as the locals called it. The rich grasses covering their tombs made them stick out from the rest of the plots. The cemetery was located on a hill-side, and one could see from afar a long, green stripe of untouched grass, covering the tombs of the unidentified Romanians, on which flowers were sparsely cast.
Ten years on: same cemetery, new tombs, for the new refugees
Forward jump today, meaning 2016, when we arrived again in Novi Sip. The cemetery was relocated there in the ’70s, in anticipation of the dam built at Orşova, which took under water the grounds of the former village of Stari Sip.
The local people told us at least 50 bodies belonging to Romanians were re-interred at Novi Sip. No one knew, however, how many Romanians were interred in the original Stari Sip cemetery, before the relocation of the whole community on higher grounds.
Three new graves, a little off from the alignment of tombs, popped up at Novi Sip cemetery, where Romanians were formerly buried. These tombs were not there ten years before.
The man helping the priest around the church is old and small as a nut, but still going strong; he tells us what happened: „Four or five years ago they started moving the older bones at the cemetery in Prahovo, for we have to make room here for the Kosovo refugees who died here.”
Chaotic order in the cemetery
We had just came from Prahovo. We knew Romanians were interred there too, at some point, but there were no signs, no crosses to mark the unidentified bodies and, generally, it was the most chaotic cemetery we had ever seen.
Wandering the cemetery, while searching for any sign to identify the dead gives one pause for thought: while decades have passed since they rest here, in unmarked tombs on the Serbian bank of the Danube River, decades have passed too since their relatives tried in vain to find them.
Tekija, Golubinje, Prahovo, Novi Sip, Mala Vrbica are but a few of the villages where Romanians killed, while attempting to flee their own country, were buried. Their graves are now just little dirt mounds.
Romanian authorities are oblivious, in denial or accessory after the fact?
Sparse information, collected in a haphazard way, by journalists, on the actual location of the Romanian defectors killed, while attempting to escape the communist regime, may not achieve the same results as an ample, official investigation, prompted by state authorities, which have both the man-power and the financial means to cover all grounds.
A political decision to that effect is imperative, since time is not on the side of the those seeking the truth in earnest. Eye-witnesses, forensic doctors, priests, locals who became privy to these people’s stories – they all are getting older and dying. Old age and death reaches the relatives of the victims too.
Why are present-time authorities procrastinating decision in that regard? Are they waiting for all these people to die and thus all the information they hold to be forever lost?
It seems unfathomable, and yet results are a fair indication of the intent, always.
Twenty-six years ago, Romanians stood up for regime change. And yet, only two or three communist time prison-guards, now in their nineties, had been brought to justice since.
The complete oblivion of this tragic and criminal past, coupled with the rampant spread of any opinion via the Internet, gave way to a true negationist trend.
People, ignorant of their country’s recent past, deny there were people killed at the borders, deny there were people fleeing the country by any means …
Forensic data is archived and impossible to dismiss
All those nay-sayers should know that archives still hold accounts of forensic doctors who described the bodies they were called to examine: approximation of age, description of clothing items or footwear and their labels – all were recorded and are on record. These data is available for review in Serbia, Romania or Germany.
Police and forensic doctors reports were mandatory when dead bodies were found. This means a wealth of information was collected, starting with the place and time of the discovery of the body; its position, its condition, the likely cause of death, the documents found on it, if any. Photographs are also part of these files. There, in sifting through all that data, lie the answers their families sought for so long.
Many of the unidentified or undocumented bodies, forensic doctors were still able to identify as Romanians, according to many clues: tattoos, or clothing and footwear labels, for instance. The Serbian authorities notified their counterparts, when these cases occurred, but the Romanian side often decided to not go through, and abandon the case and the body to the other side of the border. This is how so many Romanians ended up not only dead, but also buried in nameless tombs over the border, instead of being fully identified and returned to their families.
1, 2, 3, and counting
On April 2nd, 1989, the forensic doctor in the area was called to perform the autopsy of a male body discovered 1.5 km away from Donji Milanovac. He put the age at around 35; the height was 1.7 m; the build was athletic. The body was already starting to decompose, and in some areas the shin bone was exposed, probably from fish bites. The body was eventually taken over by the City Hall in Donji Milanovac, and buried in the village cemetery
Another body was discovered by the villagers of Mala Vrbica, one freezing morning. He was wearing just a swim suit, and had a back-pack striped to his body. His fingers were glued to the thread tyeing the bag with warm clothes, that he was unable to open anymore.
Exhausted by the swim in the cold Danube waters, he whaled all night, and a villager heard him, but he thought nothing of it, assuming there was a bunch of drunkards making noise. Apart from clothes, his bag also held the photograph of a young woman.
The forensic doctor performed the autopsy; two women in the village clothed his body; another villager gave the timber to make a coffin; and another one gave his horse and cart to take the man’s body to the cemetery
Everybody in Mala Vrbica knows about the dead Romanian they once found and interred, but the accurate details are gradually fading.
Many Romanian journalists investigated the topic of border jumpers and published the eye-witness accounts they recorded, but two such journalists, living in and covering mainly the western counties of Romania, also collected these stories in their respective books. Doina Magheţi put her findings in The Border (1999, and a 2nd print in 2007) and in The tombs are silent. Witness accounts from the bloodiest border in Europe (2009) , while Brînduşa Armanca authored The border jumpers. The recent history, as recorded in media reports (2nd print in 2011).
Both authors refer to the dead bodies that made it to the Romanian side of the border, that were interred in the cemetery „Poiana stelei”, in the Orşova city, and quote grave-digger Ion Herici, who stated, back in 1995, that he himself dug the graves for about 20 defectors shot at a turn of the Danube River called Clisura Dunării.
Among the people identified were Ion Roman, of Utvin, dead in 1983; Liviu Ursu, of Reghin, and a student in Cluj, dead in the ’80s; Ferenc Tamas, of Reghin; an unidentified young woman who jumped off the train and straight into the Danube, at Vârciorova; Valentin Boari, whose body was fished out of the Danube in 1987, and who was interred there too, as an unidentified body, until his mother found him and exhumed him to relocate the body.
A mother’s account
„When I was called to identify my son’s body, the person assisting the forensic doctor told me they identified marks of violent acts on his body. Also suspicious is the fact that all papers and photos Valentin had on him were in pristine condition, but the birth certificate had been torn to pieces by the local policeman in Orşova.
Why was that so? This was not consistent with the papers being found floating in the Danube, as the authorities told us. The death certificate recorded the date of death as March 31, 1987, and the cause of death as drowning. How could that be true?
My baby was an excellent swimmer! The official story was that some people gathering wood on the Danube River bank saw Valentin’s body floating by; his papers were allegedly fished out of the water by a fisherman, in the Orşova bay area, on the very day he was interred as an unidentified person.
Last fall I finally mustered the courage to go and place some flowers on his first burial site,” told Nadia Boari, Valentin’s mother, to Doina Magheţi, who recorded her testimony in the 2007 print of the book The Border .
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