My Petite Madeleine

When the Romanian Revolution came, I wasn’t home.

I heard people talking – more like whispering – at the bread shop. I was only thirteen – in their eyes still a child, so they didn’t mind me being around. I saw myself as an equally important person. Important enough to take in what was shared furtively and make sense of it on my own.
I still don’t know what made me do it – after leaving the bread shop I turned the TV on; although there wasn’t any program broadcasted. During the communist years, we only had a couple of hours of program, usually in the evening. Most of it was heavily laden with propaganda but every now and then there was a nice enough movie or theatre play.
I don’t remember the day of the week, nor the day of the month. Just that it was before Christmas and that I wasn’t at home – I must have been on school holidays because all this happened in Cluj Napoca and I was at my auntie’s apartment, with my Nana. Our regular routine was to go to the farmhouse – and my beloved village – every Friday.
It took me a good half an hour to figure out whether the “revolution live” was a theatre play or a succession of live events. I decided it was the later – the censorship would have never allowed such a play.

All these events happening in Ukraine have resulted in a big trigger; some memories have resurfaced – of times I have not told anyone before.
Without comparing our two countries events, which are very different – there are some things that I can’t fathom.
I have learned better than believe everything I hear or read; but I’m still uneasy about hearing that in Ukraine they just gave weapons out to civilians. Without comparing the two situations, it reminds me so much about the days of the Romanian revolution:
there was so much confusion and people were manipulated to go out on the streets.

The first thing they did in ‘89 was to take over the TV/Broadcast – because they knew that’s the only effective way to manipulate the masses. And even as a child, I understood why.
I remember a long chain of people – all these generals, civilians and so many people coming in saying the terrorists are shooting in x place, quick – everyone, go on the streets
Then they would come again: “terrorists or the army is shooting in Y place, everyone go on the streets”.
I was only 13. I didn’t understand, why they would send people in the streets, against the bullets. What could civilians do against armed people?
So, people died out of sheer stupidity in the general confusion.
I remember wanting to go, do my bit. There was this image of a young boy with the Romanian flag – Bucharest’s Gavroche. His patriotism and bravery was celebrated every few minutes on the TV and in the international press. I wanted to be like him – be brave and rid the country of all evil. (to my defence, I was really young) And my auntie and nana forbade me, of course.
Everyone was wearing the tricolour ribbon (our flag) on their arm – I wanted to do that too. Even if the only time I was allowed to go outside was to buy bread and necessities.
Of course we had tricolour in our house – everyone does.
But my nana asked me one question: – How is wearing the tricolour going to help?
And I thought hard and I said to her: – I dunno. but I feel that if I am wearing it, people would know I sympathise with the ones fighting for the cause, coz I can’t help in any other way.
She said “careful what you wish for and be even more careful that you don’t end up being a sheep”. I didn’t know back then how clever she was.

Now in the present, I truly admire the Ukrainians for their courage. I can’t believe that war is happening in our time and the world is not doing much about it.
The same world where all countries have solemnly sworn again and again that they would never allow atrocities happen… But I can’t help but wonder how many of those executed as “Russian provocateurs” died wrongly? How can one tell if someone was really a Russian provocateur or tried to be the voice of reason in a sea of frightened people? And how can we be sure that some of those people didn’t die because of petty revenge?
Someone who had a beef with anyone could easy kill them and get away with murder in these trying times. Everyone is too busy to check the facts, when you get shelled left right and centre.
And the most worrying question – once all the weapons are out, how can they be gotten back safely? How can civil war be prevented?

These are terrible times in any single way and once again, my memories run back to December ’89.
I’ve seen it first hand back then – how easy the masses can be divided and ruled.
Although I was a child, I liked being in the heart of things.
There was the queue for bread. Then the queue for the newspaper – every single morning we queued for news – we lived for that. You learn so much from hearing and seeing people in tough times.
They barricaded all roads so “the terrorists couldn’t get out of the city”. I’m yet to hear of anyone who saw those terrorists, btw – it was sheer manipulation and fearmongering. But the truth is that people died in these firings – most probably army against army, sent out by orders barked on live TV by important – looking people. Generals in command changed often, making things even more complicated.
All their talking about these terrorists shooting loose, all that was achieved was working the army units against the other army units and against the militia, and the crowds against them all.
I could see the tracer bullets from the window of my auntie’s apartment.
Especially at night, it was scary. Looking back now, it makes me wonder whether they chose tracers in purpose, so they can be seen and feared – they are spectacular on the night sky.
Auntie’s apartment was in the city centre – we had a wide view of the sky. During the day I could see the damage they did to the National Theatre building.
It’s really nothing compared to what’s happening in Ukraine today, but still scary, for a country where we had known nothing but peace.

We had to stay put in the city until it was safe to go to the village. My auntie and uncle dropped me off unceremoniously, then returned back to the city once the weekend was gone. Revolution or not, people still had jobs to attend.

It felt like a heavy century was slowly passing over my little village.
My dad was called into his military unit. His commander was one of the few people with good sense – he locked everyone in the unit precinct. The weapons were locked too.
They would be doomed no matter what. If they go out, they would be either victims of the bullets everyone was shooting at everyone, or lynched by civilians. There was so much fear and so much disinformation those days – people didn’t know if the army was friend or foe. Im still to hear an account of it from my father. He doesn’t talk much about the revolution.

I didn’t know at the time that he wasn’t out fighting; they weren’t allowed to communicate with family members.
My mother was left on her own (in Brasov, a different city), dealing with retrieving my grandma’s body and organising her funeral.
My sister was with my mum.
I should say my grandmother wasn’t killed; she died of natural causes.

Freaky fact: my grandmother was paralysed for many, many years and she always kept saying she wanted to die.
As kids we didn’t understand much so we candidly asked – why don’t you, then?
She always said “I want to see Ceausescu die before me” (The Romanian dictator)
Sure enough, they shot him on Christmas. She died immediately after him – a day or two difference.
My poor mum had to dodge blockades, bullets and road patrols to find which funeral company was open and would do the services.
Then retrieve her own mother’s naked body from the hospice and get on with the funeral.

Meanwhile, I was dropped off to safety in my little village.
To be honest, being in the village was scarier than when I could see the bullets on the night sky. Because in a way, seeing the bullets afar made me feel secure – they – whomever those terrorists were, they weren’t close to us. But also because the village didn’t have any phone.
My heart was split in three; not being able to get news fast, I was worrying about my dad fighting and getting killed; about my mother and sister getting killed by accident and about my auntie and uncle (who remained in their city apartment) who could also accidentally get killed.
But there were moments where I could take off on the hills and mountains and just be happy for a while, till I remembered again. I also felt very guilty that I was sheltered and others weren’t.

We were living for the news; and I understood even then as a child how easy it is to manipulate fearful masses. It was madness.
That’s why now, when I look at the news I also know – just like in the Romanian revolution – the full truth will never be known to us regular mortals. My heart breaks for all the innocent people who lost their lives, for those displaced and for those fighting. Like anyone else, the only thing I can do is to pray for peace. And I can share my own story. I decided to do it because a good friend confessed to me how sick he was of all the glorified violence in our media. This is a different side of things – if you are following the world’s conflicts, please try to see things from this perspective – the impact of war on regular citizens and how suddenly their lives got ruined.

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