Thursday, November 5, 2009

In Romania, he gave peace a chant

Doug Saunders

Timisoara, Romania — From Thursday's Globe and MailPublished on Wednesday, Nov. 04, 2009

One moment, Ioan Savu was a factory worker, cowering from bullets in a seething crowd of desperate and angry people. The next, he had been thrust by that crowd onto the balcony usually reserved for the dictator, at the head of 1989's fastest, bloodiest and least likely revolution.

This shy, bearded man suddenly found himself addressing a crowd of 100,000 of his fellow townsfolk in the western Romanian city of Timisoara shortly after tanks and soldiers fired on them. The words seemed to appear by magic on his tongue: The dictator had to go. The bullets would not stop the people.

Less than a day later, on Dec. 21, he was proven correct, and the dictator fled and was killed, all because of what began in this city.

Before it was over, Mr. Savu would melt back into the crowd, return to his detergent factory job, and after democracy was won, quietly took up his current position as an insurance agent.

“It was the cleanest and purest moment of my life, and I wanted to keep it that way,” he said the other day as he strolled through Opera Square, beneath the balcony from which he had urged people to bravely face the bullets.

“I knew a guy like me was likely to be killed,” he said. “Everything was ready in my mind. I told my wife: Look, you know, what if I did not go out into that crowd – my children would later ask me why I hadn't been there.”

Unlike anywhere else in communist Europe, Romania didn't have anything resembling a resistance or an opposition, nor a regime with even the vaguest thoughts of reform. As the waves of democracy and resistance swept out from Berlin, Warsaw and Prague that winter, hapless and inexperienced people such as Mr. Savu – briefly and quickly – took the reins of history.

Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's heavy-handed Stalinist regime had insured that no news of the 1989 democratic revolutions, in print or broadcast media or via telephone, was available within its borders. And the regime had severely restricted electricity and heating-fuel supplies to a few hours a day, cutting households off during the key news (and cooking) hours between 6 and 9 p.m.

Timisoara was different, though. Its people were multiethnic, speaking several European languages. And they lived near the borders of Hungary and Yugoslavia, close enough to tune in to TV signals from over the border.

Late at night, Mr. Savu would watch the Belgrade channels, which after midnight broadcast tapes of CNN coverage.

“Living in Timisoara it was like a window open into the world,” he said. “I could see on Serbian TV the strikes led by Lech Walesa, the fall of the Berlin Wall – somehow we alone among Romanians were connected to the planetary realities.”

Perhaps for that reason, Mr. Savu found it natural to take to the streets, despite having never done so before. The cause was a minor protest by a few dozen seniors over the bureaucracy's sacking of a Hungarian Calvinist pastor at a downtown church.

First dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of people were attracted to the large downtown square, and soon the original cause was forgotten and the Ceausescu regime itself became the cause.

“At first, it was like what we'd seen on TV from Prague – girls putting flowers in gun barrels, soldiers coming out and dancing with the protesters,” says Florian Mihalcea, another factory worker who was drawn into politics that day.

All hopes of this becoming another velvet revolution were dashed on Dec. 17, when an alarmed Mr. Ceausescu ordered tanks to fire on the protesters. They mowed down young teenagers sitting on the church steps and holding candles. They fired into dense crowds, leaving bodies writhing on the cobblestones; Mr. Savu held people as they died.

On Dec. 20, after two days of sporadic violence had driven people back into their houses and factories and the regime had cut off all phone lines connecting Timisoara with the outside, Mr. Savu was working in the state-owned detergent factory when he saw a haphazard column of people marching past. He hopped the locked factory gate and joined them.

“I found myself in front of a column of demonstrators. They were determined, but some were chanting one thing, others something else – they were not thinking as one,” he remembers. “So I was telling them what to shout, running along the column to tell them what to shout, how to shout it: ‘Freedom; Down with Ceausescu; Down with the Communists; Free elections.' I never intended to become a leader, just to give this group a voice.”

He led them down long streets and through factory districts, encouraging entire plants to leave and join them. Soon there were tens of thousands. They turned a corner and faced a row of soldiers pointing machine guns at them, ordering them to stop or be shot.

But the press of the crowd pushed them forward – to their horror – as the soldiers removed their safety latches. Then the crowd chanted “the soldiers are with us,” rhythmically, and at the last moment the soldiers fled, melting into the crowd.

They converged on Opera Square in the city's centre, and soon swelled to 100,000 people. Guns and tanks were pointed at them.

That's when Mr. Savu found himself on the balcony. He spoke: Be brave, he said, they cannot kill us all. We must negotiate. And he and a few colleagues scribbled some demands, and sent them to the prime minister, who happened to be visiting down the road.

Their resolve so terrified the regime that Mr. Ceausescu decided to put a stop to it the next day with a show of force: He would face half a million citizens from a balcony in Bucharest, and the entire nation would see, on live TV, the devotion of the people toward him.

It went terribly wrong. The whole country watched as the Bucharest crowd, which had learned Mr. Savu's chants, denounced him as a dictator. He fled in horror with his wife, in a military helicopter. But the military, echoing the Timisoara experience, turned on the dictator: He was stopped and seized, and on Christmas Day was summarily executed.

“It was the one moment when I knew perfectly what had to be done,” Mr. Savu says today, shyly. Of all the events that flowed from the fall of the Berlin Wall, this one was the purest case of a people's revolution, a triumph, however brief, of the man in the street.

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