Previously: In her third year at university, Carmen realised with startling clarity that Romania had no future and she had no future in Romania. She decided that the first part of her escape plan was to get a passport and visa to neighbouring Hungary, also communist, to visit family friends.
Carmen divulged her true intentions to her family only a short time before she left. Although her parents were concerned for her safety, they did not try to stop her. Her mother gave her a heavy gold chain as a parting gift and arranged for long time family friends, John and Stella, to give Carmen a lift. There were also going on holiday to Hungary and had arranged for relatives to look after their young children for a few days.
So on a Friday in July 1987, with a few clothes, some family photos and her meagre savings, Carmen hopped into John and Stella’s new white Dacia. It was a thing to be proud of, that Dacia, a car designed and manufactured in Romania.
‘So, what are your plans in Hungary?’ asked Stella, just after they had crossed the Romanian Hungarian border.
‘I really want to try to escape,’ said Carmen. ‘I don’t know how at this point. I’m waiting for God to show me but I really want to escape from Hungary into Austria. I’d love to be in Austria by next Friday.’ Carmen’s belief that God’s hand was in this made her speak as if she were merely talking about sightseeing.
When they heard of Carmen’s plans, John and Stella promised to do what they could to help: drop her off in Budapest, or at the border between Hungary and Austria, or wherever she wished. But the trio continued the first part of their holiday as planned and soon the little Dacia pulled up at the farm of mutual friends.
These friends were exceptional farmers. Carmen enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing weekend – long conversations over convivial meals. Meanwhile, John and Stella were wrestling privately with a most difficult decision. By Wednesday, they had made up their minds.
‘If you are going to escape,’ they said, ‘we want to escape with you. If we were to go back to Romania, we will feel sorry all our lives for not going with you. What are your plans? How are you going to escape?’
Delighted that she now had two travelling companions, Carmen said, ‘I heard that sometimes you can go to the border between Hungary and Austria and tell them that you are from Romania and they’ll let you go. Just like that.’
‘OK. We like the idea. Let’s try.’
On Friday, John, Stella and Carmen drove to Budapest. Carmen marvelled at the city, which was more advanced than anything in Romania at the time. John studied some maps and said, ‘Yeah, we can go.’
Just after lunch, they pulled up at the checkpoint on the Hungarian Austrian border. A boom gate barred the road, and guards were patrolling the area.
Because of her fluency in Hungarian, Carmen was the designated spokesperson. Even though she was fully aware that they didn’t have the requisite visa to enter Austria, she spoke to the guard, full of confidence, ‘Look, we are three people from Romania and we would like to go into Austria, if you will allow us.’
‘Who told you that you can do that?’ he shouted. ‘No, we never do that. No! You just go back to your country!’
His angry words crushed her. For the first time since she left Romania, Carmen wondered if she had imagined everything. If not for John and Stella, she might have given up. But John studied the map and located another checkpoint, ten minutes away.
‘Let’s try again,’ he said.
As they approached the second checkpoint, Carmen saw guards shaking their head and knew what they were thinking: Look at these foolish Eastern Europeans in their Dacia, what are they doing heading for Austria? But no one stopped them, so they kept driving until they reached the checkpoint.
‘Look, it’s three of us, we are from Romania and we would love to go into Austria. Will you allow us to do that?’ asked Carmen, her heart beating wildly.
‘Wait. Pull over,’ said the guard. He collected their passports and walked off.
Taking this as a sign of hope, John, Stella and Carmen began praying earnestly. About ten minutes later, the guard returned and said, ‘Just go. I don’t want to know who you are. I don’t want to know anything about you.’
‘Thank you! Thank you! Take this,’ said Carmen, overcome with gratitude, holding out her mother’s gold chain as a gift.
‘No. I have never seen you. Just go.’
On the plush sofa in her living room, Carmen pauses. She removes her glasses and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘Sorry,’ she murmurs.
‘What did he look like?’ I ask.
‘About fifty to fifty-five years old. Well built. Blond. Balding on top. A reddish face.’ It is as if she can still see him. ‘He knew what he was doing.’
Carmen struggles to contain her emotions. I glance down at my notes to give her privacy. Finally, her voice breaks the silence.
‘All those months of preparation, I could start to see it happening. It was just overwhelming to see the way for freedom, to see God freeing us.’
Having cleared the Hungarian checkpoint, John, Stella and Carmen drove, in a state of euphoria, across the borderlands. At the Austrian checkpoint, the police were concerned about the small matter of motor insurance for the Dacia. After a few hours, when the problem was resolved, the police welcomed them to Austria and instructed them to follow the road to the UN Refugee Camp.
‘We were five days in quarantine. We were not locked up in a prison. We were checked for health and stayed in a dormitory where we were treated well and we met refugees from all the communist countries: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Albania – I can’t remember if there were Russians,’ says Carmen.
She tells me they received photo ID that declared them to be refugees under the protection of the United Nations. There were several organisations working with the refugees, and Carmen chose to put in her application for resettlement through The World Council of Churches. Social workers took them under their wing and helped them apply for refugee status in Austria and then for permanent residency in a country of their choice. John and Stella’s visa was processed very quickly.
‘They left just before the end of November 1987,’ says Carmen.
‘But their children?’ I ask. ‘How old were their children?’
‘Probably twelve, ten and eight, something like that.’
‘Must have been a very difficult decision,’ I say and try to imagine saying a casual goodbye to my young children and five days later trying to escape. This means leaving my children behind for weeks? Months? Years? Forever? I think I would go mad, worry gnawing away my insides. I can see myself pushing my nails as far into the flesh of my palms as I can, trying to use physical pain to take the edge off the pain inside. I don’t think I could have done it. And this underscores to me how I do not understand at all what it was like to live year after year in Ceausescu’s Romania, how the days darkened and lengthened into a future so bleak that a mother would gamble for freedom, rather than to risk a life of regret.
‘Yeah, it was. It was very hard.’
‘Were they reunited in America?’
‘Yeah, after that they got their children.’
‘So Romania would allow her citizens to migrate if someone from another country sponsored them?’
‘Yeah. But there was a long wait and sometimes it would not be approved. You had to pay a lot of bribes to the police department. Was just very difficult. Much more difficult to go that way than to escape, to be honest.’
From an old photo album, Carmen shows me a Polaroid picture of herself in her room on the first floor of a pub-motel in Austria. Blue handwritten notes fill the white space below the picture: December 1987.
Spending her first Christmas away from home, Carmen arranged a small Christmas tree on the desk in her room. A basket of oranges, a few bottles of drinks, packets of biscuits and wrapped gifts were under the tree, an ode to the abundance of the free West.
Carmen is wearing a white dress with black geometric prints, a present from her aunt, a dress that would not have looked out of place in Vogue magazine. Several sheets of English words and phrases are stuck to the wall.
Carmen’s mother sent her cassette tapes and books titled Learn English Yourself and Carmen set up a disciplined schedule. She studied English for two hours every morning and every afternoon. Although United Nations paid all her expenses and gave her some monthly allowance, she also cleaned the motel for extra cash, which she used to go on sightseeing tours.
There are photos of Carmen in a striking red blouse paired against a white skirt. She is sitting by a huge raised flowerbed, several tour buses parked in a background. In another photo, she is in a shop, browsing through postcards on a carousel, the shop crammed so full of goods that you would have to squeeze past other customers in the narrow aisles to get to the cashier.
‘I remember when we went into this first supermarket. Lights, bright lights and bright colours, I just entered into a new world. Everything was different. Everything was super good’– she chuckles –‘after coming from dark Romania, where the streets were dark and the supermarkets were empty. We had money but there was no food in the supermarkets so you were actually left with the money in your pocket.’
In the photo album there is also a small watercolour portrait of Bill and Flora’s son, Adrian. An elderly Austrian gentleman had asked Carmen about the letters she was receiving. He painted Adrian’s portrait for her from a photograph she had of him.
I study a photograph of Carmen sitting on one of those airport chairs that are stuck together, the whole row anchored to the floor. She is wearing that same Vogue dress and holding a small clutch bag. She is smiling. She is tiny beside Adrian’s hulking frame. He is down on one knee, a bunch of red carnations in his hands. He is wearing a black suit and tie, as if to give gravitas to the day Carmen first stepped onto Australian soil, 27 July 1988.
This is part of the serial online release of ‘Refuge’. The next episode, Skin Names, will be published next Friday, 10 May. Subscribe for links to new instalments emailed directly to you.