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Fleeing Romania

By Roxana Arama
February 2006


Dan Voicu, 43, spent his youth devising plans to flee Romania. He remembers those times at his house in Redmond, Wash., close to the software company he works for.

            The mildly progressive Romanian socialist regime in the early 1970s tightened completely in the 1980s under Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship. Food, water and electricity were rationed, and the cult of personality left little place for anything else in the centralized media. As living conditions in Romania worsened, many people tried to flee the country.

            Voicu made many attempts to cross the border, always together with the same two trusty friends. “It became an obsession,” he says. They failed each time, but they were never caught. On the night of June 13, 1984, however, things went differently.

            The three men told only their families and close friends about their plan to cross the border to Yugoslavia somewhere around the town of Deta, in the southwest of Romania. They researched the spot for more than a week and learned the frontier guard’s whereabouts.

             They went on with their plan, but found themselves surrounded by soldiers with police dogs. “They were waiting for us,” Voicu says. “They knew about us, they knew we were coming.”

            Later, he found out who had betrayed them. “That person did it on a moment’s impulse, a stupid thing to do,” he says. Once in the interrogation room, an informer was scared into saying more than intended.

            Voicu never sought revenge. “I just chalked it up as bad luck and moved on with my life,” he says.

            The three men didn’t resist arrest and the border patrol took them in handcuffs to their military base. There, shifts changed every four hours and each soldier in the shift beat the prisoners with boots and fists, until morning came.

            Tied to a radiator so he couldn’t defend himself, he soon learned that he hurt only where he hadn’t been hit before. “They went on beating us up for eight, 10, 12 hours,” Voicu says. “I remember the next day at noon I was lying in a bed, all tied up. That’s all I remember, I couldn’t tell exactly what happened during the night.”

            Voicu says that no crime could justify that violence. He heard stories about frontier guards being scared of fugitives because, during their training, they had been shown photos and films of soldiers murdered and mutilated by people desperate to leave the country.

            The military base had no doctors and the three men spent the entire day tied to their beds, conscious and in pain, their bodies covered in blood. “To be honest, I was thinking that that was it, and there was where it would all end,” Voicu says. “I was feeling so terrible and I remember thinking that, when you are about to die, that was probably how you would feel.”

            Although the beating of prisoners was silently encouraged, Voicu’s and his friends’ seemed to have gone too far. He remembers officer after officer coming to their bedside. “They were coming close, checking our wounds, touching our swollen bodies,” he says.

            A few soldiers were ordered to take care of them around the clock, feed them and carry them to the bathroom. The prisoners couldn’t move by themselves and couldn’t even speak. That special treatment lasted for more than a week, until the militia came to take them to the jailhouse.

            “The first time the militia came,” Voicu says, “they refused to take us in because they were afraid that we might die in their custody. They didn’t want to get in trouble. And they left, without us. They came back in 10 days. We were in better shape then.”

            After weeks in different overpopulated detention centers, Voicu and his friends went to trial. They were sentenced to 18 months in prison for attempting to cross the frontier illegally. An amnesty, which the president granted every few years, sent them home in October 1984.

             In prison, Voicu did hard labor, spent time in solitary confinement and adjusted to the rules of the inmates’ society. “I don’t know if I could withstand the hardships now, if I had to do it all over again,” he says. “But one thing is sure, I would do it again, from the beginning.”

            Eventually, Voicu fled Romania and received political asylum in Canada during the 1990s. Although he went through that adventure and many more, he is in good health after all these years. “More psychological traumas remained than physical ones,” he says.


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