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I Almost Got My Head Chopped Off By Illegal Lumberjacks

I was attacked by an angry mob in a Romanian forest.

by Alex Nedea
01 September 2014, 2:16pm

Illustration: Cătălin Banu

My name is Alex Nedea. I'm a journalist and I narrowly escaped death by getting “hit with the pointy part between my antlers”. No, you won’t find the expression on Google. It's the kind of phrase which will never make it onto the internet (OK, except in this article). You can only really hear it in a Romanian forest near a village called Dămuc, which is where I found out about it.

It was 2009 and I was there over the summer to do a report about the mysterious disappearance of hundreds of hectares of trees from the woods around the village. To be precise, the whole area was cleared out. Like it had been close-shaved with a chainsaw. The forests which used to fan out over three mountain tops and seven valleys now had fewer trees than your local pub garden.

Dămuchad had become a sort of kingdom for wood barons. You were the village idiot if you didn’t have a cutting tool in your back yard to process the lumber on yours days off. (Or nights off, rather, because that was when the illegal cutting happened). Some axe owners had become so rich that they built small palaces next to their farmhouses.

In their backyards you could see that they had exchanged their horse-drawn carts for 18-wheel big rigs, like the one Santa drives in the Coke Christmas advert. They drove them on the village dirt roads day and night. At night they would transport the goods, and during the day they would be driven through town like cars. They drive a rig to the other side of the village just to have a few beers with their friends. The rigs were also a good vantage point from which to see if there were any police around.

Before I went in the woods to film the devastation, I spoke to the people in the village for two days to see how they ended up in such a catastrophic situation. I found out that there was a multicultural aspect to it: Dămuc was on the border between Neamţ and Harghita counties. So, where I was there were Romanians, and on the other side of the county line they were ethnic Hungarians. Between them there was a forested mountain.

At first, they started a verbal war: the Romanians yelled at the Hungarians that they would steal their wood and the Hungarians told the Romanians that the forest belonged to them. This went on for about ten years. Then they entered phase two of the war. The Romanians climbed the mountain and started chopping down the wood, so the Hungarians couldn't do it before them. The Hungarians, of course, wouldn’t be outdone by the Romanians, so they also started cutting down the forest too. When I arrived, they had finally reached a truce. They were satisfied: the Hungarians weren’t stealing the Romanian’s forest and vice versa, because there wasn’t anything left to steal.

We had filmed most of our story, and we were going in the woods to tape the final scenes. The team was comprised of me, my assistant, the camera operator and two foresting inspectors who were pulling their hair out after they’ve seen the local tree massacre. Their mouths were opened so wide from shock at seeing the devastation that two bears could hibernate inside.

When we were returning to the roadside where we had left our cars, we found ourselves in a scene right out of The Lord of the Rings. What looked like an army of howling Orcs was running down the hill after us. There were about a hundred villagers armed with pitchforks and axes. They yelled something which I didn't quite catch, but I think was “Te omor” (I will kill you).

The crowd caught up to us and basically carried us off. I could hear two old men fighting over who got our necks first. They all smelled of plum brandy. One grabbed my neck, the other grabbed my hair and the third grabbed my neck and my hair. I heard one scream: “Waaaagh, what are yous doing in the forest?” I don’t know if it was from fear, but my tongue was paralysed. I tried saying something, but the words came out all wrong.

They soon found a solution to the situation: they would kill us. Each had his own proposition. Some wanted to behead us. Some to crush our skulls with the axe, but most just wanted to “hit ’em with the pointy part between their antlers.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it didn't sound great.

Hours of interrogation and slapping followed. I told one guy who had his hand around my neck what we were doing in his woods. I told him that we were journalists and wanted to film the local scenery. The guy seemed to be OK with that, but I then another guy yelled, “You can go to hell with your fucking television! The hell you doin’ in ma’ woods?”

I tried to call the police. I didn’t have signal. One of them took my phone and threw it in a puddle. Then he said, “I’ll behead you, you know.” Another took my glasses and crushed them. One of the foresting inspectors got punched in the neck. The other was trying to protect his saddle-bag from all the people who were tugging on it. His feathered forester hat was crushed by fists. He looked like a freshly plucked chicken.

In all this chaos, I remember two people: a one-legged old man with a crutch, who yelled, “Let’s kill’eeeem!” every time things seemed to calm down and all the youngsters would follow his lead with expressions like: "behead, crush, slice and dice". Or, “Feed them to the pigs!” There was also a blue-eyed blonde guy, who was silent like a wildcat. You could see him darting between the angry members of the mob and slamming his fist in the camera operator's head, or in the forester’s chest. He punched from behind and backed away quietely.

After two hours, they took us to a shed. There, I got an idea. I climbed a beer crate so the people could see me. “Sit the fuck down,” one of them said while pulling me. I broke away. I began my speech, saying, "Just let me say one thing people, kind people!” Then I tried to use every regional term I could remember from my childhood in the countryside. I told them that we were sent to the forest by the owner of our television station, the famous media tycoon Vântu. “Vântu must come!” “Vântu must answer for this!” They yelled all this with their fists high like at a rock concert.

I told them that if they let me go to make a call somewhere, I could call Vântu to pay them. That he would come there with the helicopter they sometimes see on Realitatea TV. “Make Vântu come with his helicopter!”

That’s how I escaped, but I had to leave the rest of my crew as collateral. After calling my office, they came. Not Vântu with his helicopter, but the police with their van. Specifically, two vans of riot police ready to hit them with the pointy part between their antlers. Only, you know, with batons.

When it was all over,we went to the police station to identify our assailants. The police told us we got lucky. “If you’re not home in a body bag, you’re OK. They wanted to hit you with the pointy part between your antlers and leave you there”. The pointy part was a tree cutting instrument. Given lack of trees, it now needed a different use.

Follow Alex on his blog.