Thirty Years Later
Because we are celebrating these days the thirty years anniversary of the Romanian Revolution in December 1989, and considering the fact that the historical truth must be spread and, above all, respected, I will recount the things I lived and, particularly, felt those days … and afterwards.
The thirty years elapsed since the Revolution could not erase my memories of those times. The stories that you will hear in the following minutes belong to someone who, in those days, had the opportunity to be one of the most informed civilians involved in the events in Timișoara.
As a result of accidental circumstances, I was the only civilian who had access to the “Operations” office at the headquarters of the Timisoara garrison, after Timișoara had been declared the first city free of communism. I witnessed the communications sent from and the manipulations of the office of the garrison commander, I could see the “battle log” of those days, but also the battle for power that took place among several groups of the army and Securitate. I saw the organizational naiveté of the Leadership Committee of the FDR (later FSN) in the Opera building. I became the first spokesman of the Army and of the Revolutionaries to officially inform the foreign journalists that started to come in hoards to Timisoara.
When the riots began on the streets of Timișoara, I was a “young and restless” locksmith at the Motorcar Company, and therefore, even from the first moments I couldn’t stay away from them. It seems that I haven’t healed yet…
My mother was a practicing Reformed (Calvinist) believer, a member of the church where Rev. László Tőkés served. She would bring the minister food and firewood daily, so I was keeping track of what was happening both in the church and around it, even in the minister’s family.
On the evening of December 16, my mother called and told me to stay away from her place by any means – she lived 300 meters from the Reformed Church – because “there was big scandal there”. Of course, I did not listen to her, and, on my way to St. Mary Square, I was caught and put in a police van, together with a drunken citizen. I escaped because another policeman, that stopped the van in the Mărăști area, was a former schoolmate. He got me out of the van and succintly said: “Run home!”
But the next day I was back on the streets.
On Sunday, December 17, I wanted to take my three-year-old son to the Puppet Theater. I found out that the performance had been canceled…. Then, with the child in my arms, I tried to go to the Reformed Church to see what was happening. A line of Securitate soldiers and civilians dressed in leather coats and jackets, were in the Küttl (Mocioni) Square, next to the belfry of the Orthodox church. I approached the line and they ordered me to stop and leave. Because I was holding the baby in my arms, I obeyed the orders but… the unpredictable happened: my son suddenly shouted: “Down with Ceaușescu!”. I started a run and, looking over my shoulder, I saw how a civilian dressed in a leather jacket stopped two others who were ready to follow me. Later, in 1990, I would find out that the civilian’s name was Gelu Popovici, he was a captain in the police and became – until he was assassinated in 1999 – one of my best friends.
Toward noon, hearing that the events were getting hot at the county headquarters of the communist party, I contacted my friend Tiberiu Budău and we decided to go there.
Since we couldn’t get into 23 August Blvd., as the road was blocked by the army and armored vehicles, we decided to make a detour and go on Bega’s bank, towards the small bridge that led into the Pioneers’ Park.
Once there, we found a small group of protesters; however, they were standing, scared by the military line and the four TABs (amphibious armored vehicles) that were stopped, engines running, on the street that led to the “Decebal” Bridge.
Tibi and I wanted to cross the bridge, but we were stopped by a group of conscripted soldiers and an officer whose gun was out of its holster… “Stop! Back off! Don’t try anything or we will start the fire!” the officer shouted. We stopped and tried to convince him that we were paying a visit to a friend. The lie didn’t work, and the officer cocked his pistol. One of the soldiers, who was in front of him, slowly pulled out the magazine of his AKM rifle to show us that they had no ammunition….
However, fearing the officer, we backed off…
Once again arrived at the junction of Pestalozzi and Pârvan streets, we saw that quite a large group of protesters was coming toward us from the “Timișoreana” Beer Factory. When that group approached us and we united, two TABs took off from where they were stopped and started to chase us around the crossroads, aiming to break us apart.
One of the TABs followed the group of protesters I was part of and ran a woman down and killed her – two meters behind me – later, I found out that her name was Rozalia Popescu. I was faster and more fortunate, as I flung myself down the Bega embankment, down the small bridge that connected the crossroads with the Pioneers’ Park. From there, I ran several tens of meters downstream, then I went up the street again and returned to the goddamn crossroads, asking the people at the windows and balconies across the street for empty bottles and gasoline, to set the armored vehicles alight.
Despite our desperate calls, not one of people at the windows of the apartment buildings across the street wanted to bring us empty bottles or to give us gas (petrol in UK), except for a young man who brought us two bags with empty beer bottles… so, along with my friend Tiberiu Budău, I attacked the TABs that were trying to scatter the group of protesters with empty bottles, injuring an officer who had come out of a TAB’s hatch, right at his eyebrow.
On 20. December, after lunch, we went with the column of protesters, who were enthusiastic because the army had sided with us, to the county headquarters of the communist party. I had a spray with red paint, used to detect cracks in metallic surfaces – graffiti sprays not being yet invented at that time – and with that spray I had written anti-communist slogans on the wall of the Botanical Garden and the facades of some apartment buildings on Torontal Rd, carefully guarded by my late friend, the artist Marius Iuliu Mare.
There, in the crowd gathered in front of the county headquarters of the communist party, together with some colleagues from I.A.T, I was wondering “Nevertheless, where are the secret police agents?… they are swarming among us for sure!”. As a result, we started to watch attentively the people around us when – oops! – my gaze was drawn to a guy wearing a khaki sweatshirt, hooded… “How are you, buddy?” I said, friendly patting his back and I startled, feeling the shape of a… gun! “Catch him, he’s armed!” – I shouted and my fellows, along with others around held him still. They almost lynched him, but we managed to hand him over to the ones inside, namely a militiaman/policeman and a revolutionary, who were guarding the entrance. We circled around the building and, at a certain moment, I noticed that the guy held by us was escaping through the ground floor window and ran toward the Bastion. We tried to catch him, but we failed…
The revolutionaries that were inside negotiating with Dăscălescu had not come out for a long time to communicate to us how the negotiations were going.
The crowd started to scatter slightly. Some persons came and urged us to go to the Opera Square to occupy the Opera building. I felt that something had to be done, to give a boost to the crowd, to keep them on the spot, not to leave those inside the building, because we risked leaving them to the militia/police and to the Securitate forces that were presumably also inside.
I thought about spraying a slogan on the wall of the building. I got in front of the wall, two people lifted me up, and for an instant I was scared, realizing how exposed I was. I knew I couldn’t back off and decided to write something as… equidistant as possible, so I wrote: “The People have won!”.
Loud acclamations followed my move, people took the spray from my hand and, in about ten minutes, the entire frontispiece of the county headquarters was covered with slogans against Ceausescu and communism.
On the evening of December 22, I visited my mother, who was living on 6 March Blvd., and there I found one of her neighbors in the apartment. Gheorghe Toader, a retired Securitate captain, who had taken refuge at my mother’s place, afraid of being killed, as according to his own account there were already attempts earlier in the day. Watching “Revolution Live”, the TVR (Romanian Television) broadcast, I noticed a person who was holding an object that looked like a remote control and announced that the device was found in the basement of the TV studio.
Seeing the keypad, the neighbor cried out with fear: “They will all blow up! TVR is a ‘strategic objective’ and can be blown up by typing a code on such a detonator!” He said he used to work on something like that in Bucharest, in a special enterprise of Securitate (secret police). As I insisted, he finally agreed to write an anonymous statement, which I took personally to the garrison headquarters and I promised that I would not expose him.
Once I arrived at the garrison headquarters in the Piața Libertății (Freedom Square), I showed the letter to Colonel Mancu – who was by chance at the gate and who led me to Colonel Zeca – the garrison commander. Reading the statement brought by me, he called superiors in Bucharest right away and he reported the content of the declaration. Afterward, he asked me to reveal the identity of the man, arguing that he might still hold vital information that would help to avoid further victims.
At first, I refused, but Colonel Mancu gave me his officer word that if Gheorghe Toader had proved to be in good faith, he would be safe.
Given the situation, I agreed to tell him the name and I had to drive with a patrol in an ARO off-road vehicle and pick the Securitate officer from my mother’s house. The outcome? Towards morning, I saw on the TV set in the commander’s office how an officer came in front of the cameras and declared that the explosive that mined the Television building had been defused!
The next morning, in one of the walks to the garrison headquarters in Piața Libertății, I witnessed the arrival of a group of foreign journalists. Because foreign languages were not widely known in the army, besides Russian, someone needed to facilitate communication between journalists and army leaders. Knowing four languages, I came forward to be the translator. Thus, a few hours later I was accepted as a spokesman by the commander. At the journalists’ suggestion, we organized a press conference every evening, at the “Continental” Hotel’s brasserie.
Given that on the morning of 23. December, I was shot upon on Brediceanu St. – from the roof of the IELIF building, I asked Colonel Zeca to give me a gun and to assign me to a reconnaissance group, to detect and kill the shooters who made victims and decoy. These activities filled my nights, until New Year’s Eve, when I finally got home to my wife. I mention that I wore the weapon only during night scour missions.
During the day, I was also the spokesman of the revolutionaries who were based in the Opera building, and their official announcements were forwarded by me to the foreign journalists. I would go to the Opera building twice a day, to find out news or to convey the messages between the garrison commander and the leaders of the Revolution.
The first press conference, attended by journalists and TV stations from all over the world, was held on the evening of December 23rd, but the meeting was cut short with the journalists laid on the floor because outside they started to fire at hotel “Continental”. In the days that followed, until December the 31st, I accompanied the representatives of the foreign press to the hot spots of the city, and, at night, I participated in actions of search and annihilation of the shooters together with the reconnaissance directed by Major Bănescu.
I was part of the group of military and civilians who arrested Septimiu Tașcău, the manager of GIGCL, on Christmas Eve. Guns were fired from his office window, at me as well, and the bullet fired by him passed through my hair! A rifle with scope was found on Tașcău and its barrel was still warm, with the specific smell.
I also saw an invidual looking as an Arab arrested; he was dressed in a black jumpsuit, and as a response to my question “why do you shoot at us”, he kicked me, even though his hands were tied. Both detainees disappeared from the garrison’s arrest within 48 hours.
I narrate you all these only to tell you that the “myth of terrorists” was not a myth, but a reality, lived by many but known by few.
Rod Nordland, a “Newsweek” journalist, was among the important names of the international press arrived in Timisoara – he was the head of the Eastern Europe office. Another one was Ettore Mo, representing “Corriere della Sera”.
Rod Nordland asked me to take him around the city, to various important targets. I also took him Traian Sima’s house, who was the former Securitate leader of the Timiș county who managed to escape. Lots of stuff were stolen “officially” from his house, bags with money (lei and foreign currency!), foreign food and drink, cigarettes and coffee, audio/video electronics were carried away…
Again, together with Rod Nordland, I discovered the room in “Continental” where the secret police held the bugging/translation equipment. I ran after the security guard who came to retrieve the devices, but he locked himself in another room. I broke the door, yet he was gone. He disappeared, though the room was on the fourth floor.
On 2. January, I left with Ettore Mo, from “Corrierre della Sera” for Mineu (Sălaj county), to make an interview with Rev. László Tőkés. We were among the first journalists to interview him. He was still guarded by the army.
March 1990, my office in the building of the county council. The phone rings.
– Hello, is this Corneliu Vaida?
– Yes. Who is this?
– Nevermind… Watch out, it’s not OK that you are listed as a witness for “The Timișoara Trial”!
– You don’t say …. No shit?!
– I would be more cautious if I were you! Your son has just received an orange crate on your behalf… He might find one hard to chew!
I slammed the phone and made off from the County Council to the Iosefin neighborhood, in the house where my son was taken care of by his grandparents. I bustled in and saw the elders together with my son in the kitchen, as they were enjoying the crate with oranges on the table.
Without a word, I took the crate and sprang out the door, crossed the street and threw the crate into the Bega, under the astonished gaze of several passers-by and my family watching me dismayed from the gate.
– Why have you thrown my oranges away? Paul asked me, tears in his eyes…
– Don’t worry, daddy will bring you other oranges tonight… And don’t you ever accept anything from anybody, brought on my behalf! – I told the grandparents bluntly.
If you ask for my opinion nowadays, 30 years after the events of the Revolution, I can assert:
“There were two groups that fought against each other, the secret police/Securitate and the army. Now we only know the winners… They are the crypto-communist gang of the 2. Echelon of the former communist party.
I do not know what would have happened if the television headquarters had blown up on December the 22nd, what would have happened if the plan to slay the revolutionaries in the Opera building, which was stopped at the last moment, would have been completed, if the army in Timisoara had not fought back, after Elena Ceaușescu had ordered that the city be wiped off the face of the earth!
The above-mentioned things are a pale description of what I went through back in the days, as I wanted not to exceed two pages, which have become… four(six) …
Feelings? Experiences? They were many and various: from the exaltation experienced at the news that “it started”, to the fear I felt in the police van, to the hatred, the perseverance and the helplessness facing the army that fired guns and killed people, to the fear and, later, the enthusiastic carelessness as I was perched on the wall the party’s building… to the sadness that stroke me hearing the news that a friend was killed, the enthusiastic fervor and the unconscious courage that prompted me to scour houses’ attics for terrorists who were shooting innocent civilians, to the compassion for the wounded that I visited in hospitals together with the representatives of the international press and finally the pride to be part of the illusion of victory… all these culminating with the fear for the life of my child!
Yes, I mentioned the pride to be part of the illusion of that victory, a pride that turned into disappointment, frustration, and reproach over time. Yes, self-reproach, because I blame myself for not finishing what I started back then!
Maybe someone else will do it nowadays… not compelled… someone younger or not, more prepared, more clearheaded, more thorough.
I must tell you that it wasn’t easy for me to write these words! Blurry memories and contradictory feelings overwhelmed me as I was writing. I felt nostalgia, anger, smile, and tears… However, there is one feeling that remains solid, the feeling of pride that, at that time, I did everything in my power to fight for the freedom of my people and the democratization of my country.
At the same time, I wrote this text with sadness, with the sadness of someone who, although being officially acknowledged for his deeds, by a document signed by the president of the country, yet is – together with other fighters of the Revolution – left into oblivion by the state and by most of his fellow citizens.
Nowadays, the word “revolutionary” has gotten a pejorative meaning… Anyway, I was, I am, and I will be a fighter for my freedom and the freedom of my fellow citizens! With or without written proof.