It has been quite a year in Romania with the resignation of two prime ministers and near-impeachment of a president. This coupled with nationwide riots and a growing sense of injustice means that next month’s parliamentary elections will be the most bitterly contested for decades.
The power struggle between Traian Basescu, the right-wing president, and Victor Ponta, the left-wing prime minister, has grabbed all the headlines, but the story behind this struggle stretches back to Romania’s communist past – and to the very moment when a firing squad put an end to Nicolai Ceausescu, Europe’s last Stalinist dictator.
On Christmas day 1989, in a barracks outside Bucharest, Captain Dan Vionea, a young military prosecutor, was told by his superiors to prepare a case. When he asked the name of the accused, he was told ‘Nicolai Ceausescu’.
The Berlin Wall had just fallen and communist regimes were toppling like dominoes across Eastern Europe, but not Romania. Here Ceausescu’s fearsome secret police, the Securitate, maintained a ruthless grip on power. Ordinary Romanians took to the streets. Thousands were killed or injured.
Ceausescu fled by helicopter while the capital erupted in bloodshed. But the Ceausescus were captured and the young captain found himself face to face with the dictator.
Vionea was ordered to write an indictment by hand and read the charges. He was shocked to find that no evidence was submitted and there were no witnesses.
Within an hour, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were sentenced to death and shot. The outside world hailed it as a triumph over the regime and its feared secret police, but Voinea begs to differ.
I met Voinea, now a retired general, at the barracks where the dictator and his wife were gunned down. He took me to a wall riddled with bullet holes.
“They did not think it would be a good idea to give Ceausescu a proper trial,” he says. “Because other crimes of the communist regime would come out. So they killed him to save themselves and then spread the idea that the people killed Ceausecu. In this way the communists remained in power, even after the revolution.”
The general’s sense of injustice is palpable as we walk through the grounds of the now defunct barracks.
“In the revolution there were 8,000 victims, dead, wounded and arrested,” he says. “And from these 8,000 not a single party activist.”
One man who shares the general’s view is historian and poet, Marius Oprea, Romania’s leading expert on the Securitate.
I encountered Oprea in the magnificent baroque city of Cluj in central Transylvania at the county morgue. His team of volunteers were bent over a skeleton on a slab, piecing together the last moments of a young life tragically cut short during the communist terror.
Even now no one knows how many people were killed by the Securitate. Five years ago Oprea created the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes winning the support of President Basescu. But when he began exhuming the bodies of Securitate victims from unmarked graves and demanding justice, Basescu, fearful of what he was finding, sacked him from the organisation he had founded.
“I trusted him to clean up the country from the communists and Securitate,” says Oprea. “But he put them back in power and he even threw me out of my job.”
Oprea’s search for Romania’s missing has taken him the length and breadth of the country. But telling the truth here is risky. Oprea now has many enemies and like General Voinea, he receives death threats.
There is a sense that the old guard are simply untouchable.
“I’ve never seen anyone from the Securitate condemned in a court for their crimes,” Oprea says, “even if it is proved. In Romania this does not happen.”
From Cluj I headed west, through rolling hills and scattered farmsteads – and landscape scarcely touched by the 20th century – to meet the man credited with starting the revolution that brought an end to communism in Romania.
Laszlo Tokes went on to become a significant political figure and was until recently, vice president of the European parliament.
But back in communist times, he was a humble priest risking everything by preaching democracy and liberty from his pulpit in the city of Timisoara – tantamount to signing your own death warrant in what was easily Europe’s most brutal dictatorship.
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