Ada Kaleh, which means “the island of the fortress” in Turkish, was 1.75 km long and 400–500 metres wide. Due to its great strategic importance, guarding the river after it emerged through the treacherous waters of the Iron Gates, between the Carpathians and the Balkan mountain ranges, it was occupied in the fifteenth century by the Ottomans. Under the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718 it was taken over by Austria, and renamed new Orsova. The Austrians built a strong fortress on the ruins of the original Roman fort, then another treaty returned it to Turkey in 1739. Romania gained the right in 1829 to place many administrative facilities on the island, but at the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 it was somehow forgotten, and remained an isolated Turkish territory. Romania took possession at the end of the First World War, though its loss was only acknowledged by Turkey at the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Still, the vast majority of the population remained Turkish.

Ada Kaleh then enjoyed a prosperous period as an exotic, tourist destination. In 1931 King Carol II of Romania visited it and granted its inhabitants several privileges – as foretold in a dream by Miskin Baba, a dervish from central Asia who settled on the island in the sixteenth century, and whose tomb remained until the island was destroyed.

In the early 1960s, a project to dam the Danube between Orsova and Turnu Severin was drawn up and agreed on by the Communist governments of Romania and Yugoslavia. The inhabitants were forced to leave, the buildings blown up, and the island finally sank beneath the waves exactly 40 years ago, in 1971.

The island has been celebrated often in world literature. It was sketched by the traveller Ferdinand de Marsigli in his Discovery of the Danube (1744). It features in the novel The Golden Man by the Hungarian author Mór Jókai (1872), and in The Danube Pilot by Jules Verne (1901).

And what if the people refuse to move? someone asked, at a meeting of top Romanian and Yugoslav Communist officials, sometime in 1967. Ahmed Engur held his breath. He lived on the island of Ada Kaleh, and was now serving coffee round the long table in Turnu Severin where the officials had assembled to discuss the latest plans to build the Iron Gates dam and hydroelectric project. Plans which involved raising the level of the Danube by 30 metres to create a massive storage lake, 150 km long, and destroying not only the historic island of Ada Kaleh in mid-stream, but also numerous small towns and villages along the bank of the river on both the Serbian and the Romanian banks. Not to mention sites of great archaeological importance, and roads and monuments dating back to the time of the Romans.

“Then let them run, or drown like rats”, said the Romanian Prime Minister.

“How could we have resisted?” he asks, 44 years later, as he pours me, too, coffee – thick, sweet Turkish coffee in his back yard in a house high above what is left of the pretty town of Orsova, while his wife writes down a recipe for the fig jam she learnt to make on Ada Kaleh.

The original inter-state contract which sealed the fate of the island was signed by Josip Broz Tito and the Romanian Communist leader Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej in 1964. In 1968, the inhabitants of the island – some 500 people, most of them of Turkish background – were given three weeks to pack their belongings and leave. The tall cypresses in the graveyard were chopped down, and the minaret dynamited.

“I watched them lay the explosives”, says Ahmed – having returned secretly to the island, on an army boat, to try to salvage more of his possessions. Then he joined other former villagers on the shore at Orsova, to watch the destruction in silence, and drink themselves into oblivion. “The minaret fell to one side at first, at 45 degrees…”

In order to win over the local population, one early plan was to offer the inhabitants a place on an “alternative island”, Simian, downstream of the Iron Gates dam. Part of the old fortress from Ada Kaleh was even dismantled, and rebuilt on Simian. But it was one thing to force people to leave their homes, another to make them move to exactly where they were supposed to. Simian seemed a wretched place after Ada Kaleh – mosquito-infested and empty of life, or history. So the people chose other options. Many went to Turkey, others to Bucharest, or Constanþa on the Black Sea coast. A few families, just four or five today, stayed in Orsova. The main town there disappeared beneath the waves, and a long series of 1960s apartment blocks now border the bank.

I met Erwin Osman repainting his tour boat in the harbour. He looks a bit like his maternal grandfather, Recep Hodja, the last imam on Ada Kaleh. Though he does not remember him well – just blurred memories of sitting in his lap as a child. Recep Hodja served 13 years hard labour of a 15 year sentence for high treason – for having a “pro-western attitude”. The only physical “evidence” they produced against him was a Romanian-English dictionary.

“My grandfather was not a critic of the regime, he was a scapegoat of it”, Erwin remembers. When he came out of prison, he got a job for a while in the cigarette factory on Ada Kaleh.

“We used to hand-roll the cigarettes there for years”, says Ahmed Engur, who also worked there, with his best friend, Erwin’s father. “They called the cigarettes we made there ‘Muslimane’”. When the process was mechanized, all the tobacco droppings went into the worst cigarette of all, he remembers, known as “Nationale”.

“I only finished four grades of school, then I quit. You’d better learn to row then, that’s what happens to boys who don’t study”, Ahmed was told. So he rowed old wooden boats the four kilometres or so to the harbour in Orsova. Then rowed them back. “The current of the river was so strong, especially when the water was high, that we would keep close to the bank, then cross at the shortest point”, he remembers.

Most of the memories of the island are sweet. Meeting and marrying his wife there. Building a sailing boat with Erwin’s father – the only sailing boat on the island.

The most traumatic memories, apart from the day he witnessed the actual destruction of the main buildings, involve digging up the graveyard. “That was still during the period when we all expected to be moved to Simian Island. So each grave had to be dug up individually.” His own mother died during the period of moving, and he buried her immediately on Simian, in the expectation that he would soon be living close by.

“Everything was moved, bones and grave-stones and everything went to Simian, but no one knows who is who now. We moved them piece by piece, but the authorities mixed them all up. Now people say there are bones lying all over the island.”

It’s very difficult to get permission to go to Simian, he says, even today because Serbia is still not in the European Union, and the Danube is an international border. But he intends to try to trace the grave of his mother again, to put a new headstone on it.

Down in Orsova, Erwin sometimes takes former inhabitants of the island out in his boat, right over the place where the island lies, deep beneath the waves. Do they pray? I ask. “No, they just sit quietly. Or scatter flowers on the water.”

Up and down the river, on both the Serb and Romanian banks, Ada Kaleh is a bitter-sweet memory for many. The sweetness of the place, and the bitterness of destruction. Children who visited it just once remember the pistachio-flavoured ice-creams, and the Turkish delight, the lollipops, the baclava for which the island was famous. Some remember the historical dramas that were filmed there. Looking through a book of text and photographs, just published in Bucharest (Ada Kaleh, sau Orientul Scufundat, by Marian Tutui) Ahmed spots a famous actor who he spoke to once during a break in filming – “he drank three brandies to my one!”

Nesrin Bairolu was born on Ada Kaleh in 1964, and was rowed across to the kindergarten to Orsova each morning. It is just possible that Ahmed Engur (born in 1941) rowed her, on occasion. Her father worked in the tobacco factory, her mother in a tailor’s shop. She remembers the orange trees, and the figs that grew well in the island’s special climate, and the thick fermented fruit juice called braga, which you can still buy in the market place in Turnu Severin. When the island was flooded, she and her family moved to Mãcin, in Eastern Romania, almost on the Black Sea coast. She now lives with her family in Babadag, in the province of Dobruja. Half the carpet which used to lie on the floor of the mosque in Ada Kaleh is in the Iron Gates museum in Turnu Severin. The other half is in the main mosque in Constanþa.

I cross the Danube on the Iron Gates dam itself, to the Serbian side. There is just the hum of the turbines, the empty docks on either side, and the tall lookout towers. At the Serbian customs point, they still haven’t taken down the “Wanted” posters for the recently apprehended Bosnian Serb war leader Ratko Mladic`.

Upstream at Moºna, Vido Markovic` remembers a man in the nearby town, who refused to leave his house, and climbed up onto the roof, with some of his eleven children, as the Danube waters rose inexorably. “He was a harder one for the Yugoslav authorities to deal with, because he had won some sort of award as a hero of Socialist construction”, Vido explains. In the end, a naval launch scooped him and the children off the roof, and he was given a luxury apartment, to keep him quiet.

One hundred kilometres or so upstream at Ram, also on the Serbian side, Radislav Stokic` owns the ferries which ply across the Danube from Ram to Banatska Palanka on the far side, as well as a company which builds bridges from boats. He remembers the construction of the Iron Gates dam for the work it brought him, carrying loads of rock downriver from the quarries at Golubac, both for the dam itself, and for the new road that was cut into the hills, far above the new water level. But he also remembers the dam for the good agricultural land it flooded on the far side – the river rose just six metres, even here.

Back in Orsova, I leave Ahmed Engur chopping wood – great slices of plane tree that were unloaded on his doorstep that morning.

“They promised us free electricity for life when they built the dam”, he laughs. “But it never arrived. There are still power-cuts sometimes in winter. And we heat the house with wood – it’s cheaper.”

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