AP WAS THERE: Romania's Revolution in 1989

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Posted: Dec 16, 2014 1:53 PM
AP WAS THERE: Romania's Revolution in 1989

EDITOR'S NOTE: Twenty-five years ago the people rose up against Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, executed him and set the country on a path to democracy. One of the near victims of the revolt that toppled Ceausescu and communism in Romania was AP correspondent John Daniszewski — now a senior managing editor at the news agency — who, on Dec. 23, 1989, was shot three times while covering the momentous events in the western city of Timisoara. On this anniversary, the AP is making again available Daniszewski's first-hand account filed from his hospital bed in Belgrade, Serbia, that describes the hellish situation in Romania and his brush with death. It was first published on Dec. 26, 1989.

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AP Correspondent Shot 3 Times in Early Throes of Romanian Revolt

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) — The uprising against dictator Nicolae Ceausescu gave rise to fierce resistance by his secret police, turning Romania into a land of fear, suspicion and retribution. I became a victim of that chaos Saturday night.

I was shot three times, narrowly escaping death. One bullet grazed my skull, and two more lodged in my left arm.

Thanks to some dedicated doctors in District Hospital No. 1 in Timisoara, and the friendly intervention of Yugoslav diplomats in the city, I survived and was evacuated within two days to Yugoslavia's capital Belgrade.

It is hard to describe the mood of pure panic and paranoia that pervaded Timisoara, a petrochemical center in western Romania with about 350,000 inhabitants.

The events that led to Ceausescu's fall began a week before Christmas. Demonstrations to prevent a Protestant minister from being evicted swelled into anti-government protests. Unarmed civilians were gunned down by state security troops, the dreaded Securitate, in the main square.

No Westerner has been able to verify the number of fatalities, but doctors with whom I spoke said more than 4,000 died. After the slaughter, the bodies were gathered in trucks and taken to a mass grave at the city cemetery.

The blood that flowed that day on the square sparked a popular thirst for revenge.

Residents responded with a general strike, and the army declared itself with the people and against Ceausescu.

After state TV in Bucharest fell to the opposition Friday, the borders opened for the first time in four days to Western journalists.

I flew to Belgrade from Warsaw late Friday, rented a car at the airport, and started driving to Romania's border.

Just before entering Romania, I met a Yugoslav journalist, Ljuba Pajic, who was to be my companion in the days that followed.

Although I arrived at the border with no visa, the slightly drunken border guards wearing armbands in the national colors of red, blue and yellow let me in with little formality.

"American? You are with us," one guard whispered out of earshot of his superior.

On the two-hour drive to Timisoara, we were repeatedly stopped by groups of peasants waving the Romanian flag — with the Communist emblem cut out of it.

"Ceausescu kaput! Ceausescu finite!" they shouted to the foreigners.

But once entering Timisoara, tension replaced jubilation. A siren wailed and young people on the street talked fearfully of an air raid.

Ceausescu's forces were going to bomb the city, they claimed.

So, with car lights off, fearing the bombs that never fell and avoiding the black silhouettes of tanks at many street corners, we began to look for the main hotel, where I thought we would find other journalists.

Ljuba and I ended up at the Hotel Timisoara, near the Opera Square.

Inside the darkened lobby, we were frisked by nervous young people carrying knives, clubs and sharpened sticks.

A young woman who spoke English gave me an account of the massacre:

Children peacefully praying the previous Sunday, Dec. 17, were mowed down by automatic weapons, she said. When their mothers ran to them, they too were shot.

It was also in the lobby, less than an hour after arriving in town, that I met my first casualty.

French photographer Jean Langevant hobbled in holding his buddy's arm, a bullet hole in his leg.

He was bleeding badly, but the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire growing nearer outside made everyone reluctant to go for help.

Finally, a "machina" — a car — rolled up to the front door and Langevant was bundled inside. Ljuba and I decided to follow in our car.

Headlights still off, we raced through the deserted streets, afraid to stop. We screeched into the courtyard of District Hospital No. 2.

The photographer was taken to the operating room and we spent the night huddled in the doctors' lounge.

The hospital, like the other buildings in Timisoara at night, was kept in eerie darkness whenever possible.

"They shoot at the light," one physician said, drawing a curtain closed when the flicker of a television set dimly lighted the lounge.

Doctors said they had been working with a constant stream of shooting victims since Dec. 17. They too were afraid, cowering on the floor when the noise of gunfire came too close. Red tracers arched over the hospital roof.

It was a hairy night, but at last, by midmorning Saturday, the shooting had died down enough to go outside.

Saturday we spent trying to locate an outside phone line to tell the story.

In the evening, I returned to Hotel Timisoara, where we talked to the leader of the pro-democracy forces, headquartered there.

Their chief was an automotive engineer, a tall and dignified young man dressed in a black beret and trenchcoat who spoke some French.

The hotel was again in total blackness and he led us through the empty restaurant to a small cafe off the kitchen, where he pushed together two tables and fed us a Romanian feast — sliced sausages and salty cheese, washed down with grapefruit soda. A Romanian soldier with a Soviet sub-machine gun and several rebels looked on politely.

I asked them what kind of country they wanted. Democracy and free elections was the reply. And the Ceausescus? Killing was too good for them, the group agreed. Maybe torture.

After a short drive around downtown, where the fighting had been the heaviest, all appeared quiet. I made one outside phone call and left the building.

Outside, the scene had suddenly changed. Gunfire erupted very close by as soon as we left. Retreating to the car, we backed away in the opposite direction. Two Italian journalists who had left the consulate with us followed in another car.

What followed was a nightmare of running with nowhere to hide. Every turn in the strange city seemed to lead to another firefight. We tried to make our way back to the hotel, going in ever wider circles because of the fighting.

Finally, luck ran out. Driving into an intersection, somebody flashed a light on us and shouted in Romanian.

Before we could answer or get out of the car, I saw the flash of a gun and realized in an instant they were shooting at us.

Immediately, I felt something slam into my arm and what felt like warm water being poured on my head. My own blood.

For what seemed like an eternity, we screamed that we were journalists.

The men who came out of a bunker to us — some in uniform, some in civilian clothes — screamed at us and dragged us to them.

We were roughed up. One man came at me with a knife but stopped just before stabbing me. A soldier kept a gun aimed at my head. I thought they were going to kill us.

My companion, Ljuba, was not hit by the gunfire, but he was beaten. They took our money.

Of the Italians, one was badly wounded in the chest, and the other unhurt.

Finally, to my relief, two ambulances arrived. The Italian photographer, Pasquale Modita, went first. Then me.

The ride to the hospital was mercifully brief, and for my second night in Romania, I was once again under the physicians' protection.

The bullets had gone into my upper left arm, a few inches from my heart. The other one cut a gash in my scalp, but did not penetrate my skull.

"You were very, very lucky," my favorite doctor told me. Time and again, the doctor said after my first operation to explore the wound in my arm: "Someone as lucky as you will live a long time."

For the two nights and a day that I convalesced in the hospital, battle raged outside my window between the Romanian army and small, ruthless commando units loyal to Ceausescu.

I worried that the Securitate would win and murder us all.

But Christmas Day, about 36 hours after being shot, ambulances arranged by the Yugoslav government and the AP took me and Zzeljko Ssajan, a wounded reporter from Zagreb television, to Belgrade.

I was never so happy to cross a border.