Trial by firing squad

“This was revolution in the usual style, with barricades and bloodshed.” Paul Davies recalls the Chr

In the days leading up to Christmas 1989, the unrest that had begun in the Romanian city of Timisoara, when crowds poured on to the streets in protest at the threatened deportation of a dissident Hungarian pastor, spread to the capital, Bucharest. On 21 December, President Nicolae Ceausescu addressed a gathering of more than 100,000 people from the balcony of the Central Committee building. His pleas for order went unheeded, however, as the crowd booed and shouted him down. It was clear that Ceausescu’s 24-year reign as supreme leader of the Romanian state was near its end.

I spent that Christmas with a team from ITN, sleeping on the floor of a building under siege in central Bucharest. We were surrounded by young people who had risen against the dictator and were now prepared to stand up to his tanks and his sinister secret police, the Securitate. This was revolution in the usual style, with barricades and bloodshed on the streets.

The first indication that Ceausescu’s overthrow would be altogether more violent and bloody than the “velvet” revolutions elsewhere in the eastern bloc had come on our flight out. As we approached the city’s Otopeni airport, the pilot warned that landing was being delayed by fierce fighting close to the runway. There was confusion on the ground. In the darkness, people appeared to be shooting at each other from the woods around the airport and bullets were hitting the terminal building.

When we finally made it into the city, our first objective was to find Bucharest Television Centre, the only place from where we would be able to send pictures and news reports back to London. As we made our way there, we ran into a large group of students, several hundred strong, who told us that Romanian TV was now the voice of the revolution.

The leaders of the uprising were inside the building. Fearing brutal retribution from the Securitate, they had broadcast an appeal for help. Large numbers of students had responded to the call and were now making Molotov cocktails and building barricades across the roads leading to the Television Centre.

The shooting started as we were being guided through the growing crowd outside. It was impossible to work out where the gunfire was coming from. All we knew was that it was aimed at the TV building and the mostly unarmed masses who had gathered to defend it. A man in military uniform screamed at us to take cover under an armoured vehicle, and that is where the cameraman Sam Gracey, the sound recordist Paul Douglas and I spent the next three hours.

We could hear the rounds striking the vehicle above us and see that several students had been wounded. Though it was difficult to make sense of the chaos, it soon became clear that dozens of men in army uniforms had joined the revolution and were now returning fire. The siege of Bucha­rest Television Centre had begun.

During a lull in the fighting in the early hours of the morning, we finally made it into the building. Once inside, we met the local broadcasters, who were desperate for us to get our footage to the outside world. Then the shooting began again, but this time with greater intensity. A window from which we had been filming shattered. Our new friends told us there were rumours that the Securitate was preparing to storm the building. In the darkness, it was impossible to know what was happening.

By dawn on 23 December, we could see that Television Centre was still in the hands of the revolutionaries. Those elements of the security forces still loyal to Ceausescu appeared to have taken up position in surrounding houses and woodland. Other members of the military were defending the building.

The newscasters holed up inside had become the face and voice of the revolution, and were broadcasting regular bulletins on the progress of the uprising. Meanwhile, leading figures from the government and military arrived to inform the nation that the ageing dictator – he was 71 now – had taken flight with his loathed and feared wife, Elena. Later, we saw an anxious young woman being marched towards the studios. She was drawing deeply on a cigarette. This was Ceausescu’s daughter, Zoia, who was being displayed to the Romanian people as proof that her father’s time was up.

By Christmas Eve, the gunfire outside Television Centre had mostly subsided. The revolution now had the support of a significant proportion of Romania’s armed forces. When we had arrived, a couple of days earlier, there had been just a handful of young soldiers and a small number of armoured personnel carriers protecting the building. Now there were tanks and troops under the command of senior army officers.

The siege was lifted on Christmas morning, and with that, the first phase of the revolution was brought to a close. The fugitive president and his wife had been arrested after they were betrayed by those they trusted to take them to safety. Later that same day, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu faced a swift and peremptory trial, and then the firing squad.

Footage of the execution arrived at Television Centre shortly afterwards, and meetings were held to decide what to do with it. The remaining members of the station hierarchy insisted that the material should not be broadcast, while others argued that it was the only way to convince those still loyal to the old regime that their cause was lost.

In the event, a special broadcast was aired, in which a presenter described the footage and the debate over whether to show it. He asked viewers to stay tuned while a decision was made. It took the intervention of a young army officer, who had wearied of all the wrangling, for the brief but conclusive images of the Ceausescus’ dead bodies to be shown to the watching millions.

In the years that followed, I returned regularly to report on the new Romania. It rapidly became clear that, for all the post-revolutionary euphoria and the first democratic elections in decades, the dreams of those who had thronged University Square in December 1989 had come to nothing. Holdouts from the old regime quietly returned to government, and when students came back out on to the streets in protest at broken promises, miners were bussed in from the provinces to beat up the demonstrators. Not quite the bright new world my comrades at Television Centre had envisaged when they manned the barricades in Bucharest that fraught Christmas.

Paul Davies is a senior correspondent for ITV News. He wrote this piece in memory of Paul Douglas, who was killed while filming in Iraq in 2006. In 1990, Davies was named the Royal Television Society TV Journalist of the Year for his reporting of the Romanian Revolution

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