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Romania: Events In Timisoara Ignite 1989's Bloody Revolution

  • Jeremy Bransten

Eastern Europe's season of fairy-tale, bloodless revolutions ended in chaos, violence, and death when it reached Romania in December 1989. Determined to remain in power at any cost, Romania's unpredictable and ruthless leader Nicolae Ceausescu ordered anti-government protests put down by force. A popular uprising in the city of Timisoara was met with bullets. But fighting spread to other cities. For more than a week, the country descended into seeming anarchy, as the world followed along on television. On Christmas day, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed, and the violence stopped. A National Salvation Front led by a coalition of dissidents, military officers, and second-tier Communist officials pronounced Romania free. Soon, however, the dissidents withdrew, replaced by more men in epaulets and gray suits. True democracy had not yet come to Romania.

In the first part of a five-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten travels to Timisoara for a look back at the uprisings.

Timisoara, Romania; 14 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As with many uprisings, the spark that ignited Romania's revolution began in the most unlikely of places and for the most unlikely of reasons.

For much of 1989, in the city of Timisoara, a minister of the little-known Reformed Hungarian Church had been resisting an order from his superiors to move to another congregation. Father Laszlo Tokes says ethnic Hungarian parishes were subject to frequent harassment by the Romanian Communist authorities, who had infiltrated the church hierarchy. Tokes was not alone and it was only by chance, he notes, that it was his church's dispute that led to a popular uprising:

"There were many priests or parishes or communities which tried their best in such a situation. It's the work of providence that out of these activities came the outbreak of the revolution in Romania. We did not count on it. Simply, we were faithful to our belief and to our conscience."

At the Sunday service on December 10, 1989, Tokes told his congregation that his battle with the authorities was lost. He would be leaving them on December 15. The mayor's office had threatened to physically evict Tokes and his family if he defied them any longer.

To his surprise, says Tokes, the congregation undertook to defend him. From that moment, a permanent vigil was set up. And by December 15, a small crowd had gathered around the church building in downtown Timisoara, brandishing candles and calling on the authorities to halt their persecution of Tokes. By evening, the crowd numbered more than 1,000, and it continued to grow into the next day:

"In the first hours, those people were the members of our parish, the reform believers of the Timisoara congregation, but then, hour by hour, many people joined them from Timisoara, irrespective of whether they were Baptist or Orthodox, Romanian or Hungarian, or of other nationalities or religions. That we used to call the spirit of Timisoara, because in that day, in those two days, in a very spontaneous way, all the people belonging to all denominations and national communities joined together."

The next day, a delegation of city officials appeared, headed by the mayor. They pleaded with the crowd to disperse, promising to revoke the eviction order. But the protesters jeered and moved to block traffic in the surrounding streets. Shouts of "Freedom!" echoed throughout the neighborhood. As Tokes puts it:

"The crowd forgot the initial reason for their resistance, and in general terms they opposed the regime itself."

Calin Meda, a 26-year-old computer engineer, had caught sight of the protest on the afternoon of December 16, while riding the tram to work. He says he and his friends, by watching television from neighboring Yugoslavia and listening to shortwave radio broadcasts, were well aware of the revolutions that had taken place around Eastern Europe. They believed Romania's turn would have to come, Meda says. The question was when and how?

"I knew that sooner or later, everything's gonna crumble because we were just at the end of all our resources. But on the other hand, it was pretty impossible to imagine that something could change in a system that was very, very closed and under very strict rules."

That evening, Meda left work to visit a friend near the site of the church protest. By then, the military had blocked off parts of the neighborhood and police were battling some protesters. Meda had stumbled onto a street riot that was turning into a revolution. He says that at the time, the experience was so alien, it felt unreal -- as if from a foreign movie.

Equally stunned but far more alarmed was Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his entourage in Bucharest, 400 kilometers away. With the situation in Timisoara rapidly spinning out of control, Ceausescu convoked an emergency meeting of the ruling Political Executive Committee of the Communist Party. He and his wife Elena lashed out at the interior and defense ministers for their forces' inability to quell the protests. "Why didn't they shoot?" Ceausescu demanded to know. Putting all law enforcement agencies under his direct and immediate control, the Romanian leader ordered the army and police to fire on demonstrators with live ammunition.

By the afternoon of December 17, demonstrations had spread to most parts of central Timisoara, and security forces had begun to implement Ceausescu's orders. Thousands of people who had gathered around the city's main Orthodox cathedral suddenly came under fire from platoons of soldiers approaching from the nearby opera house. In the central square between the opera and the cathedral, shops were being looted and set on fire by men wielding truncheons. Witnesses later said the looters appeared to have been government agents, bent on provoking mayhem to provide a pretext for repression.

For one, notes Meda, there was nothing to steal in the shops, and secondly, the protesters were unarmed. More shooting broke out in other parts of the city. Again, says Meda, the whole scene seemed unreal -- until protesters started to fall around him in the hail of bullets:

"And then there was the first victim that I saw, who was covered with blood all over from head to toe. The first time you see this, it's like a pig slaying. You cannot believe that a man could have so much blood in him. And you don't hear any screams or anything, just when everybody runs there's two guys there -- lying -- and that was for me the last experience on this 17th of December."

The next day was Monday, and by then, massive military force was deployed around the city. Timisoara's hospitals were filled with wounded. Some of the dead were hastily buried by the dreaded Securitate, or secret police. In an even grizzlier operation, scores of corpses were sent to Bucharest for cremation, on the orders of Ceausescu. Roads and telephone connections between Timisoara and the rest of the country were cut.

Apparently satisfied that the situation was under control, Ceausescu left Bucharest for an earlier planned trip to Iran. While he was in Tehran, senior government officials arrived in Timisoara to try to put a definite end to all resistance.

But on December 19, a general strike was called throughout the city. Government negotiators failed in their attempts to end the uprising, which grew anew. By the next day, the revolution had triumphed in Timisoara.

Huge columns of people once again took to the streets and converged on the center -- among them, Calin Meda. Going in the other direction, army tanks and soldiers were withdrawing from the city. From the balcony of the opera house, which three days before had been used by the army as an artillery range, dissidents addressed the crowd.

On his way home from the meeting, Meda remembers seeing an elderly man, walking alone in the center of the road. Holding aloft a Romanian flag, with the communist emblem cut out from its center, the man was singing an old Royalist song.

That night, Ceausescu, back from Iran, addressed the nation on television. Although speaking from the nation's capital, Meda realized the Ceausescus were no longer in control and, more importantly, no longer relevant:

"I went home to see what was going on and he was there, surrounded by his wife, I think the internal affairs minister and so on and another guy -- I don't know who he was, but all the guys in charge -- and he started to speak in a very solemn atmosphere. He started to speak about some turbulences that were going on, about foreign intelligence agencies that were trying to do so and so...nothing very specific. And during that time, downtown there was another city. It was another city altogether. I mean, that was my very strong impression: that Timisoara was part of another country at that moment."

Within a week Ceausescu would be dead.