Monday, June 14, 2010

Witnessing the Romanian miners' attack, 20 years ago today

I was looking at the calendar and realizing that my real, professional journalism career began with twenty years ago today, when the Communist retreads who'd seized power during the Romanian Revolution deployed an army of miners in Bucharest to beat the crap out of unarmed protesters, university students, and the opposition political parties.

Having gotten caught up in the 1989 events while an exchange student in Budapest, I'd returned to the region on a modest undergraduate summer research grant with a 21-year old's conceit that the truth about the Romanian Revolution could be uncovered with a couple month's field work.

When I reached Bucharest at the beginning of June, hundreds of ordinary Romanians were camped out in a tent city in the middle of University Square to protest the less than democratic behavior of Ion Iliescu's National Salvation Front, which seized power under mysterious circumstances after Nicolae Ceausescu fled the capital in an overloaded helicopter. (He and his wife were quickly betrayed, tried by a kangaroo court for their many (genuine) crimes against his people, and machine-gunned to death by their captors.) I rented a room from a working class couple in the city's outskirts -- among the kindest people I've ever known -- and through them and their friends and neighbors got to see Romanian life from the ground up on this and future reporting trips. During the day, I'd interviewed students, protesters, intellectuals, and opposition figures in the center, by night I'd hear stories of the trials and travails of day-to-day life under Ceausescu's Orwellian dictatorship, many of which were still very much present.

When the miners stormed the capital -- beating people half to death with clubs, crowbars, and other tools and trashing university and opposition offices -- I was in Brasov, the city I'd visited in the waning weeks of the Ceausescu regime. I saw the television footage of cars burning and detachments of helmeted miners clubbing their way through the capital, called my friends, and headed back on the next train, intending to stay away from the miners in the city center. Instead, I found myself face to face with them. When my train pulled into Gara de Nord, dozens of miners were waiting on the platform for us to disembark, smacking clubs in their hands and looking for likely victims. They were a grimy, wild-looking lot, behaving like caged animals who'd escaped from their subterranean prison and were looking for people to blame. Foreigners, perhaps, the sort with glasses, cameras, and notebooks. I felt lucky to have not been picked out as we walked the gauntlet to the subway entrance.

I returned to the center a day or two later, after watching Iliescu thank the miners at the national stadium on television. Opposition politicians showed me around the remains of their offices, where miners had spent the time to bash every typewriter to bits. At the University of Bucharest, students showed me through buildings where the miners had sacked everything, smashing even the porcelain toilets in every bathroom. Angry protesters returned to the streets, observed by lines of very frightened-looking army conscripts, guns at their side. Most of them had probably been caught up in the fighting the previous December and weren't looking forward to a sequel. I wound up covering it all for The Chronicle of Higher Education, kicking off my journalism career, which would have me based in Eastern Europe for much of the transition period.

Twenty years on, some of the mysteries surrounding the events of 1989-1990 have been solved, but many others have not.

Photographs (c) 1990-2010 Colin Woodard.

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful. Glad to see your desk hasn't changed much, but for the technology, in 20 years.