Romania's revolution: The day I read my secret police file
Under Ceausescu's paranoid rule, Romania's Securitate built up a vast archive of intelligence about its citizens. On the anniversary of his fall, Oana Lungescu, who refused to become an informer, finds her records
Friday 11 December 2009
In the small crowded reading room a man wearing thick glasses mutters curses as he leafs through a mound of files. In a corner, another silently studies a microfilm. I take a seat next to an Orthodox monk with a long beard and black robes and wait in trepidation. Finally, an attendant hands me my files. To my surprise there are two volumes. The spying on me had started earlier than I thought.
Growing up in communist Romania you carried around a terrible certainty – one in 10 people was an informer for the dreaded Securitate secret police on behalf of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. My parents, like most Romanians, were convinced of that. But they were wrong.
According to the Securitate's own archives, an estimated 750,000 people out of a population of 23 million collaborated, so it was really "only" one in 30. The discrepancy is telling. By the 1980s, Stalinist-style brutality was largely a thing of the past, but its memory had a lasting effect. After the communist takeover in Romania, tens of thousands of people were killed, thrown in jail or sent to labour camps. As the regime entered its final decade, people had been cowed into thinking the secret police was all-powerful. The Securitate controlled us through our own fear.
In 1983, while at university, I was invited to be interviewed at a travel agency, on the pretext of a translation job. It soon transpired that the man who interviewed me was a Securitate captain. He offered me privileges: a passport to travel abroad and the cancer drugs my sick father needed. In exchange I would have to spy on people I knew. I said no. It has taken me until now to see the file the secret police kept on me as a result of that refusal.
It took years of political struggle for the bulk of Romania's secret police archive to be transferred to a special agency, the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS). It was done just before Romania joined the European Union in 2007. That's perhaps why the EU flag now stands in the agency's reading room in central Bucharest.
Two million files are kept in three warehouses at a former military compound on the outskirts of the capital. Ironically, it is not far from a huge rubbish dump, yet inside the air smells sweetly of ageing paper.
"It's an evil library," Germina Nagat, head of investigations at the CNSAS, said, guiding me through 20km of grey metal shelves stacked with files. Almost anybody could be the subject of a file, she explained. "Persons who had relatives abroad. Persons who used to tell jokes. Persons interested in studying foreign languages."
Looking back, I qualified on most counts. As a student of English and Spanish, I used to frequent the British Council library in Bucharest to borrow the works of clearly suspect writers including T S Eliot, Iris Murdoch and John Fowles. Through my occasional work as a translator and interpreter, I had British friends – a boyfriend, even.
Worse, I had failed to report these contacts to the police, as Romanians were required by law. And to complicate matters, my mother had gone to Germany on a rare tourist visa and hadn't come back.
Romania today, 20 years after the bloody revolution that in December 1989 swept Ceausescu from power, is a world away from what it was under communism. The streets of Bucharest are clogged up with expensive cars. Back then you would stand in line for hours to buy a loaf of bread, bones for soup, or a packet of butter.
In my file I find detailed reports about my visits to the British Council. Times, names of people I came or left with, car licence-plates. A staff member doubling as an informer is asked to check if I'd been chatting to another man they were watching. Then, a note on my first encounter with the Securitate captain. The translation job, or the travel agency meeting are not mentioned. There's a handwritten report about my mother's departure; details about my 23-year-old boyfriend, whom they suspected of "espionage activities".
Then, in April 1983, there is a type-written report on how I had refused to sign a written pledge to inform. I remember I had broken down in tears that day and said I just couldn't do it – but that's not mentioned. But on the very same day, a higher-ranking officer signed a document marked "Strictly Secret". It is a list of measures for my surveillance, including bugging my phone and opening my letters.
I suddenly recognise my father's minute handwriting, recounting how he found out he had lung cancer. It was a letter to a friend duly photocopied along with both sides of the envelope. Many of my own letters are there, with some parts underlined in blue or red pen.
The second volume has 138 pages – all handwritten transcriptions of phone calls, many with my mother and my then boyfriend. Some read like an absurd play by Eugene Ionesco (born, of course, in Romania). "Citizen 1: Hello. Citizen 2: Hello. Citizen 1: How are you? Citizen 2: So-so..." I burst out laughing. But these were painful conversations about my father's impending death.
There's one last surprise: the code-name the Securitate gave me. I was called "Lorena". The file is like a perverse time machine. It shows some kind of truth, but not the whole truth – not my truth.
It ends in December 1985, six months after I was allowed to leave Romania to join my mother and just as I had started working at the BBC's Romanian Service in London. Another arm of the Securitate continued to monitor me, as it did all exiles working for foreign broadcasters, until the last days of 1989.
Seeing my file at last, two decades after Ceausescu's violent demise is liberating, but deeply unsettling. An army of spies and scribes paid to collect trivial details about someone like me, a nobody. So many strangers who photocopied my letters, listened in to my phone calls. And for what?
But Ms Nagat believes the dark secrets have to be exposed. After a decade working on these files, one thing still shocks her. "Children, thousands of children, recruited to be informers. Forced to give information about the intentions of their families, about the remarks some teachers made in their lessons. And the youngest I've seen was 10 years old."
She regularly uncovers evidence that currently serving senior judges, politicians and top civil servants had links to the Securitate. "They have a hidden agenda – resistance to reforms," she claims. "To violate human and civil rights every day, that was their job. And now you have to do the reverse. How can you do this? You cannot be a ballerina after being an elephant!"
Romanian courts are dealing with some 700 cases of alleged Securitate collaborators in high places, but so far have ruled on only three. There may be many communist-era elephants out there still trampling on Romania's fledgling democracy. I'm determined to return one day to see my father's Securitate files. According to the records, he has two.
Oana Lungescu is the European affairs correspondent for the BBC World Service. Her documentary, State Secrets, airs tonight at 8.30pm
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