Monday, November 23, 2009

Romanians reflect on life during communist era

Romania's communist regime crumbled in December 1989, and dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day. Two decades on, DW correspondent Zack Baddorf asked Romanians to reflect on the changes.

Zack Baddorf is a DW correspondent who lives in Barlad, Romania. He spoke to various people in his community about what their lives were like under communism. This is his personal account of those conversations.

It's difficult for me, as an American, to picture what life was really like in Romania during communism. I'm 26 and I was born in a middle-class suburb in the United States. When I moved to Romania as a Peace Corps volunteer last year, I arrived in a country that is an EU member, with plans to adopt the euro as its currency.

Romania is also a member of NATO. It had troops in Iraq and still has soldiers in Afghanistan. You can find free Wi-Fi Internet in some public parks here. The only obvious physical remnants of communism are the thousands of concrete pre-fab apartment blocks that line the streets in most cities and even in little towns in the countryside.

I teach English at a technical high school in Barlad. One evening, I was eating dinner with my colleague, Anca Sandu, 34, and her husband. Since she'd grown up under communism, I asked her what it was like.

She said that, back then, people generally had more respect for their country, nationality and history. And there were other positive things.

"Everyone had a job, and everyone had a house," she told me. "The problem was that we weren't allowed access to information. We weren't allowed to read writers who didn't have Ceausescu's approval. We weren't allowed to travel abroad, or have friends from abroad. On some days, we weren't allowed to drive."

And then there were the food rations, she said: no more than half a loaf of bread, not too much meat, or sugar, and so on.

While we spoke, Anca's husband, Vio, chopped potatoes and cooked them in a frying pan. Twenty years ago, if he'd been cooking at 7:00 pm, he would've been cooking by candlelight. That's because the communist government cut off electricity from 6:00 - 8:00 pm each night across the country to preserve energy.

A youngster at the time, Vio remembers that he used that time to play with his friends. At 8:00 pm, the kids would go home to join their parents in watching the only two hours of TV that were available in Romania each day. For children, there was a state-controlled cartoon show with a hero named Mihaela.

"Usually, Mihaela talked about our great leader," Vio said with a laugh. "First we had to listen to a song about our great leader. Then, there'd be a story involving Mihaela and the great leader."

Economic hardship has remained

A survey conducted in 2007 found that about 79 percent of Romanians now have cable TV. In the Sandu household, the TV set in the kitchen was tuned to a national news network. We focused our attention briefly on a report about a meeting of the government's ministry for family and labor issues. The story's message? Life is hard, and expensive.

"Is that true?" I asked my hosts.

"Yes, it's true," said Vio. "These days, it's true."

Later, I ask Liliana Bobaru, 50, a former factory worker in Barlad, how she feels about the local economy today. Romania, after all, has the highest inflation rate in the EU, and about one in 10 people are unemployed.

"For me, life is tough," Liliana confirmed. "The leu doesn't have the value it used to. Now, you can go to the stores and you can buy anything, but there's no money. Back then, we had money, but there was nothing to buy."

Mariana Paveliu, a French teacher at the school where I work, said that the food rations and lack of consumer goods weren't the biggest problem back then. She lived half of her life under communism, and didn't meet her father until she was 12 because he had been a political prisoner for 13 years. He was accused of sympathizing with an anti-communist movement.

"Communism leaves a bitter taste in my mouth," she said, adding that she doesn't harbor any nostalgia for the old way of life. She complains that many of the higher-ups in the former Communist government are still in positions of authority today, and that they still fail to recognize the merit of individual people.

New generation aware of responsibility

Romanians, of course, now live in a free society. Despite their hard-won liberties, many Romanians I've talked to are pessimistic about the future.

But then I met 15-year-old Antonia Nita. The ninth-grader never lived a day under communism, and is of the firm opinion that democracy is best not just for Romania, but every country.

"What does democracy mean to you?" I asked her.

"Democracy means power of the people," she replied, adding: "Power of the citizens, not just the power of single person or a group of people."

She realizes that her generation has a lot to do to ensure that Romania functions as a true democracy, but she's optimistic.

"We're all learning about what democracy means," she said. "We're learning about how to improve our country and I hope it will be better in the future."

Author: Zack Baddorf (dc)
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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