ALHAMBRA — Foiled by police during his first attempt to escape communist Romania two years ago, Nicolae Risnoveanu was convinced that he would be killed if he tried again and failed. He believed the horror stories he heard back in his hometown of Contanta.
One of his neighbors who had tried to escape was captured and beaten by Romanian border guards so badly that he had to have a kidney removed. But he lived.
Those caught trying to breach the borders a second time would certainly not be spared, Risnoveanu told himself soon after his own capture. He had swum across the Danube at night to Yugoslavia and, on the advice of villagers there, turned himself over to the police. But the police bused him back to Romania, where he was charged with attempting to leave the country without permission.
Now 29 and living in Alhambra, Risnoveanu still remembers the beatings he suffered when he was returned to Romania. The guards skillfully avoided hitting his face, pummeling his vital organs through the body instead.
But Risnoveanu never let go of his dream to be reunited with his younger brother Julian, a former world-class wrestler who defected during a 1986 competition in Greece and who eventually settled in Alhambra.
As he sat handcuffed on the train with another prisoner and a guard, Risnoveanu kept his mind on freedom. And when the train slowed down to approach a station, he persuaded the guard, who had been eyeing the gold chains Risnoveanu was wearing, to remove the tight handcuffs that had restricted his blood circulation and turned his hands purple. Then, when the guard looked away for a moment, Risnoveanu made his move. He clambered through a train window, bruising himself in the desperate scramble.
A split second before he leaped from the moving train, Risnoveanu turned and saw a stunned expression on the face of his fellow prisoner. He said he could tell that the man longed to follow him, but the man didn't budge.
The rough landing added to the bruises on Risnoveanu's body, but there were no broken bones. When the guard realized what had happened, he made a commotion, yelling after Risnoveanu, then shooting at him as he ran into the woods.
On June 23, 1988, after two attempts and a trek marked by hunger, near drowning during a second swim across the Danube River, and 10 months in an Austrian refugee camp, Risnoveanu embraced his brother Julian in a joyous reunion at Los Angeles International Airport.
Talked of Escape
"For me it was an important moment," said Nicolae Risnoveanu, who first talked to his brother about an escape nine years ago when they were both living in Contanta. "I waited for this moment for a long time."
Julian Risnoveanu said that at the airport, his brother's face reflected his ordeals. He "looked like a man who had been through a lot," he said.
Now, eight months later, Nicolae glows with health and optimism. His face bears little resemblance to the gaunt, bushy-haired young man whose picture appears on his refugee documents.
He lives with his brother and sister-in-law Sherrie Wang Risnoveanu in their Alhambra condominium and is still a bit awed by his new surroundings.
"For me it was something like a dream," Nicolae said, recalling the skyscrapers he saw in downtown Los Angeles. "Everything here is huge."
The two brothers have started a part-time home remodeling business, using skills they learned from their stepfather. They hope to earn their contractors' license so that they can bid on bigger contracts.
They miss their family in Romania, but not the government there.
Julian, 27, said that as a former champion wrestler in Romania, he enjoyed privileges and travel opportunities that the average Romanian could only dream about. But he said he risked it all because life under a socialist government was stifling.
"I just hated the system," he added. "You can't speak anything." People did not even dare to speak frankly with friends because "you don't know what your friends are," he said.
People confide in family members only "if you trust them," Nicolae said.
The brothers still remember watching teachers whack their students with rulers because the youngsters had been caught attending church.
"In socialism there is no membership in church," Julian said. "You're supposed to educate yourself, not waste your time on church."
"It's like a cage," Julian said of his life in Romania. "I always felt trapped."
After he defected in 1986, the government demoted his stepfather, a painter/remodeler, and fired Nicolae from his job of driving trucks.
Blacklisted by the government, Nicolae began planning his escape. He ran and swam daily to get in shape, training clandestinely so as not to arouse suspicion.
That training came in handy, especially during his second try across the Danube River, when his left leg became temporarily paralyzed from exhaustion. He panicked and went under 12 times, gulping more water each time, but eventually he reached the Yugoslav side by swimming mainly with his arms.