Christmas day killing: The memory of Ceausescu never dies

‘Dictator and wife executed” screamed the front page of The Scotsman on Boxing Day, 1989. “Bloody End for Butcher of Bucharest’.

A portrait of Nicolae Ceausescu is burnt in Denta, Romania, as the people rejoice at the dictator's downfall in December 1989. Picture: Joel Robine/Getty

Similar headlines were emblazoned over newspapers across the world as Romania brought an end to more than 40 years of Communist rule with the most bloody revolution to hit the Iron Curtain nations.

More than 1,000 people were killed during the uprising 30 years ago this week which saw leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, executed by firing squad on Christmas Day. The killing, captured by video cameras operated by rebel forces, was broadcast around the world shortly afterwards.

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IT worker Radu Serban, who now lives in Edinburgh with his wife, Andreia, and their young son, Tudor, was just 11 years old when the revolution broke out in his home city of Bucharest. He remembers spending days lying flat on the floor of his apartment block in the dark – with the only light, or information about the revolution raging outside, coming from the television.

Tanks from the nearby Ministry of Defence headquarters were mobilising on the streets outside and the family could hear gunfire from their home.

He recalls: “My mother put blankets and pillows on the floor and we all had to get down, and we stayed down there all day and night, watching everything that was happening on the TV. She knew if you can see the man with the gun, he can see you.”

On 21 December, Radu’s father, along with all factory workers, was bussed into the main square of Bucharest, where Ceausescu was to give a speech – a last-ditch attempt to rally his supporters. However, the crowd turned against the dictator, chanting “Timisoara” in support of the western Romanian town where demonstrations had already begun.

Radu and his mother waited nervously at home. “My father came straight home after the speech, which was good because some people didn’t come home from that position.”

He looks up an address on Google Street View and points to deep marks which still remain around the window of a tower block.

He explains: “There is an apartment block near where I lived which still has bullet holes around a window on the tenth floor. A guy there had his lights on so he was shot at by snipers.”

He adds: “These days were crazy. One neighbour came into the hallway and told everyone he had heard that the water supplies had been poisoned so we shouldn’t drink it – which was wrong, but we didn’t know that, it was a rumour going around the city. My sisters, who were much older than me and were students at the time, had gone down to protest at the university and we didn’t see them for two days. My mother was crying in the kitchen.”

On the other side of Bucharest, Radu’s present-day wife Andreia, then 15, had been left in charge of eight small children from her apartment block – while their parents went out to demonstrate.

“I can remember it clearly,” she says. “The neighbours from our block – probably 25 or 30 people – all got together and sat around the table. There was one guy who was a pilot and he admitted he had a bottle of whisky [from abroad] which wouldn’t have been allowed before. He got it out and they all had one drink from it. Then they went out to the square.”

“They didn’t come back for two days and I had no idea where they were – including my parents and my older brother,” she remembers. “At one point, I left the children in the apartment, told them not to open the door and went outside to see what was happening. I can’t believe now that I did that, that I left them, but I was young and I wanted to know what was going on. We are all still friends, all of the children from that neighbourhood, and we laugh about it now.”

She remembers: “When my parents came back, we sat in front of the TV, and when Ceausescu was shot, I cried a lot. I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen, how things would be different – would we have oranges all of the time or what?”

Radu believes that there are still questions to be asked about the revolution, 30 years on. Some people believe that outside influences started the uprising – or that it was more of a coup d’état by lower members of the Communist Party who wanted to see Ceausescu removed.

A trial over the deaths of 862 people – which will see former president Ion Iliescu, former deputy prime minister Gelu Voican Voiculescu and former air force head Iosif Rus accused of crimes against humanity, finally began in November this year, almost 30 years after the fall of Communism. Elections held six months after the revolution voted in Iliescu, a former key figure in the Communist Party, who became leader of a new party, The National Salvation Front, as president. The trial, which will see more than 5,000 people testify, accuses Iliescu and his comrades of deliberately creating an atmosphere of chaos in order to take power, resulting in hundreds of unnecessary deaths.

“The media would have you think that everyone hated Ceausescu,” Radu says. “But there were people who liked him, who thought he was doing good things. I am somewhere in the middle. Romania was the only country who paid off the national debt. We were producing – cars, even aeroplanes – although they were all sold abroad.

“On the other hand, my mother was a teacher and my father was an engineer. If they were living here in Scotland, they would have been living comfortably. However, we were in poverty, even though everybody was working.”

He adds: “What happened that day [of the revolution] wasn’t something extraordinary. The second level of the Communist Party took over the first level. I knew people who knew people who died that day. And I am not sure they [the people who died] knew what they were doing.”

Andreia agrees. “It was too quick,” she says. “They killed him too fast with no proper trial. We didn’t get the chance to understand what happened.”

However, the revolution came just in time for Radu’s family – who had, unknowingly, begun to attract attention from the Securitate, Romania’s secret police.

At the beginning of the Communist regime in the late 1940s, his mother’s family – members of the wealthy elite – had lost their fortune.

“My grandfather on my mother’s side was a ‘petit bourgeois’,” he explains. “He was a landlord with 19 properties. Then one day, someone knocked at the door and said: ‘Your houses are not your houses anymore.’ He then had to work as a porter – he was on a blacklist for his entire life. After Communism fell, we tried to get the properties back, but we only managed to regain five.”

But as the revolution approached, his mother’s family history was beginning to haunt the Serbans.

“My father found out [later] that in September 1989 he was about to be approached by the Securitate [about his wife’s family background],” he says. “Then the revolution took place. It was lucky for us that it did.”

For Cristiana Osan, the revolution was also perfectly timed – to escape a teacher’s demands for her to inform on her classmates.

A star high school student in the small town of Dej in Transylvania, the then 15-year-old had been appointed head of her class.

“The week before the Christmas holiday, one teacher called all of the class heads in to see him,” she recalls. “He was a fervent Communist, he had grown up in an orphanage and really believed Ceausescu was his ‘father’. At Christmas in Romania, we would traditionally all go out carolling together, but under Communism, religion was frowned upon.

“He told all of the class heads that we had to make sure we went out carolling with the other students and make a list of anyone who was there – and report back to him with that list in the New Year. Up until that point, I had been quite protected by my parents – that was the first time that I felt I was part of this Communist machine.

“I went home from school in tears and told my parents I couldn’t do it. Then the next day, the revolution came. I was so relieved. I felt like it had happened just for me.”

A previous Christmas during the Communist period had sparked another problem for the family. Osan’s father had received a Christmas card from a former colleague who had defected to America – and been interrogated repeatedly by the authorities as a result. Links with Romanians living overseas were seen as a red flag by the state, who feared further defections.

“I can remember the card vividly – it was a musical one that played Jingle Bells. I’d never seen anything like it before,” Osan recalls. “When we received it, it had already been opened. Then my father was called and interrogated about it. They would take him and question him, then the next week, he would be called again and asked the same things, to see if he gave the same story each time.”

After Communism fell, Romanians were given the right to see their Securitate files.

“My father’s file was huge, even though he generally kept out of everything,” recalls Osan, now a teacher in the city of Cluj, where she lives with her husband and son. “He could see which of his close friends had been informing on him for years. They were all given code names [in the files] and my father and his other friends still call one of them by his code name now – they are still friends. They take the attitude that he had no choice – what could he have done? After the revolution there was a very strong feeling that there should be a fresh start.”

Osan is adamant that young people in Romania need to be taught about life under Communism. She is frustrated now by the attitudes of those who did not live through Communism who have developed a nostalgia for the past.

“As a child I can remember hearing voices downstairs when I was supposed to be asleep – it was my parents listening to Radio Free Europe. Although we never spoke about it, I knew that that was something I should never talk to anyone about.”

She says: “It angers me when some people say that things used to be better [under Communism]. It wasn’t even just about the lack of food and the living conditions – it was the fear. Even small kids like me knew that they were not to speak freely.”

She adds: “At the time of the revolution, there was a photograph of students in Cluj holding up a blackboard with the words “Nu mai vrem Communismul nicodata” – “We don’t want Communism ever again”. But I think that feeling has been lost somehow.”

Like other eastern European nations, Romania gradually opened up to western culture, although the change was slow.

Sally Wood Lamont, a former librarian at Edinburgh University, first visited Romania in 1991, just over a year after the revolution, to deliver books to restock Bucharest University’s library facilities, which were burned down during the uprising, destroying over 500,000 books.

She recalls a country still blighted by food shortages, a state-run heating system which switched on domestic radiators only at night – and had regular outages, leaving householders without heat or hot water in freezing conditions.

“I remember one day having to queue for hours to buy a chicken and that was quite some time after the revolution,” says Wood Lamont, who settled in Romania permanently in November 1993, where she set up the country’s 
first automated library at a university 
in Cluj-Napoca, and has established a long-running facility for disabled 
people in the city, as well as becoming head of Romania’s paralympic committee.

“I was standing there, waiting for the chicken, thinking ‘this is ridiculous’. The shops too, were just empty. There was nothing in them which I, as a westerner, usually saw. I used to travel backwards and forwards to Scotland quite often in my Renault Trafic van at that time and I would pack it with things I couldn’t get, like good quality pasta.”

She also picked up on a legacy from the informing culture fuelled by the secret police – which often obtained information on people from neighbours.

Wood adds: “I think a whole generation had to change before anyone started to trust other people.”