I left the prison squeezing water from my trousers. As a warden returned my passport to me, the guard reached out to shake my hand and as though he was reading me the riot act said, “I have something for you.”
I hesitated. A warning? A threat? A search warrant?
“I…” he said sternly, “really like fridge magnets. My wife does not, but I do and I wish to give you a present.” He handed me a flat magnet, the size of my palm. It showed a photograph- the only photograph and keepsake I have of Fortul Jilava 13; the place I had just left.
Jilava 13 once belonged to a chain of fortresses that formed a ‘safety belt’ around the city of Bucharest. It became a political prison in the 1900s and saw executions, torture and a massacre in 1940 that killed 64 prisoners. While it now sits empty, a group of enthusiasts- notably prison guards- are so passionate about keeping it preserved and remembered that they will return outside their working hours to show people around. It’s a very small trickle of visitors- partly because few people know about it, partly because electrical equipment, phones and digital filming devices are forbidden, but mostly because in order to reach the fortress you must cross the grounds of the active prison still on site. Accompanied, of course.
Even though we had been invited to look around, the mandatory passport check was taking time. As we sat outside trying not to worry, the queue of Romanian women waiting for visiting hours began to take an interest. A phone full of photos and some creative miming for those who didn’t speak English helped begin a conversation that was just beginning to flow when the door was opened and we were motioned forward. As we filed into the prison, the women behind us called “it’s haunted, it’s haunted!” A guard made shoo-ing motions at them and assured us that it was not, while another nodded seriously from behind him, implying with just as much conviction that it was.
As I handed over my phone I gave myself the usual lecture about seeing with my eyes and not my screen but I was still concerned- could I do the place as much justice in words as I could with my mediocre camera skills? Had I been allowed my phone, I’d have snapped away at everything in sight but in its absence, I carefully composed shots I couldn’t take; an aged yellow pin-up poster attached to an open cell door with a view of the bunk beds beyond, all right-angles against the stone wall. A blue-tinged corridor where the light never stopped moving as it reflected from the flood-wet floor. A little squeezeway between cells used for solitary confinement- all rusted hinges, darkness and close walls that threw your own voice back at you.
How would I explain scenes that seem borrowed from ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ but were inhabited before the book was written or the film shot? How could I prove I had entered such an impossible-sounding place, in a world where the half-joking refrain is “pictures or it didn’t happen”? While imagining the nonexistent snapshots, I found I had seen more than I would had I actually been using a camera. Had I focussed on the obvious- the heavy (I lifted them) manacles still hanging on their hooks, would I have missed the sentence written in Romanian on the nearby wall, for example? I asked a guard what it said.
“If you want to live, stuff your clothes with straw”, he recited.
It wasn’t the only message on the wall; the guards translated other scratchings for me- notes to family both blood related and otherwise as we made our way down a low ceilinged corridor which echoed, making our words hang in the air for a few seconds after we spoke them. It was a spooky effect and one of the guards began telling me all about the bride that haunted the corridor while his colleague stood behind him and made the finger-twirling sign- universal code for ‘don’t listen- he’s crazy!’
“Do you have a favourite story?” I asked.
“The Australian…” both guards said at once. “We got an email a year or so ago from an old Australian man. He wasn’t going to be in the country for long but was desperate to see the fortress. When he arrived, we asked him what his interest was and he told us he had been imprisoned here once.”
“When? What for?” I asked.
“He wouldn’t say.”
I passed a cell that contained nothing but a lamp and a pile of shoes several feet high, another inhabited by life sized human dummies lying on bunks and sitting in chairs, another full of shop mannequins in various stages of dismemberment.
“We weren’t sure what to do with some of the rooms so thought we’d add some interest”, a guard explained.
I had been warned that things would get wet and so I swore once as freezing flood water seeped through my boots and reached my ankles, then allowed myself to be distracted. The passage began to narrow and I sloshed my way through, squeezing past entrances to the pitch black solitary confinement cells barely wider than my outstretched arms. We stopped by a row of rusted levers sticking through the wall. “Torture”, one guard said as though it explained everything. When he rattled the levers, the beds inside shook and the penny dropped; sleep deprivation. The passageway ended abruptly with a false wall; not even the guards know what lies behind it. It could of course be knocked down but given the building’s structural issues, flooding, and unique status as both historical monument and essential part of an active prison, the cost would be high. Still, something was behind there and I could see that my own questions- especially the obvious ones- had lived and grown old in the guards.
We had barely begun- a full tour could have taken days but Rebecca and I had a flight to catch and we had run out of time. As we left the fortress, I passed a section I was unable to enter- flooded up to my hips at least; another network of cells stood partially submerged. Jumpy little shafts of light reflected from the water we had disturbed and skittered across the walls. Had I my phone with me, this last sight would have been the shot I couldn’t miss- a perfect visual metaphor for barely scratching the surface of a mysterious, eerie and partially impenetrable place. Still, I realised that there is a benefit in knowing the only thing you will leave with is a memory; on more snap-happy trips, I sometimes returned feeling disconnected from my images- as though I’d merely seen the place on television. Having nothing but my eyes, I felt I really saw Fortul Jilava 13- and it deserves to be seen.
I made my way from the guard house to the car following the urban explorers unofficial rule to the letter: “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.” My only photograph on the fridge magnet safe in my pocket, I looked back. My wet footprints were already drying in the sun.
Rebecca let me use her photos as I have none of my own:
This is the last entry in the Romania Chronicles! If you want to read the rest, follow the links below.
Part One: Visiting an abandoned casino
Part Two: A literary revolt in a prison
Part Three: Dracula’s Castle… or was it?
Part Four: I get fooled by a bendy tree and Fake News
Part Five: We nearly die on the Transfagarasan Highway
Now, I have a month-long adventure in the US to write about- and believe me, I have so much to tell you… 😉