This article was originally published by VICE Romania
"Maybe when they release me, I can find my own old fella," Magdalena tells me, after we are disturbed by a prison guard. The officer excuses himself awkwardly: "I didn't place you in the right spot. You are blocking the way to the conjugal visit room." He shows a door with a bad paint-job through which a female prisoner is about to go and make love to her visiting husband.
Magdalena is 55 and she still hopes that someday somebody can love her without beating her up. Until now, she's lived with two men and both have beaten her senseless. She left the first one, and separated from the second after the blade of her knife put both of them on one-way tickets to different places: her in jail and him in a coffin.
He was called Marcel and Magdalena had met him in the summer of 1987, in Mătăsari, a small town around the valley of the Jiu River, back then a flourishing El Dorado – now a ghost town filled with empty blocks. Back then, it was cool to be a miner. You made good money, you got respect and the Communist regime made songs about you. So, Magdalena, a thin woman with muscles of steel, decided to leave her village in Iași county and travelled to Mătăsari to dig for coal.
The miners wiped the sweat off their blackened brow in astonishment when they saw this petite girl using a shovel, shoulder to shoulder with them. They made her work on the surface – she would deliver coal to a conveyer belt. She was a sort of an open air miner. Marcel, her future husband, worked a few hundred meters under her, in the dark bowels of the Earth. He would wink at her after his shift ended and she would smile in approval. Dark as he was, when he exited the mine shaft, she thought he was incredibly beautiful. So, one day, Magdalena took the underground miner into her above-ground world. "The first thing he told me was that he liked me," Magdalena tells me in a playful voice, while lowering her chin and blushing like a young girl, like her date only happened yesterday.
Magdalena still has six months left out of her seven year prison sentence. Photos by Alex Nedea
Not even the first slap she received from him could diminish her love. One day, Magdalena fell in the mine and ended up with her leg in a cast. She couldn't go out, so she sent Marcel to grab some food. "He took the money and spent it on himself. He came home after a while, drunk as hell." That was when they had their first fight. It was also the first time that he reshaped her face with the back of his hand. She was beaten and hungry. "I said to myself: «Eh, it will pass, he must've been upset»". Not long after that she received the second slap. "You've gotten used to hitting me. What am I – your punching bag?" she asked him. This is what she kept asking him for the last two decades. After 23 years she would still pretend to be surprised when she was beaten: "You've gotten used to hitting me! What am I - your punching bag?"
She could've stopped this nightmare earlier, if she would have just listened to all those around her who told her to break up with him. Even her father-in-law told her: "Run away from my son, for your own good. You can't build a home with him. He has a problem with alcohol," the old man said and even gave her money for a train ticket, so she could leave. Magdalena took the money and got on the train but there she met Marcel, who had followed her. He took her in his arms, like in the movies, spoke sweet nothings to her and kissed her. He couldn't live without her! So they both went to Iași county. There, she received some free land from a communal mayor's office. She built a house and the years started started rolling on by. But they didn't just fly by – life with her husband was harder and harder. She got beaten more often and it was harder and harder to take. And it wasn't slaps, like when she was young, but fists and kicks, even pitchforks and axes.
The police were tired of me and my complaints.
When she realised that her life was in danger, she went to the police. They weren't legally married and the house was in her name, but the cops still refused to kick him out. "The police were tired of me and my complaints. They said that if I wanted justice, I should sue him. That's all they said: 'Magdalena, file a complaint in Court, not with us.'". But Magdalena couldn't afford to go to court. Her only goods were some chickens. She would have to sell them just to pay for the trips to the courthouse.
Then you'd have to add the money for a lawyer. She was a day labourer. He didn't work at all. Through a trick, he had managed to receive a monthly pension for being disabled, even though he was healthy as an ox. She felt like a prisoner in her own village, in her own house. Especially when she saw the local policemen in the pub, drinking with her boyfriend.
Time after time, once he came back from the pub, he hit her. "He only hit me in the head, I don't even know how this head of mine can keep working enough for me to talk with you. Lately, he'd beat me so hard that I passed out. This one time I was lucky my brother-in-law rescued me, or I wouldn't be alive. He was above me, throwing punches. I lay on the floor, to cover myself, I felt something warm on my eyes and cheeks, and realised it was blood. Then I felt this sharp spike under my rib, which left me breathless and I fainted."
So Magdalena changed her strategy. Instead of going to the cops, she would hide. A few months before the murder, she spent Christmas eve in the henhouse, along with the chickens. Her man was looking for her to beat her up. So, she hid among the fowl, out of fear. She sat there, like a hen, on a mat of frozen chicken droppings, with her ears on high alert for any screeching doors, for the sound of a boot. Through the half-open door of the pen, she could see her husband going out either to find her or to find booze. When he got back inside the house and all was silent again, she could hear the carollers in the village singing. And, as she lay there next to the chickens, she thought maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to sell them and go to the court in Iași city.
But from one beating to another, and one celebration to another, Christmas passed and then came Easter. That was the day it happened. Marcel lay dead in the house, with a small stab wound between his ribs, right where his heart was. To this day, Magdalena says she didn't do it but the prosecutors had undeniable proof and the judges sentenced her for murder. The evidence and the witnesses from the village who spoke of the torment Magdalena had to suffer under her spouse got to the judge, who gave her a small sentence. It was about as big a sentence as she would have received if she filled her henhouse with her neighbour's chickens. Seven years of jail time.
Micșunica, who is also sentenced for murder, came crying to the interview. And she cried even harder when she had to tell the guard supervising us why she was in tears. A roommate of hers, a 24-year-old girl that they just brought in, had proclaimed herself chief of the cell. She decided to make and break everybody's schedule – she said she would be deciding who takes a shower and when. Micșunica stood up to her. Wearing the rubber shoes she has to use while doing kitchen duty, the short woman tells me that she could be that girl's mother at 43. How can she take orders from a girl the same age as her daughter?
So, she tried to talk things out with the new inmate but the girl cut her off: "You should shut up, because I didn't kill someone like you did". So Micșunica started crying in the hallway, she cried all day in the kitchen too and now she's crying in front of me: "God forbid, anybody would have done the same if they were in my shoes."
Micșunica stuck a knife in her husband during a holiday – Saint George's Day to be precise. About 17 years before that, on that same day, they were getting married. On their wedding night, they had their first kiss. It was also on her wedding night that Micșunica received her first punch. It happened after midnight, when her husband, Ion, became jealous that some in-laws had abducted his wife, as is sometimes tradition in Romania and kept her hidden for half an hour. "That was too long!" the groom thought, as the booze vapours rose to his head. So, after the traditional stealing of the bride, came the untraditional punching of the bride.
Micșunica had learned that life was tough growing up, so she shut up and took it –that's what her parents taught her to do. She spent her childhood with a hoe in her hands: "My parents were sick so I had to do their share of the work at the collective work station, so we could buy some cereal. I would wake up at 4AM and would return home at 7PM."
At 18, she thought her life would finally get better. That's when her big brother came to her and said that he had found a man for her to marry, in another part of the country – in Brăila county. Her big brother knew her future husband, a tractor driver, from his collective work station. She left her parent's village from Vaslui county and went off to get married. After the wedding, her brother changed jobs, so Micșunica was left alone in a family of near strangers.
When my mother-in-law saw her son climbing on me and kicking me, she would say: 'Atta boy, son, hit her!'
The beatings got worse and worse, and she had no one to complain to. "When my mother-in-law saw her son climbing on me and kicking me, she would say: 'Atta boy, son, hit her!'" Nobody in the whole village supported her. The husband was seen as a nice guy, they all knew him ever since he was little, he would say hello on the street, he was a respected citizen. Who would believe this stranger who came from god-knows-where anyway? The police also took Ion's side. Each time Micșunica went to the police station to file a complaint, they told her there was no point in doing all that paperwork, because the cops weren't allowed to intervene in family feuds.
So Micșunica kept enduring, while trying to raise the three kids she had with Ion. She had a hard time doing it alone. Especially since besides the kids, she had to take care of her sister, who was mentally ill, as well as Ion who got fired because of his drinking problem. Out of anger, he started drinking even harder: "I was both the man and the woman of the house. I went out in the field, I cooked, I did day labour in the village to make some money because our eldest daughter was going to high school in the big city and it cost us a lot to keep her there."
Two weeks before the murder, Micșunica received her worst beating yet. She thought she wouldn't make it out alive. She managed to run away in her nightgown on the dark village streets, get to a pay phone and call the police chief on his cellphone. She said that her husband almost killed her, and the chief replied: "Micșunica, it's 10 PM, I'm off duty. If you want me to come to your place it will cost you 225 Euros". Micșunica would have to endure it again. She waited for the sun to rise and went back home to her children.
One day Micșunica got home from work and Ion, who had just woken up, was complaining that he was hungry. "I put some beans in his plate, but he started yelling at me – how can I serve him food without any meat in it? He has already cleared out all the meat at midday. I asked him to wait for a while, so I could fry some fish. 'Woman, I will kill you and carve you into pieces,' he threatened"
'Woman, I will kill you and carve you into pieces,' he threatened.
During that time there was a famous murder trial making the media rounds in Romania TV, about a husband killing his wife and disposing of her body. That's where Ion learned that men who kill their women can hide their crime easily then show up on TV and say they did nothing.
"I asked him 'Why would you cut me and carve me into pieces, Ion? Because I worked all day while you slept?'" He answered 'Shut up, or I'll cut you and carve you into pieces!'
In the end, it was Ion who shut up, not Micșunica. The woman never fried those fish. She saw some kitchen knives sitting on the table, perfectly aligned in the same place she carefully placed them every day. She grabbed one and threw it at Ion. The blade got stuck in the man's booze-inflated liver. Ten minutes, police lights lit up their dark street in red and blue. It was the police chief and his deputy. They had finally come to see Micșunica even though their shifts were over.
Editor's Note:According to a study made by the Romanian National Institute of Criminology ten years ago, half of the 350 women imprisoned in 2004 for murder, were victims of physical or sexual violence.