Romanians mark somber anniversary

Romanians mark somber anniversary

The people of Romania are marking the 20th anniversary of the 1989 revolution which brought down communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Small commemorations have been held at cemeteries and sites associated with the revolution in several cities, including Bucharest and Timisoara. President Traian Basescu referred to more than 1,100 people who died during the revolution, as he was sworn in for a second term in office. Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by a three-man firing squad, after a trial at a military base lasting only two hours on Christmas Day 1989. Matthew Brunwasser looks at how Romanians have been dealing with their recent past

(Photo: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)

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MARCO WERMAN: 20 years ago today, people power toppled eastern Europe’s most repressive regime.  Romania dictatorship Nicoli Kaf was caught off guard by 6 days of protest and violence across the country.  He and his wife fled Bucharest by helicopter.  It was the last of the 1989 revolutions, and the bloodiest.  More then 1000 people died.  Today there’s little observance of the anniversary in Romania, that’s impart because so many questions still remain about what really happened there in December 1989.  Matthew Brunwasser reports from Bucharest.

MATTHEW BRUNWASSER: if democracy has a price, few have paid more than the congregants of the church of the martyred heroes of December 1989.  This service for the dead is asking god to forgive the sins of family members buried in the adjoining cemetery…. 290 casualties of the chaos 20 years ago. After the service, people go out and tend to the graves. 25-year old Mateo Vasiliu says his family still doesn’t know much about his father’s death.

MATEO VASILIU: He was at work, and from a nearby building military troops were shooting everywhere, so they told. I don’t know. We still don’t know the truth and we’re never gonna know what was happening at that time.

BRUNWASSER: Few have been prosecuted, even fewer convicted. Vassiliu says that punishment won’t ease his loss. But learning the truth might help Romania make a clean break with its communist past.

VASILIU: All these people died for a free Romania, for a democratic Romania, for a free country. But I don’t feel this freedom.

BRUNWASSER: There are a few undisputed facts of the revolution. It began in the city of Timisoara, with protests against the harassment of an anti-communist catholic priest.  And then it spread.  Ceaucescu ordered troops to fire on unarmed demonstrators.   He remained in control until December 22.  But the vast majority of the revolution’s casualties victims?  Were killed after December 22, in chaotic scenes like this one in central Bucharest. No one knows exactly who was shooting at whom or why.  Actor Ion Caramitru was a revolution leader.  He says the official line is that there was a revolution and new leadership stepped in to establish order.  He says Romanians don’t buy it.

ION CARAMITRU: This is a terrible dilemma. After 20 years we couldn’t  judge how to present the revolution except to say it was a movement, a spontaneous movement against communism and Ceausescu. This is not a real history.

BRUNWASSER: He says the communist officials who took control after Ceausescu have never revealed how they seized power. There are also various theories about the involvement of foreign powers. Sociologist Catalin Stoika says the post-1989 political elite paid a price for not clearing things up.

CATALIN STOIKA: The new power failed to gain legitimacy.

BRUNWASSER: The trial of Ceausescu, for example, lasted only a few hours and ended with his execution later the same day. Stoika says Romanians have what sociologists call “fragmented narratives” about that time.

STOIKA: The data shows that we still lack a shared understanding about what happened in December 1989, you get 47% believing it was a revolution, and you get 36% of adult Romanians thinking it was a coup d’etat.  So you can see here there are 2 opposite understandings of the recent past.

BRUNWASSER: Passersby in a subway station pause to look at a small exhibition of photos and video from the revolution. It’s one of the few places in Bucharest where the anniversary is noted.  Corina Rebedja says the fuzziness about what really happened makes Romanians more cynical about politics today.

CORINA REBEDJA: And it does create this suspicion among the people, you don’t know who is a communist and who is not, and whatever their interests are, and how people got to power, was it because they are capable or because they have connections with the former regime?

BRUNWASSER: Alexandra Coca is upset that most Romanians don’t care much about the revolution. She says regardless of what happened behind the scenes, the people on the streets were heroes.

ALEXANDRA COCA: Even if now we all agree it wasn’t only a revolution then, I think that you can see in their faces in this exhibition, that they were really believing, they were not playing, they did it because they believed it, and for this reason their sacrifice I think it was very real and we should never forget it.

BRUNWASSER: One revolutionary group used a court case this year to get access to a large chunk of archives about the revolution. But it had to go to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg, France. Romanians say they want the truth to come out to give moral value to their democratic present, not to settle old political scores.  For the world, I’m Matthew Brunwasser, Bucharest, Romania.

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