Caught in a revolution, Part II

Caught in a revolution,

romanian liberation 1989 248.88 (photo credit: )
romanian liberation 1989 248.88
(photo credit: )
Part I of this series appeared on December 16 on this Web site. It seemed as if that Friday, December 22, 1989, the day Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest in an army helicopter and the Romanian revolution started in earnest, would never end. Confusion was total. Nobody knew what was going on and who exactly was shooting at whom. The only source of news was the television, where events were literally broadcast live. A succession of TV presenters wearing armbands the color of the Romanian flag were earnestly expressing their joy at their new freedom, while explaining that for years they had worked under duress - all the while uneasily watching reports about Ceausescu's faithful regaining ground. In the first few hours, the fate of the battle raging in the country hung in the balance. Would the ragged bands of heroic civilians, poorly armed and trained, be able to overcome the forces of the Securitate, the dreaded security apparatus wholly devoted to the dictator? Suddenly a triumphant yell resounded in the studio: "Armata e cu noi!" (the army is with us). That was the turning point. It meant that part of the establishment was throwing its lot in with the insurgents. The problem was that there were not enough troops in the capital and while reinforcements were being rushed in, the Securitate made an all-out effort to crush the uprising. The first step was to try and take over the television building, thus silencing the voice of the revolution. The battle raged for hours. Just before midnight, a soldier rushed in with unbelievable news: Far from planning his comeback from the safety of some secret location, Ceausescu, having been betrayed by the pilot of his army helicopter, had been arrested and thrown in jail together with his wife. Since, however, there were no pictures of the couple, many people believed it was a ploy to discourage his followers and convince them to lay down their arms. They were wrong: It was true. THIS WAS high drama, and I might have enjoyed it more hadn't I been caught in it. Israel had nothing to do with what was going on, and neither side had anything against us. Cannon balls, however, are not always very good at telling friends from foes, and the embassy walls would be no match for a stray shot. Still, it was thought that the ambassador would be safer there than alone (with his wife) in the residence with no one to protect him. So I had packed a few necessities and lots of food, and I had dutifully followed my husband. Needless to say, Israeli representations the world over do not as a rule have comfortable bedrooms for the use of the diplomats. I spent that first night lying on the faux Persian carpet in his excellency's stately office, my head resting on one of the cushions taken from the small sofa (the ambassador had the other one). I did not sleep well. More than the bright flash of mortar fire or the dull thud of cannon, it was the uncertainty of the situation which was keeping me awake. How long would this go on? What was going to happen? Diplomatic immunity was not going to help if things got really bad, as another ambassador's wife was discovering that very night. Sharpshooters were targeting the brightly lit television studios and soldiers were returning fire. The British residence, situated next door to the television building, was caught in the crossfire. The ambassador himself was safe in the embassy building, but his wife was trapped in the house with the children who had come from England to spend Christmas with their parents. They managed to creep down to the basement where they huddled together for a long time, waiting for a lull in the fighting to make a dash for the street. They escaped just before dawn - not a moment too soon. A direct hit set the mansion ablaze. It burned to the ground and with it all the family personal effects - from clothes to mementos and family albums. We had no such drama and I eventually drifted to sleep until a new round of artillery fire started in earnest. It petered out by mid-morning for no apparent reason. Among the many rumors floating around that Saturday - the wildest being that there was an atomic bomb under the party headquarters and it could be triggered by remote control - was that Arab mercenaries were allegedly pouring in to help repress the revolution. The angry crowd would pounce on blameless passersby with a Middle Eastern appearance yelling "terrorists." TWENTY YEARS ago there were hundreds of young Israelis in Bucharest studying medicine and dentistry, and roughly half their number were Israeli Arabs. Not all had gone home for the long end-of-the year vacation. Many of those who had remained found themselves suddenly the target of hostile manifestations and came to seek refuge at the embassy. By mid-afternoon there were 50 of them milling in the courtyard and the waiting rooms. Fortunately they had brought a little food with them, because by that time we were running out of supplies and could give them nothing but apples and a few remaining doughnuts. The good news was that the US embassy was hard at work trying to organize the orderly evacuation of nonessential personnel to neighboring Bulgaria - less than 40 miles away - and was ready to include whoever wanted to in the convoy due to leave the next day. Most students decided to go. Night fell on a wounded and bewildered city. Was the fighting abating or was it just wishful thinking? On the morning of December 24, the evacuation started and the embassy regained a measure of calm - a calm which slowly spread to the city. Our driver showed up. With the blessing of the head of security, who came with us, we decided to make a quick trip to the residence to replenish our stocks. Roadblocks manned by what appeared to be very young fighters had been set at major intersections. Our car was stopped again and again, and once the driver was ordered at gunpoint to open the trunk. There was nothing in it but a case of grapefruit which we had intended to send to a sick friend. The youngsters looked at it with wonder. Grapefruits in communist Romania were not a common sight. Zvi had an inspiration: "Take them and have a merry Christmas," he said. He did not have to repeat it. In less than a minute, the three fighters were making off at top speed for home, each clutching a few of the golden fruit to his chest. As the day went on, it seemed as if heavy artillery had ceased completely and only occasional gunfire was heard. The army was taking control and meeting less and less opposition: Now that Ceausescu was in jail, his supporters were losing the will to fight. With no less than six armored personnel carriers having taken position to protect the residence, we went home for a good night's sleep. The next day - December 25 - was Christmas. At noon, there was a sudden hush. A grey faced speaker told the country and the world that the dictator and his wife, having been found guilty of innumerable crimes by a special tribunal, had been condemned to death and executed on the spot. That night, snow began to fall at last. The writer is the wife of former ambassador Zvi Mazel. She is the author of Ambassador's Wife published in 2002, a personal account of the eight years she spent in Cairo with her husband.