December 26, 2009

December 1989 Massacre in Romania Remembered

As Romania’s Dictator Fell, I Saw the Bullet Holes Everywhere

Russell Leadbetter
24 Dec 2009
Evening Times

Twenty years to the month after it happened, Maria Skinner can still remember seeing innocent people gunned down in the streets in Romania.

More than 1,100 people died in December 1989 as the hated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, pictured, and his wife Elena were overthrown. He was confident he could cling to power.

His countrymen were aware that the Berlin Wall had come down and that other Communist regimes in eastern Europe had collapsed – but Ceausescu, who was backed by the feared Securitate, his secret police, believed he had no reason to worry.

The revolution in Maria’s country began on December 17, in the Transylvanian city of Timisoara, where 60 people were shot dead amid protests over the government’s treatment of a local priest.

On Thursday, December 21, in the capital, Bucharest, Ceausescu stage-managed a nationally televised public meeting. But he faltered badly when parts of the crowd began chanting “Timisoara” – and his reaction encouraged the crowd.

Within hours, riots broke out in the city. About 35 people were killed by police and the Securitate. The following day, the army turned against the dictator, who fled in a helicopter. Romania suddenly had to create an interim “government”, the National Salvation Front – but first it had to contend with a bloody fight-back by diehard members of the Securitate.

Ceausescu and Elena were captured and briefly put on trial, where they faced charges including genocide. They were found guilty and executed by firing squad on Christmas Day.

It’s a long way from Romania to Glasgow’s Old Shettleston Parish Church. But it’s here, where the Romanian Orthodox Church holds its services, that Maria and other expats are happy to talk.

Maria, 41, who is from Bucharest, has been in Scotland for more than two years, and said: “At the time, I was 21, and married to a Romanian. We had a small business selling handcrafted goods. My husband came in and said there was something in the air. He felt it was dangerous, because we had heard what had happened in Timisoara a few days earlier. After a while I saw people running, screaming, ‘Go, go, Ceausescu!’. I couldn’t sleep all night because my house was just a few yards from the unrest. We stayed up until midnight when they started to shoot. We saw people dying around us.”

In the morning, Maria and a colleague went to the TV station, where they heard something had happened. “We stood from midday until the next morning and it was an amazing feeling. There was so much energy in the air. But then trouble broke out, and I saw people dying. It was like a movie ... it was so bad. Then we heard Ceausescu had left in his helicopter.

“I remember going home. It was six in the morning, as daylight was breaking. We could see bullet-holes in the walls everywhere.”

Mihai Motoiu, 41, also from Bucharest, has been in Scotland for seven years and has four daughters. He said the events of late December 1989 “showed something about our Romanian mentality, culture, attitude ... it didn’t happen in the Czech Republic or Poland, or in any other countries. It happened just in Romania.

“One thousand one hundred people died on the street ... and for what? Ion Iliescu, who came after Ceausescu, tried to create another world based on the previous one, to create a democracy on a Communist platform. He didn’t change anything. He was forced by the people, but his mentality, his attitude, is still the same today. He still talks and thinks as a Communist.”

Maria, who is now married to Kenneth, a 52-year-old Glaswegian, is studying English at Cardonald College.

Mihai, like Maria, is happy to be in Scotland, but insists he is still drawn to his homeland. “I may have left Romania but it will be my country forever,” he says. “It is important to remain

connected: even if I am not there, I want to do something for it.”

Maria and Mihai both recall the food shortages under Ceausescu that often made life difficult for ordinary people.

“We had just one kilo of sugar per family per month, one litre of oil, something like that,” says Mihai. “I remember seeing oranges in the shops only a few times in my childhood, and we were so happy to be able to buy them.”

Mihai describes communism as a “poison in the world” but says it made him stronger: “No-one around the world, with some exceptions, is happy with life in the Communist period. But I am very happy to have had this experience. From that period of history, you learn to live life. You learn to love your children more than just putting them in front of the television or computer.”

Corruption, Mihai says, remains a big problem in Romania, and was the reason he and his family decided to move.

“You can’t be happy, be professional, be what you wish to be, in a country where every day, if you want to buy something, you have to give money under the table – paying the police to sort out a case, paying money to a doctor in a hospital.”

Maria Skinner, here with her Glaswegian husband Kenneth

Priest who ended up moving to city

Father Marcel Oprisan, 31, who lives in Bishopbriggs with his wife and two young children, is a priest with the Romanian Orthodox Church.

One of a family of six, he is from Maramures, a mountainous region on the border between Ukraine and northern Romania. Two of his brothers and one of his sisters are now monks.

Fr Marcel was 11 at the time of the revolution. Two of his older brothers had been in Ceausescu’s army.

“When we heard on the television there had been a revolution, everybody just came on the streets,” he said.

“A lot of people were standing talking, but they were so afraid - people were always afraid to say anything. If they said something bad about Communists, they would end up in prison.

“My grandfather had been in prison for a time, though not for any crime. My godfather, who had baptised me and who had been a teacher in my primary school, had also been in prison, but no-one ever talked about it.

“I remember how we used to go to primary even on Saturdays, and the children all protested that they wanted the day off.”

Fr Marcel said the Communists’ biggest mistake lay “in wanting all the power and wanting to control everything ... anything that once had a share of power in Romania was destroyed, stripped of that power and sent into prison.

“There was a best-selling book in Romania last year about people who had been in prison for 30 years, half of their life, under the Communists. There were doctors, teachers, priests, bishops, poets, politicians, all intellectuals. They were beaten and tortured – unbelieveable. Most died in jail.

“I have given copies of that book to lots of people here. They may not have been particularly religious before but they are a lot more religious now they have read the book – they have read that all the prisoners became religious when they were in jail.

“This book shows what happens to some people who did not have freedom – freedom is something we have today.”

Millions of ordinary Romanians were glad to see the back of Ceausescu and Elena 20 years ago, and many celebrated their executions – but Fr Marcel was not among them.

“I was not happy about that, either at the time or even now, because a human died,” he said. “This is not something that you can be happy about, ever. They did not have to be killed, even for what they did.”

Fr Marcel was almost 25 when he finally left Romania.

He ended up in Cambridge in 2002, where he took orthodox Christian studies, and was eventually ordained as a priest in London. He came to Glasgow a year ago.

“Our Archbishop, who is based in Paris, had a meeting in London and asked me if I wanted to go to Scotland, once or twice a month. I did that for a while, and I moved here at the end of December 2008 to be here permanently.”

The result was that Shettleston Old was consecrated in January this year as the first place of worship for the Romanian Orthodox Church.

“The Church of Scotland has been really helpful towards us,” he said.

“I like the city and the people are very friendly. The Rev Adah Younger is amazing – she is just one of the greatest people I have met.”

See also: Trial and Execution: The Dramatic Deaths of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu