December 1989 in Romania: Torturers Reinventing Themselves

This article originally appeared in Balkan Insight,

“No violence! No violence! Shoot, you thief, with your machine gun!” A few shots. People crying, shouting: “Don’t shoot, you thieves! Aren’t you ashamed? Stop shooting!”… A barrage of shooting, hell breaking loose… Replay. Again and again and again.

This was the tape that Radio Free Europe broadcast in the days following 17 December 1989. The only physical evidence then of the massacre in Timisoara, Romania. But also of the reality of the uprising. If they shot at people, then these people were actually in the streets. The rumours were true. There was almost no way to find out, most telephone lines to Romania had been cut.

I was a student in Freiburg, Germany then. I spent those days dialling numbers of friends and relatives, without any success. My ears glued to the radio – RFE of course, where information was coming through filtered, scarce and exaggerated, mostly from and through Yugoslavia. Uncertainty was the prevailing feeling, which I tried to drown in music. If I remember right, it was the month of They Might Be Giantsand Phillip Boa, or Poems for Laila. Techno was still to come.

Within a few days, the rebellion spread to other places, among which the town I had been born and raised in – Cluj/Klausenburg/Kolozsvár, before it reached the streets of Bucharest, where it finally toppled the regime attributed to a crazy couple, the Ceausescus. If it only were that simple…

It turned out that the two top figures had simply become obsolete. They were in the way of business. Real business, not the socialist kind of Monopoly-money stuff. When people took to the streets, the moment had come. The brutality of the coup can only be explained by the fact that the power was much more personalised than in the other countries; so the two best known and hated faces had to go, so that the rest survived.

It is until today that the faith of the Romanian people is controlled by persons and networks, which belonged to the repression machinery of the Ceausescus, but turned against their feeders in the last moment, not biting their hands but severing their heads, in the good, old Ottoman way. Figuratively speaking, of course. As long as these people are around, Romanian democracy will stay the farce it still is now. Characters like the current member of the European Parliament Gigi Becali speak for themselves – “I am not civilised. I want you to suck my …”

During my visit in January 1990, I was given a detailed account of what had happened in Cluj, and later in other places. The stories, backed by photographic evidence, had all the ingredients of sheer, blank horror: snipers shooting people in the streets like skeet shooting targets, encrusted bullets, human brains in the gutter, students sacrificing themselves in vain.

The local martyr of the uprising was an actor, Calin Nemes, who on 21 December stepped out of the bar he was sitting in, joined a small crowd of demonstrators in the city’s historic centre and posed in front of the special units, pulling up his shirt. He was shot, wounded severely, but he survived. This incident was the spark that brought the masses onto the streets of Cluj. It wasn’t until 1993 that Nemes committed an announced suicide, protesting against the legal and public ignorance that allowed the murderers of December 1989 to remain unharmed. A late, post-modern Jan Palach impersonation, on the stage of Romanian absurd theatre.

But in January 1990, the feeling was that history had happened. The Ceausescus had been disposed of in the most barbaric way, the ghost of freedom was looming around the corner, already being stepped on its toes (do ghosts have toes?) by the brutality of deception. There was talk about the revolution being hijacked.

Today we know that this wasn’t quite the case – it was actually run at least partially by those it initially targeted. The logic of secret services is not different to that of any bureaucracy: self-perpetuation is the prime directive. Future inter-ethnic clashes and the repression of massive student protests by a lynch-mob of mine workers on a rampage were staged by the same authors, the same networks, or rather business circles.

What happened in the following years in Romania is marked by the trauma a whole country had been subjected to within just a few days, and which juxtaposed the traumatic decades of communist oppression. The speed of events and the following fight for survival in an anarchic pseudo-democratic situation did not allow for dealing with these traumas. And only a decade and a half later the public trial of communism should start.

It is not the criminal convictions that count, not the number of perpetrators who have seen the inside of a prison cell. It is the healing effect of clearing up the mist of legends, which enabled the system to survive. Unmasked repression must be ridiculed. And sometimes punished.

But in December 1989 we were hopeful. Naïve as we were, we believed in the impossible for Europe. Today we know better. We have not found the instruments to get rid of this plague. So it is still possible today that the bearer of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, Herta Müller, is insulted in Romanian media by the same people who were in charge of the repression she and her peers had to suffer.

During all these years I cannot get rid of the feeling that the more than 1000 victims of the manipulated uprising in December 1989 died in vain. Yes, Romania is in the EU. Yes, people are free to think and say what they want. Yes, people can move freely. But the backbone of one of the most brutal repression machineries known in Europe, the men and women who pulled the strings, they became the creators of Romanian democracy. It is disgusting, it is bitter, and it makes me want to vomit. Still, after all these years.

In the meantime, I am waiting for the confirmation of a date to go and read my family’s file, which emerged from the archives of the Securitate, the Romanian secret service. What I am hoping to find? Peace of mind, maybe. It will not alter my disgust.

Vision! Beware of moles…


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