The 1989 Romanian Revolution. A personal account.
I am thankful for many things in my life but among them a special place is dedicated to the good fortune to witness historical events, and to be old enough to be a part of them. I will relate the story of the 1989 Romanian Revolution as I remember it, and as I lived it. But before I will start telling the history of the events that took place in Romania between December 16th and 22nd, I need to offer the readers an image of the Romania of the year 1989 under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, secretary general of the Romanian Communist Party, and president of the Socialist Republic of Romania.
At the end of the 80’s Romania was a depressing place to live, a place where necessities of life like meat, eggs, milk, sugar and commodities like coffee and toilet paper were hard to find. The black market flourished. One needed to stay in long lines waiting for a frozen chicken or a piece of meat. Oranges or bananas were luxuries for which people fought. Electricity was rationalized, so was the heat in the apartments, the national tv station had only two hours of programming a day, part of which was dedicated to the Ceausescu’s success as national and international leader. One could ask what created such shortages? The answer is simple: Nicolae Ceausescu decided that the country needed to pay the national debt, back then approximatively $ 11 billion of dollars. In order to achieve this, everything that had value on the international market, including agricultural products were exported for hard currencies. By the mid 1989 the debt was finally paid and the nation hoped that more than a decade of shortages and deprivation will come to an end. However, this didn’t happen.
By the beginning of November 1989, the Wall of Berlin has fallen, and Nicolae Ceausescu was the last old guard leader of the Warsaw Pact countries, and the efforts of the soviet leader, Michael Gorbachev who urged Ceausescu to change the course of his politics were in vain. Aggravated by the Moscow’s insistence of a change in politics, Nicolae Ceausescu retaliated with a speech on Nov 24th, at the end of the 14th Congress of the party, speech in which he denounced the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, and asked for its consequences to be reversed. Practically he asked for the reunification of Romania with historical territories that were found back then on the USSR territory, and are now The Republic of Moldavia, and parts of Ukraine.
The first revolutionary movements started in December 15th in Timisoara were the protests of the parishioners against the transfer of Laszlo Tokes from his church to a remote village swell. It was a disciplinary move ordered by the party because of the pastor’s sermons that were considered revolutionary. The next day, the first skirmishes between Police, and the protesters started. On December 17th, the city was already engulfed in protests that continued for the next two days. On December 19th, the Army opened fire against the demonstrators. The consequence was the fury of the people. On December 20th, more than 100,000 protesters filled the center of Timisoara, and the party authorities had to flee the city in haste. I followed the evolution of the events in Timisoara by listening Radio Free Europe. Every single evening, me, and my parents gathered around the radio to find out what was going on. The other source of information was the Bulgarian TV that started to air information about the protests.
My direct involvement in the events started on December 21st when Ceausescu convened a meeting of the workers in Bucharest to denounce the events in Timisoara. I watched the meeting on TV: me, my mother, and my father. But the meeting never ended, and the tv transmission was halted, and distinct sounds of screams, and restlessness could be heard. My father realized that something was happening, and decided to go and see what was about. He asked me to go with him over the fierce opposition of my mother. Downtown Bucharest was a city under siege. On one hand, armed riot police tried to block the access of the people to the square in the front of the Intercontinental Hotel. We found out later that after the meeting broke in disarray, skirmishes between protesters and police took place all over the downtown. Me and my father had to take different roads, crossing from one street to another, running from the Police that was charging the people who tried to get to the main group of demonstrators, and hiding where ever we could. We end up locked alongside another group of protesters in the interior court of one buildings, and had to improvise a ladder to get out of there. When we finally reached the main pocket of demonstrators I saw an image that I will never forget: a group of maybe 2,000 people protesting in the middle of the avenue that crosses Bucharest from south to north, and on the sidewalks, maybe 10,000-15,000 people, maybe more, watching and applauding. The protesters were chanting and demanded for Nicolae Ceausescu to leave power. It was a party like atmosphere which was broken by armed vehicles trying to break the protest, and by the riot police that was trying to encroach on the perimeter. I don’t know how long we were there. A few hours for sure, and I remember that I wanted to stay there if I could but my father urged me to follow him and return home even some of my college colleagues were among the main group of protesters. He told me, and he was proved right, that the Police would start firing with real ammunition, and arrest people as the night fall. I was reluctant but I followed his advice and left.
When we arrived at home we found my mother in the kitchen crying, and she started crying even harder when she saw us. We found out that one neighbor who happened to pass through downtown had told her that the Police killed hundreds of people which was not true (only a small number of people were killed during day time). However, my mother had believed the lady and she was desperate because she didn’t know what was going on with us.
The night of 21st to 22nd December was probably the longest night of my life. We listened Radio Free Europe, and we could also hear the machine guns. The sounds of that night have been haunting me since then. 50 people were killed that night by the joint forces of Police, Secret Police, and Army. More than 400 were wounded, and over 1,000 were beaten and arrested, and faced an uncertain future. The brave people who confronted the armed forces shouted, “We will die but we will be free.”
As the morning came in Bucharest, the officials ordered that the blood of the dead people be washed. They didn’t have time to complete this, thousands of people flooded the streets of Bucharest in range, and demanded the end of the regime. By midday more than half of million people gathered in the front of the building of the Central Committee of the party. I was far away from the building when the Ceausescu and his wife fled the building in a helicopter while the furious people entered the building. Other people went to the television, occupied it, and aired to the whole Romania the news that Ceausescu was gone. It was a carnival like atmosphere when we all were friends, and we were all happy that Ceausescu was gone. This happiness lasted only few hours. At night fall gun fights started. People were led to believe the Secret Police and Arab terrorists were fighting to overturn the Revolution. The new authorities gave people guns and with lack of discipline, and with rumors flying around, people started to shoot without knowing that they killed innocent people. The soldiers shoot other soldiers, and revolutionary guards shoot the soldiers. More people died as the result of this than during the night of 21st-22nd of December.
Ceausescu and his wife were caught, summary tried, and executed on Christmas Day 1989. The nation celebrated.
When I look back to the days of December 1989 I always blame myself that I was not as brave as many other people. I have always felt that I could have done more than listening Radio Free Europe, and watching other people actively protesting. However, I learned a precious lesson: revolutions are glorious only for a few hours, and that divergences among the leaders of the moment always plague such events. The fall of Nicolae Ceausescu was what everybody in Romania wanted, what followed was a matter of debate, and has been ever since.