Accessibility links

Breaking News

Romania: 1989's Bloody Revolution -- Chaos As The Ceausescus Are Executed

By December 20, 1989, a popular uprising had succeeded in toppling the Communist regime in the western Romanian city of Timisoara. But in the rest of the country, including the capital, Nicolae Ceausescu still held sway. In the second of his features on the Romanian revolution, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten picks up the story in Bucharest.

Bucharest, Romania; 14 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Nicolae Ceausescu, in his television address to the nation on the evening of December 20, had blamed the Timisoara uprising on "foreign agents." He appealed to Romanians not to allow a repetition of those events elsewhere in the country.

The next day, for reasons known only to himself, Ceausescu called a mass rally in downtown Bucharest. Perhaps the Romanian leader still felt loved by the people, or else he was confident in his ability to manipulate the rally. It was a fatal mistake that was to be witnessed by the entire nation.

A minute into his speech from the balcony of the Central Committee building, Ceausescu was interrupted by shouts from the crowd of "Timisoara!" and "Down with Ceausescu!" Live television and radio broadcasts were interrupted and replaced with patriotic songs.

Three minutes later, the broadcasts resumed. A visibly shaken Ceausescu tried to continue his speech. Again, he was shouted down. Abruptly, Ceausescu left the podium.

By the afternoon of December 21, the center of the capital was filled with thousands of people demanding Ceausescu's ouster. Violent clashes with police soon erupted and continued through the night.

The next morning, state radio declared a state of emergency throughout the country. An announcement followed that Defense Minister Vasile Milea had committed suicide, having been exposed as a traitor. Whether Milea was murdered or driven to suicide remains unclear to this day. But it appears that Ceausescu's right-hand man had refused to order his troops to fire on the demonstrators who were spreading across Bucharest.

Ion Caramitru is currently Romania's minister of culture. At the time Caramitru was known as an actor, director, and playwright. Like Father Laszlo Tokes in Timisoara, he became one of the symbols of the Romanian revolution. On the morning of December 22, Caramitru says he felt the time was ripe for revolution. But the army, now positioned at key intersections around the city, would have to help. The announcement of the defense minister's suicide proved to be just what he needed.

"I noticed immediately that this was the key to liberty. I went immediately to a man -- a colonel -- who was in charge of this group of tanks around us and I told him that probably they had killed him (the defense minister) -- because it was practically impossible to know. General Milea was the chief of the army -- he committed suicide? Probably he was killed, we said to ourselves. And the man didn't trust me, and he went into the body of the tank and he called probably somewhere. He went up. He was very moved, crying and shouting around that they have no other chance: what to do? And I said, 'Let's go to the television!' It was a very spontaneous decision, because probably we were obsessed with letting the people know the story. So it was the moment of the army joining the crowd and they embraced themselves. They took the tanks, they jumped on the tanks and the tanks left the place and went to the television."

By the time Caramitru and the tanks reached the television studios, Ceausescu, his wife Elena and a couple of bodyguards had taken off from the roof of the Central Committee building by helicopter.

They had no destination, but by that point, crowds of enraged citizens were fighting their way into the building. Had they not escaped, the Ceausescus risked being lynched on the spot.

Caramitru and another famous artist were now on television, broadcasting to the nation.

"I was with Mircea Dinescu, the poet. We couldn't say anything more than: 'We are free' and to ask people to join the revolution and so on ... We couldn't think of a program of a party or a manifesto or something like that, because we were unprepared for that."

Caramitru may not have had a political program, but one man did. His name was Ion Iliescu -- a former leading Communist official and onetime close associate to Ceausescu. Unknown to Caramitru and his dissident friends, Iliescu had quietly discussed post-Ceausescu scenarios with some of Romania's top military brass months before the uprising. Now he saw his opportunity. On December 22, Iliescu took control of the Romanian revolution. Many say he hijacked it.

In the afternoon, Iliescu arrived at the television studios. He says he felt the need to bring order to what was a joyful, but potentially anarchic situation.

"I was in this studio of the television, addressing the country. There was a permanent presence of different people expressing their enthusiasm with this movement, which was taking place in our country. Some hours of general enthusiasm, of general solidarity of general hope for better things and so on. ... But I felt something had to be put in order, because such enthusiasm and general sentiment of liberation can lead to general anarchy and disorder in the country."

Iliescu called on "all responsible people" to attend a meeting that day at the Central Committee, where the immediate future of the nation would be decided. The group that assembled was diverse, to say the least -- 20 people, half writers and artists, half military officers and Ceausescu aides. Together, under the direction of Iliescu, they drafted a proclamation calling for the establishment of democracy, a market economy, and freedom of the press. The National Salvation Front was formed to rule the country until new elections.

Later that evening, Iliescu visited the army headquarters. Two new bodies were established: the Superior Military Council and the Central Military Command. Essentially, the two bodies grouped together the leadership of the army and interior forces -- the same men who just the night before had directed police operations against anti-Ceausescu demonstrators.

General Dan Voinea is Romania's chief military prosecutor and has embarked on a one-man mission to uncover the truth about what exactly happened during those days. When shooting mysteriously re-erupted on the night of December 22 and continued unabated until December 25, Iliescu and his generals blamed it on dark "terrorist forces." Chaos had apparently flared anew. But Voinea and others believe the whole episode was a scenario carefully crafted by the military.

"The same people who had shot before now took power... The Superior Military Council, with its headquarters at the Ministry of Defense, gave orders to the Central Military Command inside the Central Committee building and this Central Military Command directed military operations across the country, or more exactly, where there were masses of demonstrators."

Scores of people in Bucharest and other cities were being mowed down by machine-gun fire; buildings were being set ablaze. Yet neither the Ministry of Defense nor the massive Central Committee building where Iliescu and his associates were based was touched by any "terrorist" bullets. Even stranger, although hundreds of people were detained as "terrorists" in the days that followed, not a single person was ever charged. Not a single terrorist was ever found. It is, says Iliescu, simply one of the mysteries of the revolution.

"Of course, it was maybe not a very large number of people -- professionals. And they disappeared. It's a pity, but we have no material proof of such people. Many were arrested in these days -- about 1,000. But on the first verification from the prosecutor's office, everyone had some alibi and could not be condemned for such activity. It remains one of the questions, non-elucidated, of our revolution."

By December 22, Ceausescu and his wife had been captured and were being held at a military base in Tirgoviste, 50 kilometers north of Bucharest. In an almost comic scene, the couple was picked up by a motorist when their helicopter ran out of gas. Later, they were handed over to the police.

Without telling the other members of the National Salvation Front, Iliescu and the military ordered a quick trial. Dan Voinea, then a junior military officer, was flown to Tirgoviste and ordered to prosecute the case against the Ceausescus. He was given three days and told to hurry. After all, Iliescu and the military stressed, the "terrorists" could strike at any time.

The main charges against the Ceausescus were embezzlement and genocide. Much of the trial, which was videotaped, degenerated into a shouting match between the judges and the first couple. On Christmas Day 1989, the video camera was switched off, and the Ceausescus were marched out of the improvised courtroom and shot by a military firing squad. Voinea, who had just stepped out of the building for a smoke, was one of the few to witness the scene.

"When they were taken out of the room where they'd been tried, there was this 10-meter-long corridor, and then they entered the yard of the military unit. From the exit to the wall where they had them shot, it was about 15 meters. When they took them out into the yard, he stopped, as he saw the soldiers. It was then that he realized he would be executed, I believe. First they took him and put him up against the wall. They took two steps back and the officer shot first. The other members of the firing squad were behind him. When they shot, he jumped, I think out of reflex... Because they aimed at his feet. More than half a meter, he jumped. And maybe you've seen on TV that he died on his back with his feet under him... And then they shot her."

Back in Bucharest, most of the members of the National Salvation Front knew nothing of the trial. Ana Blandiana, a leading poet and founding member of the Front, recalls that her name was frequently mentioned by Iliescu on television. But after December 22, she says, she couldn't even gain access to his inner circle.

"In the next few days, everybody treated me as one of the leaders of the country. But I wasn't even able to find out where the government headquarters were!"

Iliescu organized the first public meeting of the National Salvation Front on December 26, where he announced that the Ceausescus had been tried and executed. Miraculously, all "terrorist" shootings had stopped. Blandiana says she was stunned that neither she nor her fellow dissidents had been consulted. It began to dawn on her that Iliescu and the military only intended to use her as window-dressing.

"Now from the present perspective, when I understand more than at the time, my feeling is that they announced those famous names in order to attract sympathy and that they organized that first public meeting on December 26 only after they succeeded in controlling the situation. If they had called us from the beginning, it's clear that we would have expressed different opinions. It's clear we would have asked for a real trial for Ceausescu which would have uncovered everything he had done."

Although Iliescu originally vowed that the National Salvation Front would only be a temporary body, he soon announced that the committee was transforming itself into a political party, to contest upcoming national elections. Iliescu asked Blandiana to become deputy chairwoman.

"Mr. Iliescu said -- and in that moment I understood things better than in many years -- he said: 'You don't have the right to refuse! We need someone very loved.' In that moment, I understood that they needed me in order to use me. And I refused."

Blandiana quit the Front. Eventually, most of the old dissidents followed suit. There had been a revolution, but democracy had not taken hold.