The unfinished business of Romania's revolution

On the anniversary of Ceausescu's death, Daniel McLaughlin examines the questions that continue to trouble the country the dictator tyrannised

Tomorrow, it will be 20 years since Dan Voinea helped send Nicolae Ceausescu before a Christmas Day firing squad.

But the anniversary of the climax to Romania's revolution will not bring unalloyed joy to the prosecutor, or indeed to his compatriots, as they struggle to unearth the truth of what really happened in those extraordinary days, and to discover whether it was a vengeful people or a communist clique that really toppled the Romanian dictator.

Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, had been forced to flee Bucharest, after a wave of protests against their quarter-century of despotic rule swept across the country from the western town of Timisoara, reaching the capital on 21 December. The loathed couple fled the next day, flying by helicopter and commandeering cars on country roads on their wild dash for freedom, before finally being caught.

Mr Voinea was called to the provincial army base at Targoviste to make the case against the elderly, dishevelled couple before a hastily arranged court. The case for the prosecution had no lack of material or popular support.

Ceausescu, the son of a peasant, had crippled Romania economically, socially and morally. Having bankrupted the country paying off foreign debts to bolster his political independence, he was forced to export almost everything the country made, creating desperate shortages. Ration books and heating, lighting and hot water cuts were the daily norm.

As his 23 million people sank into poverty, Ceausescu strengthened the Securitate secret police to keep them in check. At least 700,000 people are believed to have informed for the Securitate, which bugged countless apartments, spied on every Romanian who had contact with foreigners, and ensured that no coherent dissident movement ever emerged.

Even as Mr Voinea was preparing his case, fresh blood was colouring the damning file on the Ceausescus, who had been running the country together in the late 1980s because of Nicolae's deteriorating health.

Security forces loyal to the couple had killed dozens of protesters in the days leading up to their arrest, and reports and rumours at the time suggested that thousands of demonstrators had been massacred. "There were lots of coffins in Bucharest hospitals of people who had been shot on Ceausescu's orders. I felt I was doing something to punish Ceausescu for all these murders," Mr Voinea said in an interview.

"Everyone was against Ceausescu. The street demanded the trial to start even if we did not have time to produce a normal file on him. We had enough evidence that he ordered the security services to open fire on the demonstrators, and at that time we thought thousands may have died." He requested the death penalty for his country's rulers on the charge of crimes against humanity, and it was granted.

Valentin Ceausescu, the couple's eldest son, had last seen his father on the night of 21 December. That night, Nicolae had delivered a speech, only to find it booed and jeered by the normally obedient Bucharest crowd.

His son remembers a man out of touch with his people, unable to countenance Romania undergoing the kind of change that had swept across the communist bloc during that momentous autumn of 1989, which had seen free elections in Poland, the toppling of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Prague. Romania's revolution was to be the last – but also the bloodiest.

The next time Valentin saw his father it was on national television, lying dead in a crumpled heap beside his mother. Valentin had been taken to an army base where he watched footage of his parents' execution. "I was there with the commanding officer and maybe another officer. I didn't look at them," Valentin, now 61, recalls. "I was ashamed. Ashamed of being Romanian... It's not about how one treats one's leaders, it's nothing to do with that. It is hard to describe but I got this feeling when watching, that it was sort of a dirty thing... that it was shameful to watch this."

Valentin – a nuclear physicist who was never involved in politics – was jailed for eight months and then released into a country that was already questioning the real nature of its revolution.

Along with many other Romanians, he believes it was in fact a group of communists opposed to his father and seeking personal gain who seized power, under the cover of the mass protests, having used army units to create bloody chaos around the country before presenting themselves as the "National Salvation Front".

The most powerful member of the NSF was Ion Iliescu, who became Romania's president after the convulsions of 1989 and dominated the country's politics until 2004. While supporters credit Mr Iliescu and his allies with guiding Romania towards European Union and Nato membership, their many critics at home and abroad accuse them of presiding over a kleptocracy which did its utmost to conceal what really happened in 1989.

As Romania grapples with endemic corruption and an economic crisis, the successors to the communists remain hugely influential today: Mircea Geoana, the leader of the party founded by Mr Iliescu, lost out in this month's bitterly fought presidential election by less than one per cent.

It was Mr Iliescu's group that summoned Mr Voinea to act as prosecutor in the Ceausescu trial, and whom he obeyed, believing they had some legitimacy as leaders of the revolution. He now sees them as usurpers of the genuine people's revolt that erupted in the west and then spread to the capital. "This group must take responsibility for all the killings that took place after the 22nd," said Mr Voinea. About 1,000 of the 1,200 or so people killed in the revolution died after Ceausescu had fled.

"After the arrest of the Ceausescus, the state apparatus of repression continued to fight against the protesters. In the name of defending against 'terrorists' this [NSF] group seized all the major institutions. They portrayed themselves as Romania's saviours and people believed them. The people were very easily deceived and were quickly persuaded to accept these men as leaders."

Mr Voinea is now a member of the December 21st Association, which is seeking a full inquiry into the revolution, the release of all relevant files and the prosecution of those responsible for killing and injuring thousands of protesters.

The head of the association is Teodor Maries, a former professional footballer who was one of the first to break into Communist Party headquarters on 22 December, just as the Ceausescu helicopter was rising from the roof.

This year, Mr Maries lost 30 kilos during a 74-day hunger strike to demand a proper investigation into the events of 1989. He, like most Romanians, feels pride and pain when casting his mind back two decades to a revolution that he feels was stolen from the people.

"It is tragic and painful that we haven't been allowed to present what really happened to the public... and that these files haven't reached a judge's table," he said, opening cupboards in his Bucharest office piled high with copies of dossiers that officials sought to hide or destroy.

Mr Maries remembers how, after the Ceausescus had escaped, he came face-to-face with Iulian Vlad, the head of the Securitate, inside the communist central committee building as gunfire crackled around Bucharest. "He said to me: 'Come outside and I will show you the betrayal – you have overthrown the dictator and are putting the communists in power'."

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