Their names mean freedom
December 18, 2009Posted by on
On December 18th, 1989, Romania was frozen. Not necessarily because of the weather – it was a much milder winter than in other years – but because of several other factors.
First, there was no house heating. Winter was mild, but it was still… winter, yet Communist authorities decided to save energy (what a “green” initiative!) not by tackling the enormous consumption at inefficient and outdated factories, but by stopping warm water delivery (both running water and for heaters) to people’s apartments. “People don’t spend much time in their appartments anyway”, they must have thought, “they’re outside most of the time, lined up in endless queues in front of empty stores in the attempt to buy sophisticated food items such as bread and milk. Who needs heat.”
Second, the atmosphere was frozen. On December 16th, a group of insanely brave people had gathered in front of the house of a Hungarian pastor in Timişoara, Laszlo Tökes, who was about to be removed abusively from office, and protested. “Protested” was such a strange-sounding word. Nobody would have thought of ever having to use it in a lifetime. There was no such thing as “protesting” in the official Romanian vocabulary of that time.
And still, the rumor was that some people did protest, in Timişoara. News spread through Radio Free Europe, a dissident radio station broadcasting in Eastern European languages from München. (Illegal in Romania, of course, and obviously listened to religiously, day by day, by everyone who had a functioning radio at home)
Why did they do it? Why did those people abandon all self-preservation instincts and went out to start something that, for all probabilities, would have brought them into nothing but serious trouble?
An easy answer could be “they had enough”. But so had other 22 million people. What sets these apart?
A certain “liberal” spirit of Timişoara – the largest town close to the Western border.
A rare combination of serendipitous facts leading to the “spark”.
But above all stays the insane selfless courage. You cannot imagine the prospects of opposing the regime in any noticeable way. After doing something like that, serious beating in some secret service (“Securitate”) dungeon was the least you could expect. Most likely your life would end, socially or even biologically.
And yet, they did protest. They gathered, shouted out loud against a shell-shocked establishment which didn’t know how to react. The first night it just spread the protesters with water tanks and gas. But the next day they came back. They were more this time. And at night they didn’t leave. By then, the government had sent the army to “keep things under control”. And on December 17th, The army started to shoot at protesters. 118 people died in Timişoara between December 17th and 25th. Most were in their early twenties. 98 of them didn’t live to see the day of Dec 22nd, when the dictator Ceauşescu was overthrown. And it was only the beginning of a death toll of more than 1000 people, in Bucharest, Sibiu, Braşov and other cities.
But today the focus is on the ones in Timişoara. Since protests in Bucharest started only on December 21st, in Timişoara these people were on their own for a few days. They were the first ones, the ones who didn’t ride the wave of the events, but the ones who started them. Who inspired them. They did’t see the light, they were the light. If it wasn’t for their enduring sacrifice, nothing would have happened in Bucharest, and I would’t be here now to write this story. Any story.
These days, 20 years later, there are a lot of “official” statements, a lot of people are talking about it in newspapers, blogs, on TV. The 1989 events are still controversial, we still don’t know who exactly bears the responsibility of those lives taken. A lot is going on these days, but among all discussions and all gestures of remembrance, I would like to isolate one. Surprisingly, one from the frivolous world of football (for thee across the Pond, by “football” we mean what you call “soccer” : ).
I had the fortune of watching TV when they showed the last home game of Poli Timişoara, the local team. And luckily, at half-time the TV station started broadcasting one minute or so before the game re-started. They were filming one of the tribunes, where a big violet sheet had appeared (violet and white are the club colors, sort of a Romanian Fiorentina). While I was trying to understand what was drawn on the sheet, I saw them rising. One by one, the banners rose, in complete silence, from left to right. Banners with names. Names of people who died in Timişoara in 1989:
At the back, the long black banner says “for 20 years, your names mean freedom”.
They stood like this till the game started. No chanting, no singing, no word whatsoever. It was the most impressive silence I have ever seen on a stadium. One of those images who speak a thousand words. A thousand names.
With this, I leave you with best wishes for the winter holidays – have fun, rest, eat, sleep, meet families, enjoy all those simple things. Enjoy freedom.
If interested, more about the 1989 Romanian Revolution, here: