"I can't stand this anymore," she said. I looked around, at the bleak platform, at the mass of gray, drab-looking people, at the old train pulling into the station with a long screech. It was freezing cold, and the somber atmosphere just made everything feel even colder.
“I can’t stand this anymore,” my wife repeated, as we boarded an evening train in my hometown Brasov, to return to our tiny apartment in Sfantu Gheorghe, a smaller town some 30 kilometers away where I was teaching high school. “We’re hopeless. We’re just wasting our lives,” she added.
I said nothing. What was there to say? Romanians had been very good at dark humor throughout their tormented history, and the doldrums of communism had only sharpened their wit.
One of the season's jokes was that Dante had been wrong, and that hell was not hot at all, it was, in fact, as cold as a Romanian apartment in winter.
It was Sunday evening, and the train was more crowded than usual, since we were only one week away from the start of the Christmas vacation, or winter vacation in official lingo, as there was no Christmas to celebrate in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania.
Wrinkled, gloomy faces, and worn clothes. Dirty carriages. Quiet desperation. There was nothing to remind us of the holiday spirit so cherished in the West, aside from the ragged luggage people were carrying, which looked stuffed with food and home-made wine.
Poor farmers hauling some food from the countryside to their even poorer children and grandchildren living in the cramped city apartment blocks.
They were living on food rations: five eggs per person per month, 100 grams of butter, half a kilogram of sugar, and half a liter of cooking oil. Half a loaf of bread per day, and six kilograms of meat per year -- on May Day, on National Day in August, and on New Year.
The worst nightmare was losing one’s ration card. Long live communist Romania. To hell with its people.
I kept to myself, choosing not to answer my wife’s almost desperate remark. Her condition -- she was five months pregnant -- required some cheering up from my side, and maybe a kilo of oranges. I had neither. We boarded this train once a week to see my elderly mother in Brasov, then coming back to work. Nothing special. Nothing interesting. No hope. Romania was Orwellian.
By the time we got back to our place, it was almost 10 at night. Teaching some early classes on Monday, and then a meeting with a young party official in charge of education. What could he possibly want from me, I wondered? I wasn’t a party member. Had I had another slip of the tongue during classes? Maria Square
As I was unpacking, I pulled out my valuable portable Sanyo radio-cassette player from the bag, and plugged it in. Five to 10. OK, there was something to look forward to after all. Still time for the headlines recap on Voice of America (VOA), on medium wave. As I was fiddling with the dial, I caught a couple of words in Romanian. “The group of protesters in Maria Square,” the announcer was saying amid strong static, “were dispersed by riot police, apparently after gunfire was heard.”
Maria Square. Did not ring a bell. Another square somewhere in the world. Like that summer’s Tiananmen Square revolt, which I had been learning about every night from Radio Free Europe (RFE) and VOA. Not in Romania, no way, I was thinking. The whole of Eastern Europe is rising, but not us. Poles and Hungarians make revolutions, Romanians make jokes.
My bitter musings were abruptly interrupted by the newsreader’s voice, this time clearer, louder, repeating the complete story before closing the program: “In Timisoara, in Maria Square, the protesters were dispersed by riot police, apparently after gunfire was heard. What started as a vigil against the forced eviction of Pastor Laszlo Toekes from his parish turned into a large antigovernment protest. Security forces opened fire, and there are reports that many people have been killed. We’ll get back to you.”
I held my breath for a second. Then, as the news was sinking in, I whispered to myself, “It’s started!” All of a sudden I felt sweat rolling down my temples despite the cold in the room. “It’s started,” I yelled this time, as my wife burst out of the kitchen, not understanding why I was being so loud. “It’s started,” I kept repeating, as if to convince myself that what I had just heard was true.
That Maria Square was in Romania, and not somewhere else. I looked at my watch. The time was 10 p.m. The day was December 17, 1989. Like my wife, like us, some Romanians somewhere had said, “we can’t stand it anymore.” But they had said it out loud, and many would pay with their lives.
I stayed up all night, glued to my small radio set, trying to learn more. RFE’s Romanian Service, and Voice of America were the only source of information I had. State radio and television were broadcasting the usual nauseating programs about Ceausescu and his wife.
I went to classes Monday morning, hoping to find people talking about Timisoara in the teachers’ room. Surprise. Nothing. Same scared faces, same small talk. Someone had killed the Christmas pig. Shared with another five people, raised on painfully saved bread crusts and stolen potatoes. Should I tell them? Blank looks. No, I shouldn’t.
I left disappointed. The next day, Tuesday, December 19, we let our daytime students leave for winter vacation a couple of days early. Party orders. People were beginning to speak more openly about an ongoing massacre in Timisoara, but fear was always present.
On Wednesday, December 20, by the time we arrived at my mother’s place in Brasov, we had heard that the number of victims was rising in Timisoara. State media were reporting that Ceausescu had returned from his short visit to Iran and was to address the nation later that afternoon.
Waiting for him to speak, we tuned in to Radio Free Europe. Massacre
What I felt next I still find hard to describe, 20 years later. RFE broadcast a short recording smuggled out of Timisoara. People screaming, men and women. A woman, shouting, "Romanians, like ourselves! Shame on you!" Then a man, saying, “Shoot, you bastards, shoot!” Then, a second of silence. Just a second. Then gunfire. Then, more gunfire. Then silence.(Listen to RFE's broadcast from Timisoara: Real Player, Windows Media)
I raised my head after a long while. Tears were blurring my eyes, but I could still see that both my wife and my mother were crying silently.
Ceausescu’s recorded speech later that evening -- about “hooligans, foreign agents, and terrorists ransacking Timisoara” poured fuel on the fire. By now there was no going back, once his hands were covered in blood. He declared a state of emergency.
Somehow, though, he and his advisers seemed not to have realized what they had done, and out of defiance or sheer stupidity, he called a mass rally in Bucharest. It had long been said among Romanians that no matter how many people or places would rise against the regime, nothing would change until the capital, Bucharest -- a metropolis of more than 2 million people -- would do the same.
In the two cities I was commuting between there was also a massive security presence on the streets. It was amid such a backdrop that on Thursday, December 21, I heard of Ceausescu’s speech being interrupted. But it was unclear what was happening in Bucharest and Timisoara, as the power went out at exactly the times Radio Free Europe was on. There were no available batteries.
I spent much of the night glued to my small portable radio in Sfantu Gheorghe, trying to catch a word, a phrase, whenever the power was on. I fell asleep very late. Our boulevard was pitch dark, and so were the apartment blocks flanking it.
I was woken abruptly by a murmur, more like a muffled roar. Was it coming from my radio, left on as I had fallen asleep? I looked at my watch: 7:30, I had missed the 6:30 VOA broadcast! I jumped out of bed, and looked outside the window, then opened the balcony door, and the roar grew.
Nicolae Ceausescu delivers his last public speech from the balcony of the Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest on December 21
I looked in the distance, and I saw a huge mass, thousands of people marching on the boulevard toward us, coming from the city’s eastern industrial platform, many with flags. The sun was blinding me, and I wondered for a moment whether this was again one of those staged “anti-hooligan” demos, like the previous day’s Bucharest rally.
But as they drew near, I noticed there were no red flags, and the tricolor had a hole in the middle. Then, the guy leading the column, a mountain of a man, with thick beard, rose his head and our eyes met.
'Teacher, Come With Us'
Radu, my night-school student, a worker with a big mouth. “Hey, teacher, what are you doing there standing and gazing at us! Come join us!” he roared, and tens of his mates chanted noisily: “Teacher, come with us! Teacher, come with us!”
We did not pause to think twice. Both my wife and I flew down the stairs in a matter of minutes. I told her to go back. She refused. Joining the column of protesters, I thought of letting someone know what was happening in our town. I ran toward the door of the city’s post office, only to see a guy in overalls cut the wire of the only outside long-distance public phone in front of my eyes.
The column headed for the local party headquarters, at the edge of the town's park. The building was surrounded by trucks full of army conscripts, AK-47s at the ready. My wife and I found ourselves pressed against the elevated railing in front of the building. One soldier lowered his weapon and pointed it threateningly at my pregnant wife’s belly.
The crowd began booing and calling for the party boss to come out. He appeared on a small balcony, and tried to speak to the mixed, ethnic Hungarian and Romanian crowd. He was jeered repeatedly, then shuffled in by his security detail. He tried again, with a loudspeaker, from within the building. The jeers were too strong, so he disappeared.
Strangely enough, after a couple of hours of tense standoff, I noticed, there were no police, only army in the cordon around the building. Where were they? I looked worriedly at the crowds around us, which had begun to thin at the edges.
Then suddenly, shortly after noon, the tide turned, and I heard shouts from people coming toward us. At first, we could not understand what they were saying, but it soon became clear, when they began jumping with joy! “Ceausescu has fled! We are free!” Slowly, as if incredulous of what they were hearing, more and more people began hugging one another.
We looked at each other, then at the army conscript still pointing his gun at my wife. “It’s over, man,” I yelled at him. “It’s over when my commanding officer says it’s over,” he replied coldly. “Look behind you,” I urged him, as he suspiciously turned his head only to see the army major throw his cap high in the air. Ceausescu had fled, indeed. It was over. Communism had fallen.
My story, as told to my daughter years later, should have ended here. But, unfortunately, it did not. From 12:09 Friday, December 22, until the evening of Christmas Day, when the Ceausescus’ execution was partially broadcast on state television, hundreds more people died unnecessarily in many cities and towns across Romania in a bloody masquerade presented by those who had taken over in Bucharest as a “fight against terrorists” presumed loyal to Ceausescu.
Whether they were terrorists indeed we never found out. But many civilians were called to arms by the new authorities and local army barracks too easily gave away guns to people as young as 14, sometimes only based on a simple ID. On December 23, in Sfantu Gheorghe, I saw how, from the army headquarters downtown, brand new sniper rifles were being handed over to civilians “to protect the revolution.”
The same night, machine gunfire burst out at precise intervals, seven minutes past each hour. Meanwhile, state radio was broadcasting alarming news about terrorists bursting into apartments and killing people randomly in cities across the country.
Eugen Tomiuc returns to the site of the protest in Sfantu Gheorghe in 2008
On December 24, the same day, we took the train to see my mother in Brasov, where there had been reports of fighting. Mother was alright, thank God. But only yards from my home, on the street I grew up as a child, a huge pool of blood had not dried yet.
Several armed men were hanging around, one of whom I knew. Hey, he told me with pride, we killed a terrorist! A foreign one! In an Italian-registered car, he added, reeking of alcohol. He tried to overrun our checkpoint, we shot at the car, he stopped, got out and tried to run away but we got him in the back!
I turned away and walked downtown, where bullet pockmarks were everywhere. One guy I knew came to me to say "hi." There was no more postrevolutionary joy in his eyes: “Carmen was killed yesterday, in the very first burst of gunfire last night near the Modarom building. She was there with her boyfriend and others to celebrate.”
Carmen Bian, a former middle school and university colleague. The following day I bought the paper and checked the list of dead and the places they had fallen. I paused over a foreign name: Rancati, Francesco, 42. Italian national. Shot by mistake while driving with a transport of humanitarian aid.
It was Christmas Day. Finally, we called it Christmas again. That evening they announced that the Ceausescus had been shot after a trial. I watched in horror. That had been no trial, but a farce.
Then somehow, my mind kept turning to the two people about whose deaths I had learned. A stranger, and someone I knew. Two crosses in the Heroes’ Cemetery in downtown Brasov. They, and hundreds others, could have been alive. The shooting should have stopped on December 22, 1989, at 12:09.
Revolutions Of '89
In the fall of 1989, a singular wind of change swept across the continent, blowing down the Iron Curtain and revealing the public's yearning for freedom. Click here
for RFE/RL's look back at the year communism collapsed.