A case of domestic violence degenerates into murder before the very eyes of a community where people don’t interfere into someone else’s family.
Elena Danco cries and knocks at all the high gates of the houses on Episcopiei Street, near the big church in the center of Rășinari town, 15 kilometres from Sibiu. It’s Pentecost Sunday, June 3, 2012 and the streets are empty at 7.30 in the morning. Her sister, Maria Stanciu, is lying in a pool of blood, with her throat cut, and Elena can’t say whether she’s still breathing.
A few minutes ago, Iacob Sas, Maria’s ex-lover, showed up on their way to work. He had a disturbed look and Elena got scared. “Are you coming home?” he asked Mimi, as he used to call Maria. “No!” the woman repeated the answer which she’d been giving him for 33 days on end, since she had left home. Iacob kicked her in the belly, then punched Elena, who interfered to stop him. He took out the knife he had within reach and cut Mimi on the left side of her throat, jumped into his car and drove away.
Elena tries to give her sister heart massage until the doctors arrive. It seems to her that she’s still breathing, though she’s not moving.
If the two women had noticed him in due time, they would have avoided him, as they had done the night before. Since Mimi left home with David, the boy she has with Iacob, her former lover kept following her and asking her to come back. He called her relatives, he went to her mother’s house, where Mimi found refuge, he waited for her on her way to and back from the Hilton hotel in Sibiu, where she’d been working with her sister for a couple of months.
Elena calls an ambulance and tries to give her sister heart massage until the doctors arrive. It seems to her that she’s still breathing, though she’s not moving. She starts knocking again at all gates, but one of the houses is empty and another is located in the backyard, where no one can hear her. Eventually, an old woman comes out and looks at the whole scene in terror. Elena asks for a piece of cloth, which she presses to Mimi’s throat to stop the bleeding. She’s down next to her sister, crying. A neighbor passes by and she asks her: “Go home and tell Mum what happened”. The ambulance arrives 20 minutes later, but Mimi’s already dead. The doctors say that that they couldn’t have saved her even if they had been next to her when Iacob stabbed her.
Meanwhile, the man drives to an area in Rășinari called Valea Muntelui. He turns the rear-view mirror to himself and cuts the right side of his throat with the same knife with which he killed Mimi. His brother, Nicolae Sas, and a neighbour find him. They push him to the passenger seat and take him to the Emergency Hospital in Sibiu, where the doctors save his life.
A Jesus with brown skin and hypnotic eyes looks at me from the wall of the Maximum Safety Penitentiary in Aiud. Pictures of idyllic sceneries and saints of unnatural proportions painted by the inmates are displayed around. Iacob Sas, a 41-year old man, sits at the table in front of me. He wears a short-sleeved checkered shirt and dark jeans, over which his prominent belly overflows. Though short, Iacob has the robust body, muscular arms and big fists of a man accustomed to hard work. He seems a good-hearted, bald man, with a thinning moustache, who usually goes unnoticed.
He is an exemplary inmate: he participates in social reintegration activities and works to shorten his term. As he has no criminal record and manifests faultless behavior, he will be released on parole in 7 or 8 years – he was sentenced to 16 years and he’s already served 2.
He speaks slowly and weighs each and every word he utters during our conversation of two hours and a half. He speaks about his “infinite” love for Mimi and he turns red with excitement. He clasps the table edges with his pudgy fingers and his voice gains unexpected nuances of tears, laughter, tenderness and fury.
We are in the Aiud Penitentiary to document cases of domestic violence which degenerated into murder. Apart from Iacob, two more men agreed to reveal their stories: Vasile, a 74-year old man who, crying his heart out, tells us that during an argument he slapped his wife of 50 years; the woman hit her head and died. Gheorghe, 47, killed his wife during a fight in Austria, where they had gone to raise money for a better life. Dan, 41, strangled his girlfriend with the keyboard cable during an argument caused by jealousy.
Inspector Aurelian Bocan, spokesperson of the Bucharest Police, says that at the moment, in Romania, domestic violence causes more victims than traffic accidents.
These four men have a few things in common: they have no criminal record, they are all esteemed people in their communities, they don’t come from poor environments, and before the arguments with their partners turned into murder they had hit their wives or lovers once in a while. They are not isolated cases, but no Romanian institution can determine the precise number of women who fall victims to domestic violence or how many of them were killed by their partners. The Romanian National Prison Administration and the Ministry of Justice don’t have clear statistics of the number of men who killed their partners. All is known is the number of people sentenced for murder (709 in 2013), but no information is provided about the context in which those murders were committed. The data provided by the Romanian Police show that over 5,000 cases of domestic violence were registered in 2013, of which 155 were murders, and 75 attempted murders. However, these figures are acts of violence between relatives and no one knows how many were abuses between partners.
Inspector Aurelian Bocan, spokesperson of the Bucharest Police, says that at the moment, in Romania, domestic violence causes more victims than traffic accidents. “Unfortunately, the family has become a more aggressive and more dangerous environment than the street,” he says. The post-Communist social context in Romania potentiates violence, believes anthropologist Vintilă Mihăilescu. “The media models are violent, and the model of success consists of verbal violence: the one who speaks louder and hits the table more gets on TV.”
Too good to be true
In 2006, Mimi and her husband at the time went to work in Spain, with the couple who had been witnesses to their wedding – Iacob Sas and his wife, Elena Şogan, and their two children. At the Austrian border, Mimi’s husband, who had been caught working illegally in Greece, was sent back to Romania. Mimi decided to go on without him. Shortly after reaching Spain, Mimi and Iacob started an affair.
When Mimi got pregnant they took responsibility for their relationship and divorced to be together. They stayed in Spain for another two years, then they returned to Rășinari, where Iacob resumed his work as a shepherd: they bought sheep and agriculture machinery and set up a small farm on the land inherited from his parents, in Podu’ Sevișului. However, they were feeling the pressure of a community who was judging them. “See, people in the village inflate, deflate, gossip, it was total mental madness,” says Iacob.
Mimi was the woman whom Iacob, who had already been married twice, had been looking for all his life, and “from bed to home, everything was perfect.” But sometimes a thought would cross his mind that maybe she was staying with him because he had two cars and was decently wealthy. “Is it too good to be true? Is she pretending, only so she can be with me?” he kept asking himself.
Mimi’s father had worked with Iacob at the Astra Museum in Sibiu and he knew that he was a violent man. Besides, Mimi had learned from relatives and friends that Iacob had beaten his former wives, that he used to threaten his first wife, Mioara Iliuț, with the knife and he’d kept his second wife locked in the cellar. “Girl, Mioara is of tougher stock than you and still she couldn’t live with him! What do you think you’ll be able to do?” Mimi’s father warned her.
Iacob’s brother, Nicolae Sas, a family man proud that his 15-year old son can already drive the tractor, also disfavored their relationship. Nicolae, Iacob and their sister, Ana, grew up in a family of hardworking shepherds, who spent most of their time in the fields, tending to their animals.
The parents had the children help them since they were very young and they taught them that if one wants wealth, one has to work. “We didn’t fear our mother that much, she’d mostly just yell at us, but we respected our father: it was enough for him to say once that something was not good,” recalls Nicolae. Iacob’s younger brother has always devoted himself to raising sheep, unlike Iacob, who sold the flock inherited from their parents and got a job. “In all his adventurous life, we sometimes had arguments, we didn’t talk to each other for long periods,” says Nicolae. He doesn’t judge his brother for being a womaniser, but for divorcing twice and “having four children with three women”: one with his first wife, Mioara Iliuț, two with his second wife, Elena Şogan, and another one with Mimi.
“Despite what happened between them in Spain, he shouldn’t have separated and he shouldn’t have left his children from his second wife,” says Nicolae. “I didn’t like what they did.” Despite this, he avoided giving any advice to Iacob, as his brother would easily lose his temper.
high gates and closed blinds
Rășinari is the oldest village in Mărginimea Sibiului and it has the highest population – 5,600 inhabitants. The place where Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran was born is famous not only for its inhabitants’ wealth, but also for the aggressiveness of the men who fight for land, women or simply because they’re drunk.
A simple search on Google will give a list of local “horrible crimes” – shepherds or young men killed in “cold blood” and scandals at the local pub, parents beaten by their children and children beaten by their parents. In 2012, a group of tourists who had camped on the bank of the Valea Caselor river were attacked with stones and axes by several locals because they had refused to drink with them.
In 2005, Adriana Vidrighin, a social assistant at the town hall, opened a disco in the center of Rășinari. She hired four bodyguards from Sibiu to quiet down those who broke tables, chairs, crates, windows, ash-trays and bottles. “All night long they would find reasons for scandal: ‘Oi, why did you spill beer on me, why did you look at my girl?’,” remembers Vidrighin. As the bodyguards flirted with local girls, a real war burst between them and the villagers, so the bodyguards were forced to find refuge in a cellar to escape.
The Rășinari man likes to have a beautiful woman, says the social assistant, but once she becomes his, she no longer needs to be so beautiful. Because of this, Vidrighin sometimes sees women in Rășinari “wearing make-up,” in other words with bruised eyes.
Aggressiveness is a trait learned in the family, says psychologist Alin Leș, an expert in criminology. “Most of the time they are given directions: ‘Don’t let the woman walk all over you’ or ‘Don’t end up under your woman’s heel’.” A man who develops in such an environment will try to dominate women, and a girl who grows up near an aggressive father will believe that this is how a partner should be.
When Mimi left home for the first time, says Iacob, he was shocked: he had never hit her and there had been no fight between them. The woman simply left out of the blue. “I call everybody, I call her mother and she tells me: ‘She’s done with you’. I thought she was kidding: ‘I’ll come to you right away’. ‘You have no business here,’ she answered.”
The Rășinari man likes to have a beautiful woman, says the social assistant, but once she becomes his, she no longer needs to be so beautiful.
Mimi’s native house is up on a hill, on a rough and steep country road. Houses of rich people line the street on both sides: the old, stone houses, some built 100 or 200 years ago, are renovated and in good repair. The inhabitants of Rășinari are hereditary shepherds and they’ve always been rich, even during Communism, when they were not affected by collectivization and could keep their flocks of sheep, paying a quota to the state budget in exchange. Today, people who stayed in the village still raise sheep.
As in the rest of the village, the heavy gates separate family life from the indiscrete eyes of the passers-by. The big wooden blinds on the windows are fully closed. In the neat yard with a tractor, a barn and a coop for the tufted hens, lives Elena Danco, Mimi’s sister, with her husband and their daughter, her mother, Maria Stanciu, and David, Mimi and Iacob’s son. Elena and Mimi’s father died of lung cancer.
Mimi mentioned Iacobs beating her only when the situation worsened and she started to run away from him, says Elena. “She told me once that he beat her black and blue at Podu’ Sevișului, where they keep the sheep, ‘til she fainted. He’d sprinkle her with water ‘til she recovered and then he’d beat her again with a stick.”
“My husband sometimes gave me the odd slap too, everybody quarrels out of trifles, don’t they, but not that much that I’d be afraid to live with him,” says Mimi’s mother, a woman with deep rings under her eyes and wrinkled cheeks. “My man was a drunkard too, we had ups and downs in our life, but anyway, I never saw such things.” Maria Stanciu and her husband had four daughters and they sometimes witnessed their father beating their mother: Mimi, her first born, who would have turned 31 this year, Ana, 29, Paraschiva, 27, and Elena, 25.
Mimi would hide in her parents’ house with her son David for a couple of days, then she would make up with him again. “Either he beat her so much, she wasn’t thinking straight, or… I’ll never understand how he got her to go back to him,” says Elena, a thin woman with a nicely-outlined body, who works in the kitchens of the Hilton Hotel in Sibiu and in a boarding house in Păltiniș, and in her spare time works the land inherited from her parents.
Iacob was very jealous and he allowed his girlfriend to visit her mother or sister only accompanied by him; when she talked on the phone he would sit next to her, recalls Elena. She couldn’t go anywhere by herself: he would drive her to the farm, where she had to do cleaning and work the land. Though she sold meat and dairy products at the market, Mimi had no access to the family money and had to give Iacob all she gained.
Once, when she left home, Mimi got a job at the Hilton Hotel, where her sister was working. The woman felt the need for financial freedom. Again, Iacob convinced her to return home, but he didn’t manage to make her give up the new job.
“That wasn’t a normal schedule: she worked until 12 PM, but 12 wasn’t a fixed hour,” says Iacob. “If there was a wedding or a christening party she had to stay longer. I told her: ‘I never know what time you finish work, what you do, how you do it’.” Besides, says the man, “things had changed, she was no longer the woman I had known before.” Mimi cooked only simple dishes, she no longer tidied up, and their “intimate life was zero.” “And I started telling her off. I never hit her. (Iacob hesitates.) Once she lied to me in Spain, then I wanted to…”
Iacob was very jealous and he allowed his girlfriend to visit her mother or sister only accompanied by him.
Iacob asked an acquaintance of his, also a Hilton employee, to tell him how Mimi behaved there. He told him that she had no lover, but she spoke on the phone a lot. “Then I understood why she kept a charger in her bag and why she had another phone card,” says the man.
On May 1, 2012, Mimi left home for good, without any reason, says Iacob. “I get home – nobody. Well, it’s clear, she got the habit.” He called everybody again: his relatives, friends, everyone told him to leave Mimi alone. He waited for her a few times when she went to or back from work, but the woman refused to talk to him. Besides, she had begun to behave the way he didn’t like: she was smoking and wearing short dresses.
Because Mimi had changed her phone number, Iacob used to call her mother and her sister every day. He waited for Maria Stanciu on her way to and back from work, asking her to tell her daughter to come back to him. He would follow Elena and Mimi at night on the streets when he knew that the two women were coming back from work together. Sometimes he would come to the house of Mimi’s family and tried the door.
This time Mimi wouldn’t have made up with Iacob again, says Elena. “She was very determined and happy. Sometimes she told me: ‘Now I really feel that I’m living, I’m free, I can rest assured, nobody beats me anymore’.” But Iacob was missing her and couldn’t sleep, though the doctor prescribed him pills. “I turned to the left, I saw some slippers and I got so, so sad; I went into the other room to get dressed, I saw her clothes in the wardrobe and again I got sad.” He often followed her just to see her: “I fed on seeing her passing by,” says he. On Pentecost Sunday, Iacob claims, he hadn’t wanted to kill her. “I only intended to get her to come back home and to ask her to tell me what happened, to analyse, to judge, if you want, but when I opened the car door – I always kept a knife there …”
„each should mind his Own family”
One reaches Podu’ Sevișului, where Iacob and Nicolae inherited land from their father, after a few kilometres on a muddy road, among gardens and meadows with grazing cows. The old wooden sheep pens built by their grandparents were renovated by Nicoale and Iacob. There is no house nearby and the shepherds are the only passers-by. According to Mimi’s relatives, it’s here that Iacob used to beat the woman.
Nicolae Sas also heard the rumors in the village, but he says he’s never seen him beating the woman. He knows that Iacob once beat his first wife, Mioara, and she grabbed a knife to threaten him, but he didn’t witness the scene himself. He did, however, see him fighting with each of the three mothers of his children and he knows that they left home several times.
“Back then I heard that he kept Mimi locked up but I don’t believe this,” says Nicolae. “Once her mother started to yell at me, asking why I had stated in court that I hadn’t seen him beating her. I heard them quarrelling once in a while, I can’t say for sure that he didn’t beat her, but I didn’t see it either.”
When Mimi left home for good, Iacob had the idea that she had an affair with another man. Nicolae knew he was pressing her to get back home and that he complained that he couldn’t sleep. However, he didn’t give it any importance when Iacob told him that he wanted to kill her. “He told everybody, but who believed him? You might say ‘I’ll kill you!’ but you don’t really think of doing it.”
Mioara Iliuț, Iacob’s first wife, is a woman with pale eyes and generous breasts outlined by a deep cleavage, well-known for her rough character. She speaks fast, raising her voice, and has a cynical remark about everyone. She repeats about ten times that “we used to quarrel,” when speaking about her marriage with Iacob, but she claims that the man never hit her.
“He turned mad easily and sometimes he said: ‘You deserve to get slapped hard enough to blow your head off,’ but then he’d calm down,” says the woman. “The truth is that we separated because of our parents. He pulled my hair only once – I had longer hair at the time – and then my father didn’t allow me to live with him any longer.” Iacob was jealous, though Mioara never provided him any reasons for that. When people ask her why she split with the Major, as they nickname Iacob, she answers: “We had some fights and we both came to the conclusion that instead of fighting all the time and beating each other, let’s share everything and God be with us!”
“Many women come and say: ‘Father, I’m getting a divorce, I can’t bear it any longer.’ But I urge them to be patient and give them another chance, to pray more, to fast, to confess more often.”
However, a woman from Rășinari who has known Iacob for many years, but has declined to reveal her identity, says that Mioara was sleeping with a knife under the pillow, because she feared Iacob; as for Elena Şogan, his second wife, Iacob used to beat her and treat her like a servant. Even in Spain, though Iacob was already with Mimi, he continued to control Elena, who was shivering in fear of him. The woman also warned us that Elena Şogan wouldn’t admit that Iacob beat her, especially since she keeps in touch with him, often visits him in the penitentiary, and the villagers believe she’s trying to make up with him.
“There were fights, as in any family, but I can’t say that he beat me,” says Elena Şogan from the very beginning. She’s a plump woman, wearing comfortable working clothes. She has fleshy fingers, painted with blue nail polish that chipped on the sides. “He sometimes raised his voice, but I wasn’t such a mild one either, and often I didn’t obey him.”
Her former husband, Iacob, was a womaniser, she tells us, laughing. He slipped up from the very beginning of their 12-year marriage. She turned a blind eye to it and focused more on their two children, while he was trying to be discreet. She also knew when he started an affair with Mimi, but she couldn’t believe the woman would come between them.
When she was married to Iacob, Elena left home a few times. “He never could shut up, and once he started yelling I was off and away; then he’d beg me to come back. If we were in the field, he’d yell at me: ‘Why didn’t you do this and that?’ Of course I wasn’t wasting time, but I was doing something else, and he would swear at me because I hadn’t done one thing or another.” Sometimes the man was jealous. “We were at a wedding and I was wearing this fashionable dress, with three buttons undone and he told me to button one up but I said no.”
Elena found out from her children, who went to visit their father, that Mimi left home several times, but she doesn’t think that he was violent. We ask her whether she still loves her former husband. “Yes, many people think that. You think that I take his side, don’t you?” Elena replies.
Even if people in the village deform reality, “a woman who gets beaten doesn’t go spread it in the street if she has a problem, it’s just not done. Each minds his own family,”, says Maria Iftincă, an old woman from Rășinari. “In a rural, patriarchal society, what I do within the four walls of my house is my business,” anthropologist Vintilă Mihăilescu confirms. “In this type of society, interfering in a family is an intrusion, both legally and morally. Legally, I don’t have any access to doing therapy with a family, though I have every proof that something wrong is going on there. ‘He’s in his house and one cannot interfere’.” Besides, in Romania, the family remains the main value of society. “How can I come out and admit that I’m a loser, with a broken family – this would be public shame,” says the anthropologist. “Even if you’re willing to do it, there’s one more thing: you’re an informer, how can you bring out intimate business? What you do in your family is your business; did I ask you what you do in your house?”
WOMAN IS SANCTIFIED BY MAN
The priest from the Church on the Hill in Rășinari, Ioan Avram, who buried Mimi and held the wedding service for Elena Danco, found out about Mimi having trouble with Iacob from the women’s mother. She no longer knew what to do and where to go, so the priest advised the woman to “follow the path of prayer.” “Women in general come and complain about their husbands being aggressive,” he says. “Many come and say: ‘Father, I’m getting a divorce, I can’t bear it any longer.’ But I urge them to be patient and give them another chance, to pray more, to fast, to confess more often, for as the Saint Apostle Paul says, ‘Man is sanctified by his woman, and woman is sanctified by man’. And some women have managed to succeed through patience.”
“Our problem is that women would rather go to church then come to us,” says Alin Dragomir, chief of the police station in Rășinari. He complains that women don’t denounce their husbands’ abuses, though policemen have always proven to be open to their problems. In Mimi’s case, for instance, they didn’t know the he used to beat her and that he harassed her family after she left him. It was only a week before the murder that one of the woman’s cousins filed a complaint. “I called them both to the station, Iacob and the victim, then they made up with each other and she filed no complaint,” he says.
Though the policeman talked to Mimi alone, she didn’t tell him that she was threatened. The very few women in Rășinari who appeal to the police make up with their husbands in two weeks at the latest and withdraw their complaints, so the criminal investigation can’t go on. Besides, neither the neighbors, nor the relatives report any case of domestic violence. “The inhabitants of Rășinari have this spirit of conservation, they keep everything to themselves, they don’t really like to cooperate,” says police officer Alin Dragomir. And when women end up at the local clinic with traumas, they say they fell and don’t go to the Forensic Department to get a medical certificat which would enable them to file a complaint, says Egri Eduard, a general practitioner in Rășinari.
“A crime belongs to everybody, not to a single person, as it concerns us all.”
“Due to the pathological jealousy and the violent outbursts manifested by the defendant repeatedly, his concubine was forced to leave their common home and return with their underage son to her native house in Rășinari, Sibiu county; the cohabitation relationship was resumed only after the defendants’ demands,” reads Sas Iacob-Ilie’s prosecutor’s charge in the archives of the prosecutor’s office attached to the Sibiu County Court.
The witnesses cited in the prosecutors’ charge state that “the victim was the defendant’s concubine, and their relationship was marked by frequent separations caused by jealousy and his violent behavior; starting from May 1, 2012, when the victim left the defendant’s house and refused to resume their relationship, the defendant repeatedly threatened her with death.”
“For almost a month, after requests and threats, addressed in direct conversations or in phone messages or conversations, defendant Sas Iacob-Ilie tried to convince Stanciu Maria to resume their relationship and return to his house, but the victim rejected these requests,” it continues.
Over the two years since he was imprisoned in the Aiud Penitentiary, Iacob has continued to think about Mimi and sometimes talks to her. He’s tormented with doubts and keeps wondering whether the woman was with another man after she left him. He asked the prosecutor who investigated the case to find out during the autopsy examination whether she had sexual intercourse in the last 24 hours before the murder, but the prosecutor was outraged by such a request.
The inmates who serve their first sentence can’t bring themselves to accept their guilt, says Ioana Reuț, a penitentiary psychologist. “They try to find all sorts of excuses – she was cheating on me, her family interfered between us – so as to somehow sweeten the story and help them get over their own deeds more easily.” Besides, Reuț adds, these men are not aware that dominating a woman, controlling, hitting her is a crime, since this is what they’ve seen in the environment they come from.
“A crime belongs to everybody, not to a single person, as it concerns us all,” says Alin Leș, an expert criminologist and psychologist. He believes that the moral guilt of a community which didn’t interfere lies behind this murder. “This might have been avoided by filing a complaint, by insisting more on your own child’s rational thinking and by all the other wives’ letting the police know about the abuses they suffered,” Leș adds. “People knew what was going on, but nobody did anything. It’s discordant that Iacob had no criminal record and yet we learn from various sources that he used to beat people, be violent, torment women. In fact, he did have a criminal record, only it wasn’t written down.”
A 7-year old, weak, toothless boy with sharp elf-like ears sits by Mimi’s grave. David, the boy growing up with his grandmother and aunt, comes to the cemetery each day to talk to his mother. He tells nobody how sad he is, and lately he’s stopped crying so much for his mother. The worst is March 8, Mothers’ Day, when the teacher tells the children to invite their parents to the event. “Mommy is dead and my father is a murderer,” David answered a villager who asked him who his parents were. He doesn’t like to hear people fighting and if someone raises one’s voice at home, he gets scared. His schoolmates are sometimes mean to him and, when they pass by the church, they tell him: “Look, this is where your mother died.”
Reported as part of a fellowship offered by Superscrieri/Avon grants on the subject of domestic violence, under aegis of Superscrieri Awards for nonfiction that changes the world. The article and the photographs were published in the Romanian edition of Esquire, Autumn 2014.
Photographer Cosmin Bumbuț and journalist Elena Stancu travel by caravan, trying to grasp the colours of the communities they come across on their way, in Romania and abroad. In order to afford the privilege of long-term documentation on a subject, they need your support. You can subscribe to postcards or buy prints here.
Translated by Magda Achim. Translation edited by Anca Bărbulescu and Anca Fronescu.