THE new Iron Curtain begins here. Two Romanian guards hold up their hands a visitor drives across the border. Stop! Off to the side, a wall is visible. Beyond it lies a deep ditch.
Even as many barriers are coming down in the East bloc in this age of glasnost (openness), a big one has gone up along Romania's frontier with Hungary. The purpose, angry officials in Budapest say, is to prevent thousands of ethnic Hungarians from fleeing persecution and misery of living under Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu. Romanian officials deny this.
But after an international outcry, in which even Moscow joined, the wall separating the ``fraternal allies'' of the East bloc now reportedly is being pulled down. But the border remains tightly shut to most journalists. For the past three years, despite repeated requests, Romanian authorities regularly have refused the Monitor access to their country. This writer finally makes a visit as a ``tourist.''
Even then, crossing the frontier proves to be difficult. A Romanian guard demands all luggage be taken from the car and placed on a bench. He rips through the bags, skims through the books, flips through all the papers. Another guard passes a mirror under the car body and pulls up the seats to see if anything is hidden.
``Any firearms?,'' he asks.
Assured that no banned religious literature will enter his country, the guard leaves. An hour passes. Two. Three. The guard finally returns with the passport three and a half hours later. Once in the country, few lights are visible inside apartments and homes. On the main Piata Republicii in Oradea, a city of 200,000, there are no streetlights. It is dark. Very dark.
All restaurants and caf'es close at 10 p.m., explains the receptionist at the empty Hotel Dacia. A few soldiers are seen - the only signs of life visible on the streets.
An attempt to watch television is unsuccessful. Broadcasts - mostly paeans to Mr. Ceausescu - are limited to four hours a night. The windows of darkened bookstores are filled with volumes of his speeches, while news kiosks are filled with front pages heralding the glories of the ``Ceausescu era.'' Roads are lined with billboards proclaiming ``Ceausescu, Peace'' or ``Romania, Disarmament, Peace, Ceausescu.''
In the morning, the restaurant has no coffee - reflecting what is apparently a nationwide lack. Wherever one travels, eager Romanians run up with pleas of ``coffee, coffee.'' Other constant pleas include ``benzene, benzene,'' because gasoline is rationed. So is meat. The only way to get some is to hand the butcher some cigarettes. The only acceptable brand is Kent.
Although Oradea's state-run food shops carry only rows of sad-looking provisions. The vegetable market proves a pleasant surprise.
Peasants are selling produce from their private gardens - cucumbers, cabbages, carrots, leaks, onions. Several varieties of wild mushrooms look fresh enough to please any French gourmet chef. Ripe cherries and strawberries burst with color.
But Ceausescu soon may do away with such oases of prosperity. Under a ``systematization'' law, about 7,000 villages throughout Romania are to be razed and 2 million people moved into apartment blocks. The aim, Romanian officials say, is to clear land for more farm production. Critics say the goal is to destroy independent peasant culture, especially that of Romania's large Hungarian and German minorities.
In the small town of Gilau, which lies on the mountainous road between Oradea and Cluj, a huge mud plot defaces the center.
``The bulldozers came in April,'' a villager reports. ``They tore down five houses.''
Like other Transylvanian villages, Gilau's houses of turquoise blue, red, or pastel green have an appealing charm. But now in the center of the town rise rows of modern housing blocks, along with a new futuristic Communist Party headquarters.
``The communist church,'' one villager snickers.
Dozens of houses were destroyed to make way for the construction.
``The new housing stinks,'' another villager reports. ``The rooms are small, there's no hot water, no heat.''
Gilau has 10,000 residents, 1,000 of whom are ethnic Hungarians. According to a report released last month by the International Helsinki Federation, a private human-rights group, Hungarian-language education has been curtailed, Hungarian publications dramatically reduced, and Hungarian-language television cut entirely.
A Gilau villager reports that four of the five recently destroyed houses were inhabited by Hungarians. He says five Hungarian families from Gilau have fled in recent weeks; Hungarian officials say they received 30,000 refugees from Romania last year.
``What other problems are there?'' the villager is asked.
``It's easier to say what isn't a problem,'' he responds.
These villagers show courage in speaking out because all contacts with foreigners are supposed to be reported to the police.
But despite the official repression, criticism is mounting. Last March, six veteran party Communist Party leaders published a damning open letter, accusing Ceausescu of destroying the country's economy and agriculture and terrorizing its population.
The signers were sent into internal exile or put under house arrest. Secret police watch their homes and prevent foreigners from visiting. In Cluj, the police seem everywhere. Outside the apartment of Hungarian poet Lajos Kandor stands a small, bond-haired man.
``I invite you to the police station,'' he says to this reporter, in fluent English.
``I'd prefer to skip the invitation.''
``I have some information for you.'' He shows a badge. It reads ``Captain Gheorghe.''
At the police station, he locks me in a room for 10 minutes while he confers with his superiors. On his return, he takes the film from my bag.
``You were in Oradea. You were taking pictures which were not that of a normal tourist,'' he says. ``I very sorry, you'll have to leave the country tonight.''
``Tonight, not tomorrow morning,?''
``Yes, tonight,'' he repeats.
Further discussion seems pointless. It is 10:30 p.m. and the border is a three-hour drive away. On the way back a police car follows us. The guards add a body search to their repertoire. When they finally raise the border pole, it is 4 a.m. - less than 30 hours after I entered Romania.
The Hungarian soldier smiles and waves me on without a search. The road is better paved - and there are streetlights in the border town of Berettyoujfalu.