As you stand on the shoreline, looking west, the Danube melts in to the horizon, as still and as vast as a becalmed sea. To one side, dark green forests coat the hillsides in the distance. Downstream, the hillsides morph in to steep sided gorges known as the Iron Gates, before flowing into two huge hydroelectric dams.

The Danube has, for centuries, been coveted for its military and commercial importance. The Romans first built fortifications along here, at the edge of empire. Byzantine and Ottoman fortresses were constructed in their ruins. What is left of the Ram fortress – one of Serbia's oldest castles – sits atop the peninsular.

It is here that the Danube enters Romania, in Caraș-Severin county, before bending south and creating a natural border between it and Serbia. To the north the smaller Nera river, a tributary of the Danube, bends to the east and forms another 13 miles of natural border between the two countries.

Even with the natural and artificial barriers, and few bridges to cross, the peoples living on the settlements that dot the banks on either side have converged, as border people always do. Romania's small Serbian minority live here. They make up just 0.1% of the country's population, fewer than 20,000 strong, but they are in the majority in most of the communes that welcome the Danube. The largest settlement, Socol, is half Serb, half Romanian. Many of its citizens speak Serbian as their mother tongue. It is a two-hour journey to Belgrade; eight to Bucharest.

This water is also a graveyard. No one knows for sure how many people died here after the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu came to power in 1967 and slowly isolated the country from the rest of world, turning it into a grotesquely efficient police state. Perhaps hundreds. Maybe thousands.

After Ceaușescu's famous July Theses speech in 1971 – which marked a clampdown on what little freedoms Romanians had – people from all over the Romania flocked to Socol and its river borders. Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito was relatively free and offered a route to the West. Hungarians, Bulgarians, even East Germans, travelled hundreds of miles to cross here too. The border guards stationed there were ordered to shoot to kill. And they did. Some believe that this border, until Ceaușescu's execution on Christmas Day 1989, was the bloodiest in Europe. 

The blood soon dissipated in the water, the bodies disappearing downstream. But still they came from across the Eastern bloc to the border and its many tributaries and streams to escape. For the Serbs of Romania, the many crossings and escape routes over the water had all melted into one and were known by a single name: the River.

The snow that had piled up outside the Arena Națională in the Romanian capital of Bucharest is finally beginning to melt. It is February and the night before – when Steaua Bucharest had played a league match here against Voluntari – the air felt arctic. Steaua Bucharest are Romania's greatest team; winners of the 1986 European Cup and a record 26 league titles. But today the club is in crisis, mired in a legal battle between the current controversial owner Gigi Becali and its former owner, the Romanian army, which has just won a series of court cases to reclaim the history and branding of the club. The army plans to start a second Steaua Bucharest, the real Steaua Bucharest as they see it, in the lower leagues. The club's supporters, ultra groups and even its legendary former players have been split over which to back. Only a few hundred supporters showed up to watch Gigi Becali's Steaua Bucharest, with a redrawn crest, come back to salvage a 2-2 draw. It was minus 15 degrees Celsius by the time the referee had blown his whistle for full time. Becali wore an electric blue turtleneck jumper, a fur-lined, black ankle-length leather jacket and a pork pie hat to keep out the cold.

But this morning there isn't a cloud in the sky and Miodrag Belodedici is sitting in the nearby offices of the Romanian Football Federation (FRF), unsure of which Steaua Bucharest he supports. Belodedici is currently the director of youth at the federation and is one of the country's greatest players, perhaps even the greatest. He played more than 200 times for Steaua and was part of that famous 1986 team that beat Terry Venables's Barcelona side in the final on penalties. He also represented Romania over 50 times.

Despite being in his 50s, his curly hair is still jet black. He looks almost exactly the same as the libero whose elegant gait earned him the nickname 'the Deer' during a career that also saw him play for Crvena Zvezda and Valencia, among others. “Pheeeeeew,” he exhales when I ask him about the impasse at his former club. “It is a very bad situation,” he finally answers, hesitantly. “Many are saying that things weren't done 100% legally when the takeover happened [when Becali replaced the army in 2003]. It is only damaging Romanian football as a whole. We are losing interest. We are losing spectators. It cannot lead to anything good.”

Helmuth Duckadam, the goalkeeper who saved all four of Barcelona's penalties in the final shoot-out, had earlier told me he wholeheartedly backed Becali (he does work as an ambassador for the club). Marius Lăcătuș, who opened the scoring in that shoot out, has been appointed sporting director of the army's new/old team. But there was no love lost between Lăcătuș and Becali, given that Becali had fired him as Steaua coach three times. “The objective is to get Becali out of the club,” Belodedici believes. “It's a takeover.”

Steaua was the club that made Belodedici. He was signed at the age of 18, in 1982, and was a regular starter almost straight away, helping Steaua to win their first title in six years. But what truly sets Belodedici apart from his contemporaries isn't his precociousness. It isn't even the fact that in 1991 Belodedici made history by becoming the first man to win European Cups with two different clubs, after winning a second title with Zvezda. No, it was the five years in between. In 1988, and at the height of his playing prowess, Belodedici took the gamble of his life and defected from Romania.

“I didn't like the system and I felt oppressed,” Belodedici said of life in Bucharest. Footballers had more freedom than others, that was true. He could travel to the seaside or the mountains or even abroad for international fixtures. He was on good terms with Valentin Ceaușescu, the eldest son of the president and also Steaua's president. But the team, like everyone else, was under close surveillance by the hated Securitate, the Romanian secret police. “The Securitate's eyes were on the football players. You could not get a car. Electricity. You couldn't start a business. You just had to go to work and that was it. Everything was dark and shady. I was not happy with how things were going for the people. There were large queues for meat and eggs. For anything. People were asking for help constantly. The system,” he says finally, “it was not for me.”

Belodedici was born and raised in to an ethnically Serbian family in Socol. “When I was young I used to hate the military,” he says of his childhood growing up there. “There was the river, the border of Romania and Serbia. A beautiful river. I have this image in my head: the Romanian military would not allow us to bathe in the river, but the Serbian, Yugoslav, military did allow their children to bathe in the river. I used to hear people laughing and having fun and the children in my village could not have the same fun as they did in Yugoslavia.”

The sheer volume of people seeking to escape Romania through Socol and its surrounding rivers had seen the government declare what was effectively martial law around his home. “It was hard for me to get to my home village,” he recalls. “I had five checkpoints to cross with soldiers asking for ID.” Despite the huge risk of crossing the river, several of Belodedici's cousins managed to wade across the narrowest part at night and escape in to Yugoslavia. But others were not as fortunate. He knew when someone hadn't made it. Gunfire would wake him up. “Then I heard from people that this and that were killed from my village,” he says. “I saw the bodies. I saw people – it was very powerful – shot, being beaten at the border. It wasn't just people from my village. It was people from my entire country. Coming there to escape. To cross the river and go into Serbia. I have this image in my head of people suffering. Suffering to try and escape.”

Belodedici was a late bloomer. He didn't start playing football until he was 15, for his school team, but when he did, his talent was spotted almost immediately. At 17 he was playing for the biggest local club, a mining team from the nearby town: Minerul Moldova Nouă. “There was a military base next to the village and during one of the games we all heard shots and we got scared and ran off the pitch,” he remembers. “One of the guys in the village had tried to escape while we were playing football.” A year later he was at an academy team in Bucharest, set up for the best young players in the country. When Steaua became interested, there was little choice. In a country which had conscription, Steaua, as the army club, had leverage. “I knew how things went in the communist regime,” he says. “The team came for me and I agreed. Even if I didn't agree they would have taken me. Service was mandatory in the communist regime.”

But Belodedici liked Bucharest and he learned to love Steaua. Dinamo Bucharest, a team connected to the hated Securitate, were dominant. Eventually, Belodedici was part of four title-winning teams, but the highlight was the 1986 European Cup final against Barcelona. “We had little or no information about our opponents in Europe,” he says. The first time he and his players saw a team in European competition usually was when they met them in the tunnel before kick-off. But before the final in Seville, the Romanian embassy in Madrid had managed to procure a video of recent Barcelona matches, which they all studied. “We had highlights of some of their past games so we didn't know if we were equal or better.” Soon it became clear to Belodedici and his teammates that there was no gulf in class. “It was a big surprise – a big surprise to see that Barcelona were the same level as Steaua!” he says. “We didn't know until we played against them. As the minutes went by Barcelona's players found it tougher and tougher.”

The game went to penalties and Duckadam became the hero. “The penalties were saved,” says Belodedici. “Not missed. Saved.” Unlike the other players who gleaned something from the Barcelona tapes procured from the Romanian embassy, no one had thought to record Barca's semi-final penalty win over IFK Göteborg so Duckadam had no guide. “It’s hard to say I won it single handedly, but my teammates helped,” says Duckadam. “The final seven minutes that decided the game, those were my minutes. I wasn't trying to intimidate them. It has to do with flair.” Only one Barça player congratulated him afterwards: goalkeeper Javier Urruti.

The squad had been under close surveillance during the whole trip, as had the only 800 party members who had been vetted and allowed to travel. Still, as Jonathan Wilson wrote in Behind the Curtain, 40 of them still managed to abscond. “We didn't know how to celebrate properly,” Belodedici says. The biggest celebration was reserved for their return. “Thousands greeted us at the airport and they were all standing in the dark. There were no lights. Just to see us.” As many as 20,000 people were there according to Duckadam. But this was not just a success for the team. This was a success for the army and by extension the regime. A huge ball was to be held to celebrate the success. Ceaușescu, along with his son and coterie of generals would be attending. “When they shook hands the players were told to say, ‘We serve the country,’” Belodedici remembers.

Nicolae Ceaușescu didn't speak to the players directly, even though they were asked to have their hair cut short beforehand just in case he did. He didn't sound particularly happy either.

“It would have been better if you had won in 90 minutes,” Ceaușescu told the crowd. “And not made me nervous with the penalty shoot-out.”

Tomislav Stefanović arrives by bike before dismounting and leaning it against the building he spent most of his working life inside. The one school in Socol (or Sokolovac, as everyone here refers to it, in Serbian) isn't the only institution in this two-storey building. The commune's mayor and the rest of her administration share the lower floors. The only functioning ATM within an hour's drive is found here too. This is a one-road town and it is virtually deserted in the heat of a late May Saturday afternoon.

Stefanović is tall, with receding silver hair that hangs long at the back and sides. Even at 70 and retired, he jumps off his bike and strides around half a pace quicker than men 20 years younger. Until recently he was Professor Stefanović, the town's schoolmaster for more than 40 years, and the man who spotted Belodedici's potential. “It wasn't hard to see the talent that he had,” says Stefanović as we walk down the road. “And after that it was natural. I recommended him to the bigger club in Moldova Nouă and then Steaua wanted to take him. The son of Ceaușescu was in touch because they [the army] would take all the best players. This wasn't unusual.”

Socol was a stifling place to grow up and an even worse place to make a living: the least free place in one of the least free countries on earth. The residents were constantly reminded of those who lost their lives by the gun shots that woke them up at night to the tight control over their movements. It was forbidden to approach the border by car between 11pm and noon. “Life here was very hard because we didn't have enough freedom and human rights were very low,” he says as we walk and talk. The paved road has now given way to baked mud and grass. “They would cut the electricity and it was hard, to watch the Serbian side with the lights on. It was hard to see.”

We walked down the bank, towards an opening in the bushes. “We weren't even allowed to swim here in the river,” he says. “Everyday someone got arrested and especially people from outside of here. 200 people from this town managed to get across the border. They knew the way, but others didn't know the river and were arrested or beaten.”

We emerge into a clearing with a gravel road rising back towards the village. In front, steps lead down to a narrow, slow-moving river, no more than ten metres wide. On the other side an identical set of concrete steps rise out of the water and into Serbia, almost inviting you to enter the water in one country and leave it in another. “There used to be railway bridge here but the communists blew it up in 49,” Stefanović says, pointing to the barely visible concrete pillars that remain, hidden in thick green leaves and branches. He, too, isn't sure how many people were killed crossing the river. He knew of two from Socol for sure. One man had actually made it but was shot in the back when he clambered in to Yugoslavia. “Many were shot, hurt, arrested. Many drowned. And who knows from the other places around Romania?”

The issue of how many people died crossing this border has remained largely untouched in the post-communist era. One explanation, according to the Romanian journalist Marina Constantinoiu, is that the killings were undertaken by border forces under the control of the army. “We don't want to touch the army,” says Constantinoiu, who has been trying to uncover the stories of those who died by combing the communist-era achieves. “I think there is a reluctance regarding our recent past. Our guilt as a state. It is hard to recognise that.” There has been such reluctance from both the families of victims (still ashamed to be labelled traitors) and from the authorities themselves that Constantinoiu has been piecing the victims’ stories together herself, one at a time, from East German Stasi files or from visits to graveyards on the Serbian side that would contain hundreds of unnamed graves for Romanians who drowned crossing the Danube. One Serbian forensic pathologist she interviewed revealed that he would identify dead border jumpers by the Romanian language label in their underwear, as they would arrive at the morgue with no ID and virtually naked. His Romanian counterpart did not want the bodies returned. 

By her count, thousands of Romanians and foreigners from other Eastern Bloc countries were jumping the border each year. By 1989 as many as 50,000 had crossed in a single year. She believes thousands were killed, which strained relations between Romania and Yugoslavia. In 1980, the Yugoslav government made a diplomatic protest after a Romanian by the name of Crăciunel Vucu was shot in the head after swimming across the Nera River, almost at the exact the same spot where Tomislav Stefanović and I were now standing. Although narrower than the vast Danube, it was far better guarded. Vucu managed to get across and was on Yugoslav territory when he was shot dead by Romanian guards. Any survivors were taken to Bucharest, given a show trial and sentenced as traitors. “Romania's politics stated clearly that its population had to be stopped from fleeing the country,” says Constantinoiu. “The guards were there to protect the borders from its own population, not from foreign invaders.”

Today, the people of Socol are experiencing refugees from a different direction. A police car is stationed here, with two bored police officers leaning either side of the bonnet. They aren't here to stop us leaving, but to stop people arriving. With the Western Balkan route through Hungary or Croatia closed, Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees have begun to arrive, crossing from Serbia in to an EU member state. “Before, you couldn't even reach this far, you would already be arrested,” says Stefanović, standing by the edge of the Nera river. “If you did sneak across you would be shot.”

Socol has a dark history, but it is proud of their famous son. The mayor, Ghiţă Olgiţa, is sitting at her desk in the school house. Behind her hang a Serbian, Romanian and EU flag.  She used to play football with Belodedici in one of Socol's dusty side streets when she was a child. “Belodedici is the most famous person from here and he once brought Red Star and Partizan to play here,” she recalls proudly. Next season the mayor of Moldova Nouă is naming the stadium after him in honour of the place Belodedici played his first proper matches. Yet there's still a sense of melancholy. “It was a black period but with God's help and strong will we now we have so much free time we don't know what to do with it,” says Olgiţa, a deeply religious woman who occasionally makes the Orthodox sign of the cross when she speaks. But she still has fond memories of her childhood, praying at church, even suggesting that the added army presence made her feel safe.

“There was no religion here,” Stefanović interrupts.

“What do you mean? We prayed. We always celebrated Slava,” she replies tetchily, referring to the Serbian Orthodox celebration of a family's saint’s day.

The two argue over how bad life under Ceaușescu was. Even now, decades later, there was animosity over who did what to get by under the dictatorship. Angry accusations of communist party membership are exchanged.

Socol is now freer but perhaps not altogether better off. Work is scarce. Any that exists is usually agricultural. The population is fast declining after years of being frozen from the outside world. The last census, held in 2011, counted just over 1,800 people. Today that number is likely to be smaller. “Because of the river and because people were escaping, this place was forgotten by the government so they didn't invest,” says Stefanović outside the mayor's office, shortly before I leave. “They wanted as few people as possible to come here.”

Every detail of Miodrag Belodedici's escape had been planned months in advance. There were several obstacles that would have scuppered any ordinary Romanian's chances of escape and one opportunity afforded by his ethnicity. While Socol was indeed under a form of military rule, Romanian citizens from the town could apply for permits of travel for up to 20km inside Yugoslavia. Many families had spread across the border, meaning there were relatives on either side. But first, Belodedici had to get a passport. His mother, Belodedici explained to the club, was going to a cousin's wedding on the Serbian side of the border. He was playing and obviously could not travel with her. So he would have to join her later. It was 1988, more than two years after that European Cup triumph and Steaua had since won two more titles. Valentin Ceaușescu readily agreed. “The regime asked for all my details, my address in Serbia. Things like that,” Belodedici says. “But they gave me a passport.”

Belodedici didn't need to wade through the river he had heard so many people being shot trying to cross. But his sister did. The nearest border crossing for cars was 20km away near the village of Naidăș. “I wasn't scared,” he says. “I had the documents.” His sister meanwhile walked through the water, where the main road in Socol comes to an abrupt end. She got safely across and the two drove to Belgrade.

The defection was a scandal. One of the country's highest-profile people, with links to the very top of the communist regime, had fled. “Every Romanian loved Belodedici, like they loved Nadia Comăneci,” says Marina Constantinoiu, referring to the famous gymnast who also defected, on foot, over the Hungarian border in 1989. “I grew up hearing about defections on Radio Free Europe from Germany. There was nothing in the Romania media. But they couldn't hide these two. They were the face of our unhappiness.”

Anghel Iordănescu, the veteran striker who had played with Belodedici in Steaua's 1986 European Cup-winning side, had been appointed coach and was dispatched to talk him home. When that failed, a military attaché was sent. That didn't work either. In absentia, he was found guilty of treason – as a Steaua player he had a military rank and was considered a soldier – and sentenced to 10 years in jail. There was, of course, no hope of him playing for the national team again. His older sister and an uncle were both arrested, questioned and threatened with jail and worse. But they were eventually released when it became clear they knew nothing of Belodedici's escape. He was also banned from playing for another club for ten months by Fifa for breaking his contract with Steaua. But it was worth it. “I went to my first love: Crvena Zvezda!” he says. “In my village they had Yugoslav TV and they played Zvezda matches. So when people asked me whom I supported, I said Zvezda was my first love. After two or three days I went to the police and asked for political asylum. And they said yes.”

With no contacts at the club, Belodedici simply turned up at the Marakana stadium and knocked on the door. He was taken to meet the legendary former Zvezda player Dragan Džajić, who was then a director but would go on to be the club's president. Initially, he didn't believe that Belodedici was Belodedici and told him to come back the following day. In previous interviews Belodedici recalled having to tell Džajić six times who he was before he believed him. But he returned and, after serving his ban, slid straight into what would become one the greatest, and one of the last, club teams of Yugoslav football. “Zvezda were very happy to have me, they gave me security in the hotel,” he says. “They were happy that a player like me turned up at the door and asked to play for them.”

Alongside the likes of Siniša Mihajlović and Darko Pančev, Zvezda would win the next three Yugoslav First League titles. Some of Belodedici’s fondest memories come from that time. “All the derbies were very tense, the players were so nervous before each game and the atmosphere was crazy,” he says. “80,000 people would be at each derby! It was a fantastic game to play.”

His old school teacher Tomislav Stefanović, along with several other of the braver residents of Socol would use their 20km “family permits” to get into Yugoslavia and then travel down to Belgrade to watch him play regularly. “We could go to Belgrade and come back in one night. One match I remember was against Nottingham Forest, and there was a Yugoslavia match.” But that ended when they were caught. “One game they saw us on TV and took us to the police station to question how they went and why they went,” recalls Stefanović. They weren't tortured, but only because it was the dying days of Ceaușescu's reign. “We took the risk; it was painful,” he adds. “But to watch our own citizen playing in the Marakana was priceless. We took all the risks to be there.”

But that would all soon end as Yugoslavia was headed for war. After the death of Tito in 1980, personal power politics and a rise in nationalism saw the six constituent socialist republics pull apart. The rise of the Serbian politician Slobodan Milošević, who promoted a form of ultra nationalism, helped set the country towards a ruinous war that killed tens of thousands. “I didn't feel the war coming in Belgrade but I remember the big problems at the borders,” Belodedici says of that time. “Bombs were exploding at the borders. It was very nasty when we went to Zagreb or Split. The teams were advised to stay in their hotels, not go out on the streets. I could feel the tension in the society.”

Matters came to a head on 13 May 1990 when Zvezda travelled to Croatia to play Dinamo Zagreb. The match took place shortly before Croatia was to hold its first free elections in five decades, which would be won by parties seeking independence. A riot broke out between the ultras of Dinamo – the Bad Blue Boys – and Zvezda’s Delije who were then run by Željko Ražnatović, the famed gangster and paramilitary leader otherwise known as Arkan. “It was a tense atmosphere, a crazy atmosphere, it was intense,” says Belodedici. “At some point the fans … well, the railings were ripped off and people started going on to the pitch. The coaches said: 'Go to the dressing room. Now! Run!' Everyone ran.”

The Zvezda team was locked deep inside the Maksimir. Outside the riot raged and Zvonimir Boban famously launched a flying kick into the face of a Yugoslav policeman, an image that would make him a hero amongst Croat nationalists who considered that match the first battle of the war for Croatian independence.

“We were there for two hours,” Belodedici says. “There were small windows. Fans were trying to get in. There were constant fights. And we were taken away with special military vans.” One player in particular was affected. Siniša Mihajlović was in his second season at the club. He was from Vukovar, a Croatian city on the Serbian border that was levelled during the war. His father was Serbian and his mother Croatian. “Mihajlović had a house by the border so he felt the war more than the others did,” Belodedici recalls. “None of the players felt it as much as him.”

Belodedici saw the war approach from inside Zvezda. He got to know Arkan, who was a regular presence around the team, flanked by two bodyguards, each carrying a bag whose contents remained secret. (“He was a dangerous guy,” remembers Belodedici). Arkan also had a cafe near the stadium that served juice and cakes. “I remember every player had a gun,” Belodedici says but quickly corrects himself. “I didn't have one. When they came to training they would have a gun and put it into their locker. And it was normal. It was normal to fire it after the game, in the air. BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM.”

The 1991 European Cup final is widely regarded to be one of, if not the, worst tournament finals in history. Zvezda had played expansive football on their way to the final against Marseille in the Italian city of Bari, scoring 19 goals in the process. But Zvezda's coach Ljubomir Petrović decided to stifle Marseille's attack instead, smothering the game with the intention of taking it to penalties. The game finished 0-0 after extra time. Belodedici scored his penalty and made history. “It is incredible what has happened to me. I had two loves. And I played for both,” he says when I ask which memory he holds dearest. “It is incredible how a child's dream can really happen.”

Miodrag Belodedici's playing days didn't end with that historic second title. As the Yugoslav wars ended football in his adopted country, he moved to Valencia and later to Mexico. He would also be allowed to return to his homeland. A year after he fled, a revolution erupted in Romania that would sweep Nicolae Ceaușescu from power and ultimately cost him his life. Belodedici's sentence for treason was quashed. He returned to the national team and played in USA '94. It was his missed penalty that saw them lose the quarter-final against Sweden. At the end of his playing career he would even play for Steaua again.

But back in 1989 he didn't know when he would be able to return. He would regularly drive the two hours from Belgrade and watch Socol from the Serbian side of the river, sometimes calling out to those he recognised on the other side. When his sentence for treason was lifted, he didn't fly. “I took the same road home,” he says, past the river and through the same border checkpoint he had left through in 1988.

What did the border officer say to you, I ask.

“Welcome home.”