Carabinieri 04

No other police organization beats the carabinieri in sartorial elegance

 

A Touch of Style:

The way you defected from a Communist country was by finding your way to a free nation somehow and, once there, by asking for political asylum. Easy, right? You must be wondering why only a small percentage of the millions of citizens confined behind the Iron Curtain ever did it.

The problem was that the Soviet Block countries in the 60s were in fact large prison camps disguised as “People’s Republics”. Like in any prison, inmates of the Block couldn’t leave at will.

There were only a few ways of crossing the border that didn’t involve risk of capture, injury, or even death. Not unlike any prison break in this country, I suppose.

If you were well connected to the Communist Party, or represented your country abroad in a sports or cultural event, you could leave with no danger hanging over your head. True that if you failed to return home the long arm of the Party, the Securitate, could reach you anywhere in the world, and punish you. I’ve known people who got snatched in broad daylight outside my camp by the Securitate agents, and returned forcefully to Romania, never to be heard of again.

My roommate in the Trieste Refugee Camp, Romica, was one of those people who put his life on the line in exchange for freedom. He floated across the Danube River one night, hanging on to life rings, barely missing the border gunboats

But the way I left Romania wasn’t glamorous enough to describe here. The only risk I incurred was having a few dollar bills concealed inside the hollowed-out heels of my shoes. That transgression wouldn’t have been sufficient to get me shot if discovered by the border guards, but would’ve been enough to land me in a forced labor camp for a few years.

When I surrendered to the Italian police in Milano and asked for political asylum, the first words I heard were that I’d be taken to a “triage” camp in Trieste. That city being practically on the border with Yugoslavia, a Communist country at the time, the promise was alarming to me. So was the fact that on the train ride to Trieste I was escorted by two armed, plainclothes policemen, supposedly provided for my safety.

Padriciano

The Bedroom I shared in the Padriciano Camp with 7 other refugees

Trieste is an attractive port city at the north end of the Adriatic Sea. The hills that cradle Trieste give it a French Riviera-like atmosphere. The camp that was to be my home for the next two months was situated in the village of Padriciano, nestled at the top of one of those hills. I was taken up there from the train station in a windowless police van that sped up the hillside through the hairpin curves with the abandon only men of the law can afford.

It was dark when we arrived at the gate of the United Nations Campo Profughi Stranieri, the Camp for Foreign Refugees. Carabinieri, armed with Beretta Model 12 submachineguns surrounded the van with the obvious intention of looking menacing. The effect was muted however by their stylish black uniforms. Pant legs trimmed with red ribbons, silver braid on scarlet-edged collars, and white patent leather bandoliers gave the carabinieri the air of extras in a romantic operetta.

Thinking back to the thuggish Romanian policemen in their ill-fitting uniforms, I reflected that if I were going to be abused I’d rather suffer the indignity at the hands of someone in a Valentino-designed uniform.

My fears that I’d be dumped over the Yugoslavian border to a fate darker than the one I’d fled from proved unfounded. Instead, I was locked up in a detention cell with barred windows and holes in the cement floor for toilets. I found there a few dozen men from all over the Soviet block, unwashed and unshaved, but grinning silly with the joy of freedom.

The two weeks it took the Interpol to establish I wasn’t a wanted criminal, passed in a flash. Round the clock discussions with fellow refugees, never interrupted by showers or grooming, took the place of entertainment. Then I was free to enter the general camp population with the promise that in 30 days I’d be given a photo ID and be allowed to leave the camp during normal working hours. But I was warned not to seek work of any kind, since that was prohibited by my political refugee status.

Next morning at daybreak, following the example of other inmates, I jumped the 10-foot wall surrounding the camp and lined up along the road in front of the gate, waiting to be picked up by one of the area residents for a day of manual labor. The carabinieri, in their impeccable attire, watched us, benign lawbreakers, with noble indifference. Twelve hours later, tired and covered in construction dust, I jumped the wall in the opposite direction and returned to my bunk. The slim role of banknotes in my pocket was the first money I earned in the free world. Over the next forty years I was fortunate to receive many a paycheck, some obscenely large, but none felt as rewarding as that fistful of liras.

Depending on the nature of the diaspora a refugee camp caters to, life there can be a happy experiment in relativity. What to outsiders looks like the plight of desperate human wrecks, to those on the inside it might be paradise regained. Every day is full of discoveries and hope for the inmates; every moment that passes brings them a step closer to freedom. Neither the dismal sanitary conditions, nor the institutional food can dampen their spirits.

Of course, if the camp is their final destination, as it is for millions of unfortunate people around the world, the relativity theory collapses like a soufflé hit by a blast of cold air.

Two months passed like this, with me breaking the Italian labor laws Monday through Saturday for about $1.00 per hour. Then it was time to move on. My next way station was Campo Profughi Stranieri of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, practically in the shadow on Mount Vesuvius.

Next: Stalag 13: Life in the land of Sole Mio

31 Comments so far.

  1. Frank V says:

    Hello…!
    Well, I was there in 1972… Almost felt, that I red my story…
    Yes, it was an intelligence gethering camp for the FBI and the CIA. Find it very riveting, that they were expecting me to be a traitor of my country. Just released from my National Service of two years, they interviewed me a few times for couple of hours.. I refused to give them the answers, that they were expecting from me…
    It came to my mind, that they might give us back to Yogoslavia, but for some reasons,they didn’t. I spent 3 months in the camp, while normally people were shipped down to Latina or Capua after 30-45 days as this happened at the end of the month.
    Then an other ten months waiting at Latina. After 13 months we were saying to the Land of the Sun, my beautiful and exciting , cultural Italy.
    That year was -perhaps-the best year of my life

    To hear more, write to ustokos48@gmail.com

    Take care and keep smilling

    F.V

    • Victor says:

      Hi F.V. (notice my initials are V.F.).

      Thanks for your comment.

      While in Padriciano (Trieste) I also feared being sent back, in my case to Ceausescu’s Gulag. Or being murdered by one of his agents, as some compatriots of mine had been.

      Capua (Santa Maria Vetere) was my magic place under the sun for a few months. Learned Italian there and saw a lot of history. I visited the Latina camp once, having some friends there. The road to Latina, along the Tyrrhenian Sea was spectacular I remember, even though we were traveling in a beat-up Skoda that consumed more oil than gasoline.

      Are you a reader of my series? Book Two, Empire of the Crescent Moon, will be published in December, 2013.

      Ciao,

      Victor

      • Frank V says:

        Hi Victor..

        Well there were few cases of sending back people as I know, but not many. I nicked of from Hungary so I only know a little about the Hungarian community.. Never been too involved, just tried to enjoy my time in the country. I would have like to stay there, but unfortunately it wasn’t allowed.
        In mean time I traveled as much as I could from Milan to Palermo. Learned the language a bit before I went to Italy, s by the time I left, spoke reasonable Italian.. Today, that is a past… forgot all, because of the time and the lack of practice.
        Over all, as I said, it was a great time, fun and communities.. Favorably remember the year of 1972-73..:)

        Cheers

        F.V.

        Ps: there is a book about this time, that a friend of mine wrote. I am not sure if came out in English or not! I have the Hungarian version of it.:)
        .. and no, I am not a regular here! 🙂

        Ciao

    • I was in Trieste from 1 Aug 72 to 1 Sep 72, then transferred to Capua where I lived until 21 Mar 73.

      May be we know each other.

      • Victor says:

        Hi Eva,

        It is nice to hear from someone who’s had a similar life experience. My stay in Italy was from August 1969 to April 1970. Consequently we could not have met there. I congratulate you on your splendid writing career. Would love to chat more about it. 🙂

      • Frank Vari says:

        Hi Eva..
        Well, we almost met in Padriciano.. as I was there from the 10th of September till the middle of November..
        Because I married my than GF, we went to Latina as a married couple, rather than Capua, as that was for mainly for singles.
        Left Latina in 1973 October.. 🙁 Since than I live in Australia..

  2. Christina says:

    Wow, I just stumbled over your blog by searching for images of the Capua refugee camp, to show my husband.

    My parents and I (also from Romania) were “guests” of the Latina campo from September 71 to April 72, having first spent a month in Padriciano as well. The kicker is we also first went to Milano only to be sent right back to Trieste.

    I actually went to school in Latina, doing the better part of grade 10 in a local high-school (where there wasn’t a public holiday or a strike which seemed to be a weekly event;) because my parents absolutely refused to have me do nothing all day in the camp.

    Thus I learned Italian fairly well and I can still speak it reasonably well now, more than 40 years later, in Canada.

    Your story brought back a lot of memories, mostly of fun times we had despite the dismal housing conditions in Latina. As I recall Capua, which we visited at one time, was possibly worse but memories are distorted after all these years.

    In 1980 my husband and I went to Italy and I took him to Latina to show him the campo. At the time if was way overcrowded with Vietnamese “boat people” so the conditions seemed even worse. I actually managed to enter the camp, boldly walking in as if I belonged, and just as I was trying to sneak my husband in, the guard (I could swear it was the same Capo from 1972 😉 asked me if “he” was my “fidanzato”. It seemed like a good idea to say yes, he winked and let both of us in. He thought I was a resident of the camp and my “fidanzato” must have been my “client”. Such was the unfortunate reputation of many young women from the camp… He’d never have let me in if I’d told the truth but that little trespassing was more appealing to the Capo 😉

    Good times 🙂

    • Victor says:

      Hi Christina! Thank you for your comment. As a person uprooted at an early age you are likely to find echoes of the psychological impact of this phenomenon in Vlad’s life story, beginning with Book Two, “Empire of the Crescent Moon”. I hope you will follow his long “hero’s journey” that will occupy seven volumes. And if you have not yet begun the reading, there is an additional “bonus” for you in Book One, “Son of the Dragon”: one of the female characters there is named Christina. 🙂 I look forward to your feedback and to your reviews on Amazon (please use amazon.com for reviews, not amazon.ca; it is at the former site that most of the reviews accumulate and thus have the biggest impact on prospective readers).

      • Christina says:

        Hi Victor,

        Looking forward to reading your book 🙂

        Incidentally the story you told in this article is giving me the needed inspiration and push to eventually, hopefully add some flesh to a site I started years ago about my family. But I hit a dry spell quite early on so not much was written. Hopefully I’ll get around to it soon.
        Just for giggles, here’s where it’s at: http://goo.gl/or2HjZ . It’s been that way for 3 years … pretty lame LOL

    • Paul says:

      Hi Christina,
      Do you by any chance know if anything remains of the camp at Padriciano, and where it is.I tried to show it to my wife on google maps but since I was there in 1979, at 11 years old at the time,I only remember you had to walk through farm paths to get there.
      Your comment on your Latina visit brings back memories.
      My dad escaped Prague in 1969 and was in both camps and went to Germany.My mum escaped with me in 1972 and we met up with my dad at the Red Sea in Bulgaria.
      On route to Germany we were arrested by Romanian border guards at the Yugoslav border,and put on an Aeroflot plane back to Prague.
      My parents jailed,my great granma looked after me.
      So in 1979 another holiday to the Red Sea we took off at the Bulgaria-Yugoslavia border, with my now one year old brother.We drove through Yugoslavia towards Italy,dumped the car on the coast at Lazzareto and walked across the border to Trieste
      overnight.
      Then on trains and walking across borders made it to Germany to apply for asylum.
      After being interviewed, the German police transported us back to Austria.
      Being interviewed now in Austria,were told we needed to apply in Italy.But they didn’t transport us,so we had to jump the border on foot back to Italy.
      We ended up in Padriciano.
      At school the drunk teacher fell asleep and my hungarian friend Laszlo,loaded a blank cartridge into a revolver and fired it to wake him up, so the camp school was closed.The camp was soon quaranteened due to yellow fever and everyone was sent to Latina.
      Since my dad was at the camp in 1969 and 1980, I can tell you it was the same gate guard.
      I had friends at the camp,who were from a large Romanian family,maybe five or six kids.I thought the kids were born in the camp as the family was stuck there maybe from your time, due to some Italian paperwork limbo.
      Waiting for 14 months while the Italians kept loosing paperwork,we were given the choice to be in Australia in a few weeks.
      We got on a plane to the Villawood camp in Sydney.
      And then I grew up on tropical beaches.

      • Victor says:

        Hi Paul,

        The Padriciano camp has been transformed into a research center.

        If your father was in Padriciano in 1969, he and I might have met. I was there from August to November when I was sent to Capua.

        I think that when you said “Red Sea” you meant to say “Black Sea”.

        Victor

      • Christina says:

        Gosh, Paul, your adventures are much more dramatic than our story. I have not been back to Padriciano, nor to Trieste, since we left for Latina in September 1971, so no idea what happened later on. A lifetime away.

        My parents didn’t consider Australia at the time because it was too far from Europe. We only ended up in Canada, in Montreal, because 1) no European country was accepting immigrants and 2) it was the only country that did accept immigrants where French is an official language, as my parents didn’t speak English at the time. Mom never learned it, but Dad eventually did. So in Montreal we remained.

  3. Christina says:

    Sorry I seem to have posted twice, but it was due to a strange error that happened the first time: Duplicate content …..

    Sure enough then it was duplicate. Methinks it’s a WP bug;)

    • Victor says:

      Don’t worry, Christina, I’ll remove the redundancy.

      Glad to know I inspired you a little. Perhaps after you read my book you’ll start writing novels too. 🙂

  4. Christina says:

    Novels…. I’ll leave the writing to the pros and I’ll just read them 🙂

    I might just write little chronicles if and when I feel more inspired than lazy 😉

    Strange that I don’t get any notification of replies from here. I checked my spam folder and there’s nothing. I guess you didn’t enable that option.

  5. Christina says:

    Hah, and now I just enabled notifications myself 🙂

  6. Christina says:

    I got your reply by email so all is good 🙂

  7. Jason Sulisufay says:

    Wow my father was a albanian refugee who went to yugoslavia was jailed then came to italy. He was in trieste refugee camp from 1962-1964

    • Victor says:

      Hi Jason,

      I had a couple of Albanian friends in the Trieste camp in 1969. They also had come through Yugoslavia and were hoping to make it to France. Very nice people.

      Are you reading the Dracula Chronicles? If yes, I’d love to have your feedback. In Book Three, the “House of War”, which I am writing now, your national hero Skanderbeg will be playing an active role. He has already made a small appearance in Book Two, the “Empire of the Crescent Moon”.

  8. Siggy Madai says:

    Hi Victor,

    I was in Italy as well from 1968 Agusztus 4 to Jan 14 1969 Then came to Canada by boat. I was in Trieste for 2 months. Then down to Latina then to Capua from there to Naples. We had a soccer team 11 and we met after 45 years for the fist time in Las Vegas 3 years ago. Now we keep the tradition up and meet every year. We had a really good times in Capua Now I live in North Vancouver Canada.

    Thanks Siggy

    • Victor says:

      Hi Siggy,

      Like you, I enjoyed my stay in Trieste and Capua. Unfortunately, I have lost contact with all my “inmates” but one. Have you read my books? If you do read them, you might be lead to believe that I do not like Hungarians, because I present some of them in a poor light. But, you will notice I do the same with some Romanians who deserve to be singled out as scoundrels. As an experienced person, you know there are good and bad people on all sides. For the record, I have nothing but admiration for the Hungarian culture and history. And I’ve had, in my youth in Koloszvar, a good number of cherished Hungarian friends.

      Best wishes,

      Victor

  9. Jarek says:

    A few days ago it has been 46 years when I was escorted by the Italian carabinieri to the Refugee camp Padriciano. The comments above have brought to me many memories from those days when I was homeless, stateless, with no possessions but free and happy. After staying in that camp for 6 weeks, I was moved to the camp in Latina, and eventually I made it to my dream country Canada. I miss some people who shared those days with me as a refugee. I would appreciate very much if somebody in possession of some photos from those camps to post them on this web.

  10. Attila says:

    Hi Victor,
    By the way it a great website.
    I too know something of the ”Order of the Dragon”.
    I too was there in Trieste and Capua, and Latina in 1969-70.
    I too remember you Victor and some of your friends. Remember you cause I had known you way back in the Old Country, my beloved Transylvania.
    Our families known each other as well, and we both lived in same NW suburb of the most beautiful city.
    Just wanted to send a comment, and gratitude for remembering all that.
    Please keep writing, and may our paths cross again. Was delighted to find this here after my 45 years of exile.
    With Kind Regards
    Attila

  11. Jarek says:

    Inline image 2Inline image 1Inline image 3
    Interesting story Paul.
    I was in Padriciano and Latina from June to December 1969. There were quite a few refugees who had tried their luck to get to Germany as you did. Directly from Italy to Austria and then to Germany was a very difficult route to take at that time. If one was apprehended by the Austrian guards, it meant 60 days in the Austrian jail, and then deportation back to Italy. Only known to the refugees, there was set up a system how to get there through France. The border crossing point to France was the railroad tunnel to Menton(Fr) and to Germany by Strasbourg. On the way, there were also known some spots where one could get some food and rest without being betrayed to the French police. To be arrested in France meant 40 days in some really rotten jail.
    There were also available an English language lessons in Latina but very few refugees took the advantage of it .
    When I visited Italy in 1980, Padriciano camp was already closed, but lots of improvements were made in Latina, especially regarding the food.
    I enclose some photos taken in Latina in 1969.
    On that photo by the sea are refugees in Lido-Latina.
    That room where I stayed was infested by the bed bugs and from the window I watched the rats playing. It was the smallest room in the block and later on there were 4 of us.
    Unfortunately I have not any photos from Padriciano.

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