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'A Mission of Honor': Key Players Recall Romania's Bloody Revolution

By Walter Mayr

The fall of the Iron Curtain manifested itself violently 20 years ago in Romania, with the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife. Two decades after, some of the key players in the revolution recall the murky events that saw the toppling of the leader and bloodbath across the country.

The camera slowly pans across the faces of the executed, across the waxy face of the woman, surrounded by a trail of blood in the dust of the barrack yard, and across the face of her husband, his eyes wide open in the moment of death. Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, their arms tied behind their backs, died on Dec. 25, 1989 in a hail of bullets from Kalashnikov machine guns.

The faces of the marksmen remain in the dark in the television images of the execution. In 1989, a year of sweeping change in Eastern Europe, the only chapter that ended with the death of a head of state was written by Romanian soldiers, and kept hidden from the public eye.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: 'A Mission of Honor'

"Our mission was a suicide mission," says Dorin Carlan, which means it was top-secret, and the risks were enormous.

Carlan is one of three men from the 64th Paratroopers Regiment who carried out the death sentence against the Ceausescus. For a brief moment in history, he became a tool of the revolution. Today he ekes out a living as a legal advisor in the Romanian capital Bucharest. Carlan is a massive man with a melancholy gaze, and the events of 1989 still seem to weigh heavily on his shoulders.

During the last few seconds en route to the execution site -- a wall in the courtyard of the Tirgoviste barracks -- Carlan, a petty officer at the time, stood facing his commander-in-chief, the "Genius of the Carpathians," "Liberator of the Earth" and "favorite son of the Romanian people." As Carlan recounts today, "Ceausescu looked at me, broke out in tears and shouted: 'Death to the traitors! History will avenge us.' Then he sang the 'Internationale'. He and his wife were pushed up against the wall, and we fired. It had to be brought to an end."

A Mysterious Overthrow

Carlan served in an elite regiment which was supposed to provide personal protection for Ceausescu, the country's president and the general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party. After growing up as an orphan and later being raised as a Ceausescu loyalist, he still finds it difficult to talk about his action, as if trying to justify the breach of trust to himself. Carlan says: "We avenged the dead that Ceausescu had on his conscience. It was a mission of honor."

It has been 20 years since the end of the Romanian dictatorship, and yet the mission is still controversial. Was the execution of the Ceausescu truly a milestone along Romania's path to freedom? Or was it the original sin of the young democracy, as dissident and exile writer Paul Goma put it angrily, since "Ceausescu was stolen from those who suffered under his rule" as a result of the secret conviction and shooting.

The tribunal against the dictator, who ruled the country for almost a quarter century, was necessary to put a stop to the violence and anarchy in the streets, those who carry it out claim. But why did the overwhelming majority of the 1,104 Romanian dead during this tumultuous period die only after Ceausescu had fled from the capital? Who was shooting at whom, and who was giving the orders?

The figureheads and masterminds of the mysterious overthrow, which took place behind the Iron Curtain in 1989, are still alive today. One of them is poet Mircea Dinescu, who announced the news that the despot had been overthrown on a live television broadcast. He has since been sharply critical, on talk shows and in opinion pieces, of what he calls the failed revolution. Another is former President Ion Iliescu, who continues to wield power today as an eminence grise of the political class. And then there is Victor Stanculescu, a former virtuoso classical singer with the rank of a four-star general, who transformed himself from a confidant of the Ceausescus into a traitor in their eyes in December 1989, and is incarcerated today in the Bucharest-Rahova maximum-security prison.

Popular Revolt

What seems to be clear is that there was a popular revolt, supported by thousands and thousands of oppressed, freezing Romanians who also lacked food. There was also a small group of potential insurgents, veterans of the party, military and security organizations who had been thinking about overthrowing Ceausescu for a long time. Eventually, a time came when the two movements intersected and were briefly united. The result was a powerful wave of resistance that brought down the regime on Dec. 22, 1989.

For General Victor Stanculescu, that historic day began with a trick. Stanculescu, who was also deputy defense minister, asked a doctor he trusted to put a plaster cast on his left leg, which was completely healthy. Freshly returned from the front in Timisoara -- where protests against the Ceausescu regime had been brutally suppressed for days -- the dashing and clever general realized, earlier than other members of the party, military and intelligence leadership, that the regime could no longer be saved.

The resistance began in Timisoara, a major city in the western Romanian portion of the Central European Banat region, when Pastor Laszlo Tokes was told that he was to be reassigned. The eloquent and intrepid pastor, a member of the Hungarian minority, was a popular dissident who had vocally criticized the regime's ongoing human rights violations. He was a thorn in the side of a regime with a history of making people like Tokes disappear. On Dec. 16, 1989, the members of his congregation formed a human chain around Tokes's house in an attempt to prevent security forces from taking him away.

That was the beginning. Starting in Timisoara, the revolution began to spread throughout the country like a wildfire. The army and secret police units fired at their own people for days. Ceausescu underestimated the scope of the resistance. Even as bodies were lying in the streets, he traveled to Tehran on a state visit, leaving his wife Elena to run the country for two days.

Ceausescu Left in Dark

Back in Bucharest, the "Conducator," or "leader," decided that it was time to address the people from the balcony of the Central Committee building. The response was unheard of: boos and catcalls. The image of the Romanian leader wearing an Astrakhan fur hat, grimacing as he attempted to quell the protests, is part of the iconography of the Romanian revolution.

"The Securitate kept Ceausescu in the dark about the true situation in the country," says former General Stanculescu. Then he recounts what happened in those last few, dramatic hours, how he limped into the Central Committee building on the morning of Dec. 22, 1989, his leg in a cast, to discover that he had just been promoted to defense minister, replacing Vasile Milea, who had refused to order the army to shoot at the people and was found dead only minutes earlier. To this day, no one knows whether Milea was murdered or committed suicide.

More than 100,000 angry protestors had already gathered outside, on the square in front of the party headquarters building. Ceausescu stepped onto the balcony one last time, armed with a megaphone, but he was unable to make himself heard.

While the angry mob stormed the Central Committee building, pushing its way past heavily armed secret police, Stanculescu organized the escape of the dictator and his wife. He ordered a helicopter flown to the roof of the building. Accompanied by two politburo members and two bodyguards, the Ceausescus managed to save themselves. "Victor, please take care of our children," Elena Ceausescu called out to the new defense minister, according to eyewitnesses.

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