These are the last photographs in which Serban Dumitriu appears. He was shot on 21 December 1989, at 17:41 hours, after he was hit by an armoured car, in front of the Danube Restaurant, during the so-called revolution.
“If it wasn’t a revolution, then why were a thousand people killed?” I asked Petru.
“There you go again! That’s exactly why! Didn’t they need bloodshed so that they could call it that?”
“You mean, the dead were part of the plan from the very start?”
He didn’t have anything to say to that, and I cannot now believe that the people who planned it could have been so callous as to murder innocent children like Serban! But they only reached an agreement among themselves after they’d achieved their death toll, as Petru seemed to believe, waving his hand in disgust.
Sultana told me that her daughter cut her hair like a boy’s after she found out about Serban’s death: “What a sad Christmas we had, Letitia! Claudia wasn’t talking to us, she was bewildered because she was never going to see Serban again, up till then they’d always been together.”
They’d met in the private-lessons factory of a famous professor who, at his home in an inter-bellum building on Maria Rosetti, coached pupils in mathematics for the first stage at lycée. They both got into the Sava Lycée, in the exclusive mathematics and physics class, but in the second stage they worried they wouldn’t be able to keep up with their prize-winning fellow pupils. Claudia had transferred to humanities and, on Petru’s advice, she sat the exam to study linguistics at university; Serban entered the mechanical engineering class and went on to study at the polytechnic, but very soon realised he didn’t like engineering. He would go straight from courses to Linden Lane, to the Moraru family’s house. Claudia didn’t much like going to his house; she thought his elegant mother, a lecturer in pharmacology, looked down on her. They’d planned to go camping at the 2 May seaside resort after the summer exams.
They were given their winter holiday earlier than usual. Could anybody have known what was to follow?
On 21 December 1989, the weather was like in March, the sky was blue and the temperature was twenty degrees in the afternoon. They decided to see a film, in the centre of town, but they had to wait a long time before an unexpectedly empty bus finally arrived. When they reached the Conservatory, the driver shouted that traffic had been stopped, he quickly got off the bus and ran like a madman in the direction of Cismigiu Park. The passengers were talking about a demonstration, but the two of them didn’t listen, they set off on foot.
When they reached Victory Avenue, by the Athénée Palace, they froze. The whole of the Palace courtyard, up to the railings, was full of soldiers pointing their guns in the direction of the Central Committee building, and from the Cina Restaurant on Onesti Street as far as Magheru Boulevard, the road was blocked, but by whom? Only in films on video had they ever seen such extra-terrestrial uniforms, helmets and see-through shields, massed rank upon rank.
“Cool! Just like in Star Wars!” Serban whispered.
A little farther away were parked police vans with barred windows; they’d sometimes seen vans like that driving through the city. There wasn’t a single soul in Palace Square. Red flags and tricolours, placards reading Ceausescu fights for our entire nation, Our pride and esteem, Ceausescu Romania were lying on the ground, having been trampled underfoot, among plastic bags, pieces of paper, a muddy scarf, a high-heeled shoe lost in the stampede—but how could somebody run away wearing only one shoe and, more to the point, why?
“It’s started! See? What I’ve been telling you!” whispered Serban in exaltation.
Claudia pinched him through his waterproof jacket to make him shut up, she walked with her eyes to the ground, lest they meet the suspicious eyes of the militiamen, on every street corner there were knots of them, glowering, watching the passers-by, some of whom they stopped, but the two of them were able to pass. They headed toward the Lutheran Church and then walking down one winding street after another they emerged on Magheru Boulevard.
There was not a single vehicle on the boulevard and in the unusual silence all that could be heard was the buzzing of a helicopter, flying low over the buildings, although they were unable to see it. The pavements were crowded with well-dressed people, from the centre of town, but also students in denim jackets, lycée pupils in school uniform, who were gazing into the middle of the road, where a group of people were shouting.
It took a few moments before they were able to make out that they were shouting Freedom! Freedom! Young lads with unbuttoned coats, bareheaded, and a young girl with long hair, they were calling on people to join them: Take to the street, nation, / you’re dying of starvation, and then once more, Freedom! Although the city was dotted with militiamen and a muffled noise could now be heard, the extra-terrestrials from Star Wars were beating their see-through shields as a warning, those mad youngsters kept shouting Down with Ceausescu! The courage of them! Their voices had grown louder, they were joined by a few more people and then, all of a sudden, a black Mercedes appeared, with little flags, and the people on the pavement applauded.
“The American ambassador!” a man wearing a nutria fur hat whispered next to Claudia.
“It’s the French ambassador, can’t you see the flags?” replied a woman wearing a suede coat.
Because of the light, the air as limpid as in early spring, the people shouting and shouting, the foreign diplomatic car, it seemed to Claudia as if there was something festive in the air. This incredible thing was taking place with the permission of the global powers, the Americans, the French, but also with the permission of God, because otherwise at this time of year there would have been mounds of snow and nobody would have stood in the street, in a minus ten-degree frost, to shout Have no fear / Ceausescu’s out of here!
Through his waterproof jacket she could feel Serban’s body quivering and all of a sudden, he pulled his arm from under hers. She thought they would be parted for just a few minutes and she remained there frowning, by the Sadoveanu Bookshop, whose windows had been broken and whose books in homage of Ceausescu had been thrown onto the slimy pavement, while he walked back to the people standing in the road, and he kept waving at her to come too. When he saw that she was hesitant, he turned his back on her and joined the group, whose numbers were swelling. Now pausing, now advancing toward the University, where the ranks of soldiers could already be glimpsed, they chanted No violence! No violence!
For a few moments, Claudia stood there in bewilderment, at the edge of the pavement, it was not the Magheru Boulevard she knew and she no longer recognised anything around her. She walked a few steps, as far as the Lacto Bar, but without moving off the pavement, which protected her. Whenever the soldiers advanced, she hid behind the backs of the people around her. But she tried to keep pace with the group on the road, she walked quickly, bumping into the people next to the kerb, who didn’t deign to walk side by side with the demonstrators, who kept shouting Take to the street, nation, / you’re dying of starvation!
Who had come up with those slogans? She was to discover that they had heard them on Radio Free Europe, they had shouted them in Timisoara, but at her house, since her Uncle Claudiu died, they hadn’t listened to the radio. Everything was unreal, like in a film, most of all the fact that in the middle of Bucharest people were shouting Down with Ceausescu at the top of their voices. And without it suiting her at all, she too had become an actress in the film.
“Look, they’re filming us!” whispered the woman running alongside her.
Claudia turned her head and, on the balcony of the building with the Danube Restaurant on the ground floor, she did indeed glimpse a man wearing a sweater, who was filming or taking photographs. She was sure he was with the Securitate, and since Ceausescu wasn’t going to be toppled, they would search for all the people they’d filmed and arrest them, the very next day.
She didn’t have the courage to look in that direction again. She was now walking, more and more slowly. In the meantime, the ranks of soldiers had started to move up Magheru Boulevard, advancing toward the group of people, who were shouting, now in desperation, You’re Romanians too!
At one point, she looked up, the sky was no longer so blue, the shadow of dusk had fallen, the light had grown colder, which meant it was past four o’clock. Time elapsed differently that day, some of the people on the pavements had left, but others had arrived in their place.
“They’ll start shooting after it gets dark, that’s what they did in Timisoara!” whispered the man with the nutria fur hat.
Claudia became even more afraid, no, it wasn’t a festive occasion, it was a terrifying dream that she had to escape, but how? She could barely stop herself from breaking into a run and drawing everybody’s attention, she was waiting to reach the corner of Batistei Street so she could rush down into the metro station. She caught one last jealous glimpse of Serban’s blue jacket, next to the girl with the long hair, who was holding out some carnations to the soldiers—when had she had time to get them? And what was she saying to them?
She was later to recognise her photograph in the paper: she was from their lycée, in the year above, she’d sat the exam for medical school but hadn’t got a place.
“Don’t shoot! You could be my children!”
She glimpsed the neck of the man who had shouted it, he had thin, white hair and was wearing a grey wax jacket, he was one of the few elderly people in the crowd. She ran toward the entrance of the metro, but it was full of militiamen. Then she heard, from very close by, the shots, she stopped for just a second and looked back, she saw an armoured car, which seemed to have sprung from the ground, she glimpsed, illumined by tracer fire, the soldiers rushing at the people in the crowd, shots and screams, the man with the wax jacket was lying on the ground, with his head in a pool of blood, and two young men carrying the girl in their arms, her long hair trailing over the asphalt as they ran.
Claudia ran to the little church on Batistei Street and then up Tudor Arghezi Street, she could hear her heartbeats pounding in her throat.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth