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Romania remembers its bloody 1989 revolution

A crowd of civilians hide after the overthrow of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Photo: David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images - Credit: Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

The country’s emergence from communism was more bloody than others. But, as TESSA DUNLOP discovered when she travelled there, that traumatic experience has left Romania in a very different place to its near neighbours.

“I fired 29 bullets into him and Elena. No, I didn’t regret it. If I hadn’t executed them, I would have been executed. That was how it was.”

Ionel Boeru killed Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s communist dictator and his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day 30 years ago.

One of three paratroopers who faced the couple with loaded machine guns, he was the only one who opened fire.

Now a grandfather with reassuring spectacles and a warm smile, there is little sign of the military man who shot to kill. “We flew back to the army barracks in the helicopter with the bodies.” He shrugs. Ceausescu had to die like that after a mock trial, he thinks, “or else when would the shooting on the streets have stopped?”

In December 1989, international news of negotiated peaceful revolutions in Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia travelled east, to a country where the population was at breaking point.

In the 1980s, Ceausescu’s bastardised version of communism had out-Sovieted the Soviets and broken the economy. Perestroika’s liberalising winds never reached Romania.

So when, on December 16, a protest for a Hungarian priest in the country’s most westerly multicultural city, Timisoara, morphed into something bigger and altogether more unimaginable – a call for change – a touch paper was lit.

For factory worker Sorin Oprea there was no going back. He lifts his leg onto the table and exposes a bullet wound embedded in a fleshy calf. “I saw my two friends die. They called the army in to fire on us. They were shooting their own people.”

The communists responded to the protesters with tanks. In contrast to those more peaceful revolutions in 1989, more than 1,000 people died in Romania that December. Catalin Giurcanua, a 46-year-old project manager cries on his sofa, as he recounts events. “My father was shot, he came out to look for me, his 16-year-old son, and he was killed on the streets of Bucharest. There has never been justice done.”

They say a revolution eats its heroes, Romania shot many of theirs, and the cases are only now reaching the Court of Justice. That so many of Romania’s post-1989 political class were implicated in the December violence has ensured that efforts to properly investigate the Revolution dossiers (contained in 3,330 folders and involving 5,000 witnesses) have been systematically blocked.

Dragos Petrescu is a professor of comparative politics and recent history at Bucharest University; we stand together on the balcony of the former communist party headquarters, where Ceausescu gave his last speech.

Today the black bullet holes that pockmark surrounding buildings compete with gaudy Christmas lights. Petrescu explains how most of the shootings occurred after Ceausescu had fled Bucharest in a helicopter on December 22. (The dictator was to die in front of Boeru’s AK47 three days later in a military compound 80km away in Targoviste.)

The subsequent shooting of hundreds of street protesters was deliberate. “It was said that some terrorists, Ceausescu loyalists specially trained to defend him to their last breath, were fighting urban guerrilla warfare against the revolutionaries but this was not the case.”

Petrescu points out that not one terrorist was caught and bought to justice. Instead the violence was deliberately “induced by the newly-established political power in order for it to consolidate itself”. Within days the revolution had been hijacked by a powerful group of men for whom Ceausescu was a convenient scapegoat. Giurcanua’s father, and others, were killed to help legitimise a regime that mainly consisted of former communists who had fallen foul of their leader in the latter years of the regime. Led by Moscow-educated Ion Iliescu, who has recently been indicted for crimes against humanity, Romania’s new National Salvation Front was a wolf in sheep’s clothes. Within six months president Iliescu had sent miners to Bucharest to crush a university protest. At least six people died.

“Romanians were jealous of how countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia managed the transition [from communism to democracy],” explains psychologist Tibi Rotariu.

Anticipating Christmas celebrations on the television, the world watched on as the country crashed out of its communist straightjacket in a storm of executions and shootings.

Worse was to come. Rotariu and I meet in the northern town of Siret, tucked up against the border with Ukraine. The remote location is not a coincidence; this was the ideal place for the communists to shut away any children that were not considered ‘normal’. A perfect communist world expected perfect children in a country where contraception and abortion were banned.

In the 1980s Siret was home to 2,000 of Romania’s orphans and sick children. This was the town that the British broadcaster Anneka Rice visited with her television crew in 1990; images of shaven heads and haunted eyes appalled an international audience.

For many in the West, Romania will be forever associated with orphans. When I arrived in Siret as a teenage volunteer in 1992, the former army barracks was still home to hundreds of unwanted children. Back then Rotariu was a local Romania boy who translated for the foreign volunteers. Profoundly affected by what he saw, Rotariu studied psychology at Bucharest University and has subsequently returned to Siret where he manages the town’s new psychiatric hospital.

The army barracks have been demolished, the adult orphans are re-housed in modern sheltered accommodation, and Siret, once ashamed of its dark past, now embraces the former children which came to define it. I skip up the road holding hands with Vasilica and Mariana, orphan girls I first met 28 years ago – today we are all over 40. These women will never be able to live independently, but in this new Siret they find a lot to laugh about.

The transformed lives of Vasilica and Mariana are proof of real progress, partially facilitated through integration with the West and EU membership.

If, in December 1989 the Revolution was hijacked by communists and military men, historian Petrescu is adamant that an unstoppable and profound cultural change was born amidst the bloodshed.

“Because of the mystery of the revolution, because of the deep frustration of not knowing who killed 800 Romanians, because they were killed under the new political party which was supposed to be democratic, a new cultural, a political sub culture of protest, has emerged.”

Starting in Timisoara and Bucharest 30 years ago and culminating most famously in the #rezist demonstrations of August 2018, which saw nearly half a million protestors pour onto the streets, huge numbers of politically-engaged Romanians have refused to be silenced by a substandard political class riddled with corruption. Legislative tampering in judicial systems has been a recent hallmark of eastern European democracies with Orban’s Hungary and Poland’s Law and Justice Party leading the way. To keep their leader, Liviu Dragnea, out of jail, the PSD, Romania’s ruling party until this November (and successor of the National Salvation Front), tried the same. That bid failed. This year Dragea finally went to prison for procuring fake jobs for party members and the PSD have lost their grip on power.

Nor does Petrescu think it is a coincidence that Romania has rejected the anti-EU rhetoric of Poland and Hungary.

Under Ceausescu, Romania broke away from the pan-Soviet model and indulged in a highly ideological regime defined by “flamboyant nationalism”. But the promised Romanian communist nirvana was exposed as a cruel sham and tub-thumping nationalism is not something the majority of Romanians are likely to return to any time soon. Quite the reverse. With the dangers of Russian chauvinism all too visible in neighbouring Ukraine, Romania remains overwhelmingly pro-EU, despite the departure of nearly five million Romanians in recent years. In a sharp reminder of the impact when richer countries deliberately target the ‘brightest and the best’, the loss of so many talented young Romanians has hit the country hard.

With an unemployment rate of less than 1%, freedom of movement has come at a high price for Romania’s public services and mass migration is painful for those left behind. Among the older generation, some long for the security of communist times when children and grandchildren stayed at home. On December 6, Romania’s St Nicholas’s day, I met 68-year-old Florica Zamfir at Nicolae Ceausescu’s grave. She laid flowers, lit a candle and shed a tear: “I will mourn for his loss until the day I die. Things were more certain then, they were better.”

Nostalgia has long been a panacea for national ills and there are Romanians, invariably older or in poorly paid jobs, who share Zamfir’s opinion. But across Romania the broken expressions and shaky gait of Romania’s adult orphans are a constant reminder of why the former regime will always be difficult to revere. This is a country where just 30 years ago people were so desperate to get rid of Ceausescu they died on the streets.

Giurcanu hopes that his father’s death was not in vain. “We must believe that the future will be good. That is why I take my children out onto the streets to protest.” Historian Petrescu is cautiously optimistic. “People died for regime change. Something shifted in the mindset of the new generation, now they can organise themselves when democracy is in danger and this is really important.”

He looks out across the blanket of Christmas decorations – inconceivable 30 years ago – and allows himself a little smile. After a long 30 years, there’s a real sense that democratic Romania is finally starting to believe in itself.

Tessa Dunlop will present Romania’s Revolution 30 Years on, on Radio 4, 8pm, Monday, December 23

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