ian 01 2010
DANIEL McLAUGHLIN in Bucharest
Campaigners want an inquiry into the violence that followed the arrest of the communist dictator
TWENTY YEARS ago, Teodor Maries was on holiday in Bucharest when revolution gripped the city.
He was then a professional football player living close to Timisoara, the city that had erupted in protests against communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on December 16th, 1989.
False word that thousands of people had been killed and injured there in clashes between demonstrators and security forces had ignited unrest across Romania, and it had reached Bucharest on December 21st, when a crowd jeered a speech by Ceausescu.
The next day, hundreds of thousands of Romanians defied an army crackdown and massed outside the headquarters of the Communist Party’s central committee, where Ceausescu was holed up with his wife and co-ruler, Elena, and senior allies.
“We knew that Bucharest would be the toughest nut to crack,” says Maries, who was among the crowd. “But we also knew the dictator couldn’t survive, because we had seen what had happened in Berlin, Poland, Czechoslovakia and even Bulgaria. It was clear that the communist system was collapsing, and we in Romania were just waiting for the moment.”
They did not have long to wait. When it appeared that the crowd might storm Ceausescu’s refuge, a helicopter suddenly appeared overhead and landed on the roof of the central committee building.
“I knew it had come for Ceausescu,” says Maries, who was in the vanguard as demonstrators climbed through the smashed windows of the party headquarters – a place that had been off-limits for all but the pampered elite of Ceausescu’s brutally repressed and economically wrecked Romania.
“In the central hall I saw ammunition crates piled up and lots of abandoned weapons. I grabbed a gun and ran up the stairs, along with some others. Between the fifth and six floors we came across two of Ceausescu’s bodyguards, who hadn’t been able to get into the helicopter. A physical clash occurred and we could have shot them, but we didn’t – Ceausescu had gone.”
Maries vividly recalls going on to the building’s roof, just after the helicopter had flown away, and seeing “an immense mass of people” below him. “It was a unique feeling, that we were living in a historic moment. Everyone was cheering, Ceausescu had fled, and we had won our freedom.”
As Maries and the masses celebrated, Romania’s first couple were embarking on an extraordinary bid for freedom.
The terrified helicopter pilot warned his passengers that they could be shot down and landed beside a provincial road, where the Ceausescus’ security guard flagged down a stunned driver and bundled his charges inside.
After a few miles the driver lied that his car had engine trouble, and so they stopped another passing motorist and continued their journey crammed into a little Dacia, the dismal runabout of communist Romania.
Their driver took the Ceausescus to an agricultural institute where he had friends, and ushered his passengers inside.
Once there, workers at the institute locked them in a room and called for help. Soon, the couple who had run Romania for almost 25 years were in custody. Three days later, on Christmas Day, they were hurriedly tried at the Targoviste army barracks and shot by a firing squad. “The dictator had gone, Romanians had wished for freedom and had got it. The revolution was finished and it was victorious,” says Maries.
“After that, not a single bullet should have been fired.”
What transpired was different. The Ceausescus’ arrest was kept secret, and instead news spread across Romania of clashes between revolutionaries and “terrorists” – units loyal to the old regime, of huge numbers of casualties, and wild rumours of water supplies being poisoned and hospitals being attacked.
Thousands of weapons found their way on to Romania’s streets in the hands of untrained revolutionaries, desperate to defend their victory against mysterious forces that, according to media reports and hearsay, seemed intent on crushing the uprising.
More than 1,000 of the 1,500 or so people killed in the revolution died after Ceausescu was arrested.
Maries and millions of other Romanians believe this bloody chaos was triggered by a group of communists who, out of self-interest or antipathy to Ceausescu, used the spontaneous protests in Timisoara and elsewhere as a cover for their own coup to replace the dictator.
One member of this group, Ion Iliescu, became president after Ceausescu, and dominated the country’s politics until 2004. During that time, he and his allies ensured no full inquiry into the revolution took place.
As head of the December 21st Association, Maries is determined the facts will come to light and justice will be done. This year he lost 30kg during a 74-day hunger strike to demand that all the relevant files be made public and subjected to a proper inquiry.
Opening cupboards stuffed with copies of dossiers which officials sought to hide or destroy, Maries says: “It is tragic and painful that we haven’t been allowed to present what really happened to the public for 20 years, and that these files haven’t reached a judge’s table.”