Saturday, December 19, 2009

1989-2009: Romania's Revolution lifts off (as do I)

Twenty years ago this morning, I was being interrogated by Vienna airport security, along with just about everyone else intending to fly to New York with TWA.

I was grilled by a hawk eyed Austrian agent with a cold demeanor and a Mitteleuropean's clipboard. My answers seemed to annoy him. Where are you traveling from? (Hungary.) How long were you there? (Four months.) Where else did you go? (the Romanian Socialist Republic, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, twice to the Polish People's Republic, Yugoslavia three times.) What were you doing there? (Exchange student, Karl Marx University of Economics.) You entered Austria yesterday, where did you spend the night? (Sleeping on an airport ticket counter.) Why? (I can't afford your hotels.) Are you carrying any weapons? (No.) Are you sure? (Yes.) And so on. Vienna had been the site of a horrific terrorist attack four years earlier engineered by Abu Nidal, that decade's stand in for Osmama bin Laden. They weren't taking any chances.

While riding out to my aircraft in one of those giant people movers, I saw my first glimpses of the Romanian Revolution on a wall-mounted television. There was footage of protesters seizing control of Timisoara and talk of security forces mowing down thousands in mass graves. It had apparently been going on for two days, but I'd again been traveling on long-distance trains and this was the first I'd heard of it. I was shocked. I'd been in Ceausescu's Romania two months earlier and had come away with the sense that there was no chance of a popular uprising: the people were terrified, cold, and hungry, the security forces aggressive, heavily armed, and omnipresent. I'd expected Romania to hold out, North Korea-style, until their mad dictator succumbed to age or disease.

At home in Maine, I watched the revolution unfold on television. The events raised some provocative questions, particularly after a group of once-powerful Ceausescu regime apparatchiks seized control of the government. I would return to Romania that summer in search of answers, stumbling into a journalism career along the way. As in a bad mystery novel (or an X-Files episode), I only turned up more questions (along with a close call with a pack of government-guided miners brought into Bucharest to put down a new wave of protesters.)

Twenty years later, scholars remain divided on whether we yet know all the answers about what happened in Romania in December 1989, the subject of my feature that posted this morning over at Global Post.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution, and visits to Ceausescu's Romania, late Communist Poland and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.

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