Jens Rötzsch Bucharest

Bucharest Bucharest Bucharest Bucharest Bucharest

Bucharest December 1989 Two days before Christmas 1989 I received an enquiry from “Stern” magazine, asking if I would go to Romania with a reporter to report on the escalating situation there. My two years spent in Hungary at the end of the eighties meant that I not only had a connection to this subject but also a number of contacts that could prove useful during the course of our trip.

In my view the Ceausescu regime was the worst, most inhumane in Europe at that time, the -deportation of entire districts contrasted with the newly-built, luxurious and monumental -palace in Bucharest, built on the hunger, the suffering and brutal suppression of the people, with this even honoured in the spring of 1989 by Erich Honecker, who awarded his comrade the Karl Marx Order, the highest distinction in the GDR, in recognition of services including the rejection of the Soviet perestroika.

Reports were very unreliable, as flights had been suspended and only a few foreign -journalists were able to enter the country. Our first task was to get into Bucharest – no matter how. -Equipped with lavish funds, on Christmas Eve we flew to Budapest via a varied route. We received a tip that, although the borders were closed, trains were still running. “And no train driver will drive into a station that is being fought over” said my colleague and fatherly friend Peter Hannes Lehmann, a legend amongst Stern reporters, who had already reported from many other crisis regions in all four corners of the world (his most recent assignment was an unofficial one in the GDR in August 1989, where we had got to know each other). With his experience he gave me a certain feeling of security, that this was not a completely suicidal task. That which we encountered in our days in Bucharest can be seen in the copy of the original report on page ...

Fax from Bucharest Peter-Hannes Lehmann 

The conductor on the ‘Pannonia Express’ from Budapest to Bucharest rips a bed-sheet into strips and ties the rags around our left arms. “Emblema Volk!” he cries in an attempt at  German.  Then he clicks off the light in the compartment. It is shortly before ten at night. Another ten
minutes till we reach the station in the north of the embattled Romanian capital. To our left is the airport, where the shooting continues. Yesterday, the train came under fire too.

We hasten across the poorly lit platforms to the waiting room. In the distance, the pounding of a heavy machine gun. We stumble over people sleeping exhausted next to their suitcases, elbow our way through the crush. Youths with scrawled name-tags on their lapels lunge at us, rip our white armbands off us again. Yesterday, the first armed members of the notorious ‘Securitate’ secret police were caught trying to infiltrate their way into the city in civilian dress, disguised with armbands. Since then, these bands have marked out traitors, and the checkpoints have been doubled at all the stations and access roads to the centre.

There are no taxis. All available transport is needed to carry the wounded. Or to take food to the districts where volunteers are fighting side by side with the Romanian army against the ‘terroristas’, who shoot indiscriminately into the streets from posts connected by an intricate network of tunnels. On foot to the tube station through dim empty streets, where a fog of gun smoke hangs in the air. Only in the underground are the people safe from the snipers. Safe since the army captured at least the entrances to the secret tunnels, which lead to the metro shafts. Checkpoint after checkpoint, up to seven or eight in each station. Everyone is stopped, patted down for weapons, even us, although two young ‘people’s guards’ from the railway station, who also man the checkpoints, try to clear a way through for us. Every station has its own security system. Rule number one is “Trust no-one”, and passwords are changed every hour. There is a tremendous fear of the 70,000 ‘Securitate’ commandos, who have been trained in guerrilla warfare and have learned to shoot from any position with their high-tech weapons. Only a few hours ago, a Securista was overpowered after smuggling himself into Christmas Eve mass at the main cathedral with a hand grenade.

A young working woman in plastic shoes and a cheap knitted dress makes an apologetic little smile as she reaches between my legs to search for guns. Her eyes are part-closed, watery, bloodshot. She hasn’t slept for three days or nights, like most of the young people who are volunteering to stand guard here around the clock. If they’re lucky, they’ll be relieved after 24 hours and can go looking for a corner in which to seize a short nap on benches and mattresses between the platforms, surrounded by provisions and tables of drugs. No one manages to get out of their clothes. These 14 to 20 year-olds, the youth of Bucharest, have adopted the revolution as their own war of liberation. War against the all-powerful oppressors, who have murdered, tortured and terrorised their parents. Liberation from 45 years of fear, which has mentally crippled an entire nation.

After passing through twenty checkpoints, we reach the ‘Intercontinental’ hotel, two streets away from the presidential palace, where shots are still being fired. There are cracks in the glass front to the reception area.  In the foyer is a television, besieged by photographers. They have been told to expect pictures of the sentencing and execution of the arrested dictator. The announcer at the TV station, which has been held by hundreds of civilians and soldiers for days now against fierce attacks by the secret police, is having to reassure the fevered nation hour after hour. ‘Televiziunea Romana libera’ instead broadcasts appeals and resolutions from the ‘National Salvation Front’, the new interim government, an alliance of old-style Communists who had been sidelined by Ceausescu and members of the opposition. Again and again, we hear the former national anthem from the days of the old republic, and now and again, Mickey Mouse films flicker across the screen for the children. That’s right; it’s Christmas! In the bar is a throng of reporters from all over the world, drinking DAB beer fresh from the barrel.

There is a draught in room 1513, the room of “Stern” photographer Jens Rötzsch. Two bullet holes have been made in the safety glass of the double window. From the balcony we can see flames leaping from a high-rise building, forty metres below and two streets away. Bursts of tracer fire are heading for the presidential palace, tank-mounted machine guns rattle, bazookas explode. Street fighting is raging again in Republic Square. Loudspeakers from the party’s captured Central Committee building opposite the palace order the terrorists to surrender. Intense rifle fire mingles with the national anthem which explodes into the night, amplified a dozen times over, from the alleyways between the houses – a concerto infernale, reminiscent of ‘Apocalypse Now’.

In the first-floor banqueting hall – it is two in the morning – the hotel staff are crowded around the television. Zoia, the eldest (?) daughter of Ceausescu, has been arrested, her house searched. The treasures found at her home are spread out in front of the cameras: diamond necklaces, gold jewellery, gold plates, gold cutlery, an envelope containing 7,500 dollars.  The staff are clearly disgusted. “If they’d found just one dollar at my place,” a waitress next to me says in English, “they wouldn’t have thought twice about shooting me!  A neighbour was taken away from her house in the night by the Securitate just because she owned a gold ring.  I never saw her again.” And then a paralysing, horrified silence falls: the television is bringing new images of atrocities – mass graves, mutilated corpses, the bodies of children. “Murderers, murderers!” gasps a man I am standing behind, throwing his hands in front of his eyes. “You’ll pay for that!”  No-one cries out.  They only sob.

The next morning, the atmosphere is surreal: as if the fiery inferno of the previous night had never been, the people of Bucharest promenade through the devastated streets, collect bullet casings as souvenirs from the debris in front of the burnt-out university library, carry bread and apples over to the tanks, which are decorated with tinsel and Christmas stars, and pin red carnations on the soldiers. No fewer than fifty tanks surround the partially destroyed palace, and lights are still burning in some of the rooms. The army is in there, having captured the tyrant’s power centre floor by floor. Below are fortified vaulted cellars, which are connected by tunnels to another dozen buildings in the vicinity, and it is here that the Securitate terrorists are entrenched. “The rats have crept back into their holes,” snarls a tank commander, “but we’ll smoke them out. They don’t stand a chance!”

“Libertate!” cries the crowd behind us. “Freedom! Vittoriei – Victory!”  Men, women and children spread out their fingers in a V-sign, wield Romanian flags from which they have cut out the state coat-of-arms of the hated Socialist regime. “Jos Communismul! – Down with Communism!”  Then they link arms and sing the national anthem. In front of us, alongside a thin red strip of fabric which marks out the ‘security zone’ in front of the palace, a member of a tank crew is sweeping together scraps of bread and broken glass. Order must be restored. On the roof of the Central Committee building, youths are smashing letters out of the illuminated sign with which the ‘Traiasca Partidul Communista Roman’ – the Communist Workers’ Party of Romania – flaunted its claim to power over the city and the country for generations. Two groups of letters tumble.  All that remains now is ‘Workers of Romania’.

A student in a grubby coat stops us, and extends a half-full plastic bag in our direction. “Could you maybe let me have a couple of foreign newspapers?  We’re wanting to restock the library.”  Reading foreign newspapers – something else which used to be punishable by death.

“Good God,” groans a photographer in front of the completely burnt out Museum of Art, which is housed in a wing of the palace. “The wonderful Renaissance paintings, those magnificent Tintorettos…” And then apologetically to us, “You see, I’m Italian.” Some distance away there is a short burst of fire from a machine gun. Bucharest has other things to worry about at the moment.

There is a lull in the shooting in front of the television tower, the power centre of the interim government which has been under siege and the scene of fierce battles for days. In front of the heavy iron door, which is guarded by tanks and paratroopers, is a throng hundreds strong: old peasants in colourful national dress, who want to express their solidarity before the cameras, ordinary citizens, their hands crammed with sausage and bread, workers and students demanding arms, politicians who feel the need to be there, and TV crews from around the world. We have to pass seven checkpoints between the gate and the broadcasting studio. We haven’t even got past the second when Adrian, an ethnic German from Transylvania, starts getting nervous. He wants to return the bar of chocolate I just gave him. “If they find foreign chocolate on me, I’ll be in real trouble.” He’s trembling. Even a week ago, despite being a party member and a simultaneous interpreter, he wasn’t allowed to talk to foreigners without special permission on pain of death. I have difficulty convincing him that these are new, changed times. The interim government has even promised free elections – and bread for all. This report seems barely credible in a state which was ruled by terror and left thousands to starve, especially in the countryside, so that mothers, fearful for their children, offered in desperation to act as informants for the secret service in return for flour and milk.

The TV interview with Ion Iliescu, the President of the interim government, fails to take place.  No-one knows where he is, when he’s coming. Unmitigated chaos rules outside the broadcasting studios: politicians force their way in, members of the new opposition who feel slighted or who are dreaming of a quite different Romania, rush out, cursing, and soldiers clear the room, which soon fills up again. An appeal goes out over the airwaves not to attend a demonstration in front of the Central Committee building: it was called for by students and intellectuals who have no trust at all in the interim government, which has become a home for so many veteran Communists and former power-sharers. The first fractions are already being formed before the fighting has even ended outside. The new freedom, won with blood and tears, threatens to founder in the tumult of political power struggles which is emerging. “We have too many little Ceausescus in this country,” exclaims Adrian wearily. At 35, he belongs to the generation of the undertrodden who have already lived through more than they should.

(Source: Stern, 04/01/1990, with permission of the publisher)