The story of Laurian Lodoabă, who lived to tell: „I swam in tar-like black waters. Suddenly, I had the fright of my life”

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The malaise crept in, and got stronger by the day; and so did the thought to leave “the communist paradise”, explains Laurian Lodoabă the reason why he jumped into the Danube waters on July 1, 1989, to defect to the West.

He was at the time, and still is, a dentist. So, he was not at all prompted to defect by economic reasons, but by a genuine quest for civic freedom.

City entry sign, for the village of Şviniţa. Photo: Marina Constantinoiu

A fishing permit was a license to explore the border

Lodoabă was a dentist in the Anina miners’ city, and owned a Dacia car, registered in the Caraş-Severin County. He managed to get a license to fish in the border area, the famous „PG” fishing permit. That document allowed him not only to go fishing at the Danube, but also to study the terrain in the border area.

So, with that document on him, he managed to pass by all police filters in Oraviţa, Cozia, up to Şviniţa, where the Danube flows at its fastest, which is why the locals called that section of the River „at the Boiling Pots”. At this particular place, the Romanian bank of the Danube is low, and covered in soft sand, like a proper beach, but the Serbian bank of the River is rocky and inhospitable.

The Danube, in the Boiling Pots section, was the silent witness to so many desperate attempts to cross the River swimming; by Bogdan Constantinoiu

„The first filter of the border-guards was at Oraviţa. I was pretty well-known in the area, as a dentist in Anina, but also because I had colleagues in the near-by cities whom I visited. I also had the fishing permit on me. These were things that made my travel easier in the area, at the time.

In the Clisura area, the border-guards patrolled every ten minutes. Up to the Naidăş border point it was close to impossible to not be spotted,” explained Lodoabă, who is now a dentist in Lugoj, after returning to Romania in the early ’90s.

The case of sculptor Nicolae Bilanin

„A good friend of mine, a very talented sculptor, whose work is now on permanent display close to the Sports Arena in Lugoj, was Nicolae Bilanin. He kept nagging me to make the border jump together, at Naidăş, for there it was a safer passage way, he said.

Well, at one point in time, this friend of mine went missing. Never to be seen again. His father lived to be over 80, and waited in vain for news from him, till the day he died. He wrote to the local newspaper, he wrote to the authorities, trying to find out what has happened to him, but nothing came out of this.

Many were those trying to defect and failing, only to die at the hands of the violent border-guards. One high-school mate, a few years my senior, was caught while attempting to defect and beaten severely. He died in a short while after that, but the official reason was “cancer””, recalls Lodoabă.

He fled with a friend

He managed to cross the border along a friend from Reşita, Mihai Piersic, who was first-cousin with the famous Romanian actor Florin Piersic.

„I placed all my precious belongings (documents, 300 Deutsch Marks, and an Omega wrist-watch) in a small plastic bag and chose a moonless night; I put on black stockings and a T-shirt in the same color and, at about 02:30 am, I sneaked behind a block of flats and headed towards the Danube waters, which looked like black-tar.

The dawn was close, and I looked behind me, through the morning mist, terrified at what could happen to my wife, who stayed in the border area, since she did not know to swim. Authorities took her in custody, along some other youngsters, due to the information passed by an engineer working at the Mining Company in Anina. She was cuffed and beaten by the police chief in Şviniţa”, said Lodoabă.

For this major feat – that is crossing the Danube swimming –, Lodoabă had trained hours on end in the cold waters of lake at Mărghitaş, near the Anina city, for one had to be a perfect swimmer and accustomed to cold temperatures, to have any hope of success in crossing the Danube River.

“I was midway in crossing the Danube, when I got the fright of my life, as a powerful spotlight started to canvas the waters. I dived and tried to stay under the water surface as much as I could. When I came up again I saw that in fact it was a barge, not the border-police,” Lodoabă explains.

„I was relieved to see the barge and went on swimming, in a powerful water current that took me more than a kilometer away from my planed point of arrival, on the Serbian river bank. The Serbian bank is quite steep, but I managed to get a hold on some roots and climb up. I then reached the road,” recalls Lodoabă.

His friend had reached the river bank in Serbia, ahead of him. After waking a few kilometers, they got to a bus-stop, and climbed a bus. They obviously looked suspicious, having their clothes soaking wet, but no one asked them anything.

In the Pozarevac Prison

Once in the Pozarevac bus-stop, the unthinkable happened: the bus doors opened and two policemen climbed in and started asking questions. Since he knew no Serbian, he was immediately cuffed and taken in custody for 20 days.

„It was quite dramatic the time spent in Pozarevac, for some of us,who were held in custody there, were taken out of the arrest rooms to be returned to the Romanian authorities; obviously the two of us were very much afraid that we will have this fate too,” recalls Lodoabă.

Document issued by the prison in Pozarevac; from the personal photo archive of Laurian Lodoabă

Their next stop was the camp at Padinska Skela, near Belgrade, according to the usual route taken by all defectors who were not immediately returned to the Romanian authorities, by their Yugoslav counterparts.

The nightmare in Padinska Skela

Padinska Skela was not a place to remember fondly. Lodoabă recalls that he shared a cell-room with 15 other people, all guilty of attempting to defect to the West. The air was putrid, the toilet-sink was in the room, and the barred window was a small one, unable to bring in the much needed fresh air. It was also summer time. Many fainted – that bad it was.

At Padinska Skela, the guards kept asking the defectors if they wanted to go back home. Lodoabă’s friend, probably scared of all they had been through, and uncertain of what the future held for them, opted to go back to Romania. In all, they stayed 12 days at Padinska Skela. Lodoabă continued his trip to the West.

At Padinska, he also saw three Romanians who, in desperation, one night broke a window and fled the camp. He had no idea what happened to them. “To some, the need to be free was stronger than the fear of death. Some made it, in this daring way, to Austria or Italy,” he said.

To leave the camp for a UN monitored shelter – sounded like good news

Romanians had few chances of being freed from the camp and placed in a hotel, for Western embassies to take on their cases. Still, Lodoabă got there.

“The Germans and the Hungarians had the best chances to get such a treatment, which allowed them some freedom – albeit limited to 40 kilometers around Belgrade. The food was very poor for people who made it to this upgraded status; the Serbian authorities stole from the food rations, though the facilities and the people housed there were supposedly under the UN protection.

We lived high on a hill, Mitrovice Dom, but rules were strict, and if night-time checks did not found you in your bed, you risked immediate deportation to Romania. All of these made the arrangement less desirable for many, who preferred to make themselves scarce and jump again the borders, this time to Austria or Italy,” Lodoabă recalls.

„Our ranks got thinner and thinner, till there were only two of us left: myself and a forest-ranger. We told ourselves we had to take action, or else we will end up back to Romania.”

Taxiing and taxing people over the border

Two Romanians, who had Australian citizenship but found an easier buck to make back in Europe, were servicing those willing to escape Yugoslavia via Austria. They rented a studio in Vienna, and from this headquarters they were managing the transfer of the defectors to Vienna or even Germany.

Their fee was huge: between 2,500 and 4,000 Deutsch Marks per person, which were to be paid by family or friends the defectors had in the West. So, the two “Australian” guides took us in a Mitsubishi, and we traveled up the Belgrade-Zagreb highway, towards Austria.

One more jump

While on the road, we found out that we had to jump off the car, while it was rolling, and take it straight to the nearby woods, over a forested mountain, and then down again, towards a small parking, on the side of the road, where another “Australian” was to pick us up.

We did jump out of the car, climbed the mountain, but once there, one was lost: it was impossible to find one’s way. Here it was really lucky the forest-ranger knew how to find his. We walked several kilometers, for several hours, and that walk seemed to me more difficult than swimming in the Danube River.

We finally found a small opening into the woods and the parking lot, where … no one was waiting for us. We could not venture further, for if we were caught, we would have been returned to the Serbian authorities. Finally, our “Australian” showed up.

We got into the car and the driver took off at high speed towards Vienna, and the studio they rented. There was the transfer to be made: our friends got us in exchange for the money they paid those guides. The total amount was 5,000 Deutsch Marks, for us both.

Freedom has a price in money

We arrived in Vienna in the evening, after a tiering trip. One of my friends, who already had settled in Germany, was waiting for a few hours now, with the 2,500 Deutsch Marks the guides demanded. But no one was waiting for the forest-ranger. He was sequestrated by the two “Australians” and I have no idea what happened to him next.

My friend and I quickly left Vienna, which seemed to me, at the time, to be awash in street lights, when compared with the almost total darkness our Romanian cities were left in. We drove towards Salzburg, where again I was supposed to jump a border: this time the one between Austria and Germany.

So, after midnight, and on foot, while pulling myself out of mud-holes I seemed glued to, I finally managed to illegally pass this last border.

But I did not get to enjoy this for long, as a new Audi 80 pulled over, and two plain-clothes officers from the secret police KRIPO, got out and told me to stop and raise my hands into the air. They cuffed me and put me on the back bench of the car, and took me to the border-control arrest house.

I had a whole cell to myself, a grilled chicken to eat, and a Coke to drink. In spite of all of my friend’s pleas, the German border authorities took me back and set me free in Austria. I had no money and nowhere to go.

At the „Brother Richard’s”

I walked till late into the night on the streets of Salzburg, until a police patrol told me to go to a shelter in the Mozart Strasse; I got there a clean bed and a little food. I lived like this for three weeks in Salzburg: in the morning I went to the Catholic Cathedral, where pastor «Brother Richard» was giving away breakfast, to those in need: a salami sandwich, and a cup of tea.

He noticed that I had good English. He was born in Hawaii, USA, but came to live in Europe when he was 25, with his father, who was a theology professor at the University in Vienna and good friends with conductor Herbert Von Karajan,” Lodoabă says.

„Brother Richard” had the brilliant idea to dress up Lodoabă in the traditional Tirol costume, and buy him a train ticket to Munich, Germany.

„He saw me off to the train station, bought me the ticket, and told me to jump in, when the train started to move away, since the tickets and identities were being checked on the platform. Someone in the train-cart told me in German: We are at Freilassing! – which  was the first stop on the German soil. I took a deep breath of relief; the next stop was Rosenheim, and the next one after that was Munich, where my good friend was again waiting for me; my adventure was coming to a close,” Lodoabă says.

From Munich, my friend and I went to Ingolstadt, and the next day we were in Nuremberg, where I had to check into a camp there – this was a mandatory step, in order to get access to all the institutions I needed to legalize my status, meaning the City Hall in Ingolstadt, the Tax&Revenue Department, the insurance company, etc. The „Bescheid” document issued at the camp in Nuremberg opened all those gates. I was questioned in the camp for three days.

In the aftermath of the flight

Lodoabă’s flight to the West was not without consequences back home. He was sentenced in absentia, at Oraviţa; his work contract was terminated, but so was his wife’s, who was immediately sacked from the Mining Company of Anina, and thus left with no means to support herself.

Upon his return to Romania, after the demise of the communist regime, Lodoabă asked the Oraviţa Court House to issue a copy of the sentence he received in absentia, but he was sent to look for it in the archives in Reşiţa city. At the end of the day, he did not get the copy of the document.

„We did it to ourselves; we, the Romanians, we humiliated each other, we beat one another, we killed one another at the borders, or in the communist prisons; there were no foreign enemies – no Russians, no Turks, no one else, but ourselves did it to our own kind … And this time, those of us guilty of all those crimes, live among the rest of us, and among the victims; and some of these criminals enjoy huge pensions for the services they provided to the communist state …”, Lodoabă says bitterly.

Even though his flight from Romania took place just a few months prior to the December 1989 Revolution, Lodoabă is not sorry he embarked on it. He had no way of knowing the turn the events in Europe and, for that matter, in Romania, would take. Even so, it was his way to protest the regime. He returned to Romania on August 15, 1991, based on the Law-Decree 7, of December 31, 1989, which decriminalized jumping the borders.

Photo caption: Official approval for return to Romania; from the personal photo archive of Laurian Lodoabă

Also a member of the Union of Professional Writers in Romania, Lodoabă turned his experience into a book he titled „Three Borders”, which had its Romanian issue in 2007, at the Anthropos Publishing House in Timişoara. The German translation of the book was authored by Professor Hans Dama, Ph.D., former head of the Romance languages at the University of Vienna; the German version was titled „Über drei_Grenzen”, and it was issued in 2012, by the Pollischansky Publishing House in Vienna.

The flight from Romania, as told in both Romanian and German; by Laurian Lodoabă

Readers who want to volunteer more information on the topic may reach the investigative journalists at marina.constantinoiu@gmail.com., and istvan.deak2014@gmail.com

About Marina Constantinoiu Istvan Deak
Marina Constantinoiu și Istvan Deak sunt autorii unei serii de producții multimedia dedicate fenomenului frontierist, cu care s-a confruntat România în anii comunismului. Fenomenul, care a marcat o lungă perioadă, între 1948 și 1989, reprezintă o pagină de istorie recentă prea puțin sau chiar deloc cunoscută multora dintre români.

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