Originally published by Reuters

Ghosts of Christmas past still haunt Romanians

By Daniel Simpson

Reuters / Bogdan Cristel

TARGOVISTE, Romania, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Christmas has never been quite the same for Dorin Carlan and Octavian Gheorghiu since they executed Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife on December 25, 1989.

But flashbacks to the day they pumped bullets into Romania's first couple disturb them less than bitterness about their own fate. They brought eastern Europe's bloodiest revolution to its climax, yet feel betrayed by the men they helped seize power.

"The whole process was a farce," said Carlan, 38, and now retired from the elite paratroop regiment selected for the task.

Many Romanians agree. The belief that second-tier communists hijacked a popular revolt, or even engineered it, is widespread, particularly since the man who emerged as president, Ion Iliescu, has run the country for all but four years ever since. The haste with which the Ceausescus were put to death by the cabal that took over only fuels popular suspicions further.

"Our commander summoned us at 8:00 a.m. on Christmas Day," remembers Gheorghiu, 37, who now has a defence ministry desk job. "He wanted eight volunteers for a vital mission, with a 90 percent chance we wouldn't return. We stepped forward."

Within a couple of hours the eight were in two helicopters, hugging the ground to dodge radar as they flew to Targoviste, an ugly steel town Ceausescu had planned to make his new capital. They had no idea that the man who had tyrannised Romania for 24 years was now locked up with his wife Elena in a poky office at the rust-coloured army barracks where they landed.

And the troops stationed in Targoviste, 80 km (50 miles) north of Bucharest, were clearly not expecting a firing squad.

"We were all trying to work out what was going on," Carlan said on his first return visit to the execution site.

KANGAROO COURT

The Ceausescus had been captured just three days earlier, after attempting to flee Bucharest in a helicopter while swarms of protesters tried to storm the Communist Party headquarters.

According to Victor Stanculescu, a general who held senior posts in the first post-communist government, the couple's fate was decided in a defence ministry toilet early on Christmas Day.

"It was the only safe place to talk," Stanculescu said.

Hours later he was standing in the cold in Targoviste to hand pick the executioners, while inside the barracks a few plastic wood veneer tables were being assembled in preparation for a show trial that was later broadcast to the nation.

"Stanculescu singled three of us out and took us to one side," Gheorghiu told Reuters. "The Ceausescus were inside, he told us, and they were about to be condemned to death."

After learning the nature of their mission all three men - Gheorghiu, Carlan and their colleague Ionel Boeru - were terrified. Not so much by the task, but by what might follow.

"We didn't trust anyone," Gheorghiu said. "We thought we'd be killed as soon as the job was done."

They waited in a corridor while prosecutor Gica Popa, who died mysteriously a few months later, accused the Ceausescus of genocide and bleeding Romania dry. The lawyer appointed to defend them, who was shunned by his "clients", joined in too.

"The trial was just as Stalinist as the way Ceausescu ran the country," Carlan said. It was over in less than an hour.

CRUMPLED CORPSES

Video footage of the proceedings, parts of it deemed too shocking for a television airing, shows the Ceausescus spitting defiance throughout, right up until the moment their wrists were bound with lengths of old rope as they were dragged outside.

"They thought we were complete nobodies," Gheorghiu said. "I hated them both with such a passion I couldn't control myself."

Nicolae, 71, walked from the courtroom singing snatches from the Internationale, a socialist anthem, and proclaiming history would judge him well. His wife, the more feared of the two, was less resigned, screaming at everyone to go to hell.

Seconds later they were crumpled corpses beside a muddy wall - Nicolae buckled backwards on his knees staring at the sky and Elena slumped sideways in a pool of her own blood.

"They said they wanted to die together so we lined them up, took six paces back and simply opened fire. No one ordered us to start, we were just told to get it over with," Gheorghiu said.

"I put seven bullets into him and then emptied the rest of my magazine into her head," Carlan said. "Bits of her brain were spattered here on the floor," he added, surveying the cracked cement beneath a wall still pockmarked with bullet holes.

"Then people from all directions started shooting," he said. "I was scared but I had this huge sense of relief. I could feel the hopes of 23 million people pumping through my veins."

But euphoria soon gave way to distress and later anger - much of it directed at Ion Iliescu, the leader of the anti-Ceausescu faction which surfaced in December 1989.

"We made it possible for him to take power and he hasn't even bothered to thank us, let alone reward us," Gheorghiu said.

"The worst thing is I even believed in his programmes and look at the results. Romania is worse off and so are we."

BITTER LEGACY

Gheorghiu and Carlan are not alone in struggling to come to terms with the events of 1989. No one has been officially declared responsible for over 1,000 deaths in the revolution and living standards have slumped for all but a handful of new rich.

"How am I supposed to live? By scrounging off my mother’s pension of 500,000 lei ($16) a month?" asked Carlan. "I have three kids to support."

Although rich in natural resources, Romania has not yet recovered from Ceausescu's warped brand of economics, especially his 1980s decision to pay off all foreign debts by strangling domestic consumption and exporting as much as possible.

Equally enduring is the psychological and social fallout from surveillance by his Securitate secret police, which enlisted one in seven Romanians as informers, and intrusive policies such as severe family planning restrictions.

"We didn't win the battle in 1989 like everyone else. We barely got started", said Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a leading academic. "The invasion of privacy in Romania cannot be compared with any other communist country except perhaps North Korea."

Frustration with the slow pace of economic and political reform has led a tiny minority to yearn for Ceausescu-era certainties. Headstones were erected at the couple's unmarked graves a few years ago and supporters light candles there daily.

Most Romanians are more resigned to their fate, despite resentment that democracy has not yet delivered prosperity. The national mood is well evoked by the popular expression "asta e" (that's the way it is), a sort of melancholic "c'est la vie".

But Ceausescu's executioners find it harder than most to deal with the sense of having been cheated by the revolution.

"Our actions changed this country's history, yet it seems that only a few people profited," lamented Carlan.

"We'll dream about this forever," Gheorghiu said. "But does Iliescu think about it now he has what he wanted? I doubt it."

(C) Reuters Limited 2001

--

UPDATE (MARCH 2015)

The execution site is now a museum.