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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Monday, August 17, 2020

30 Years Ago - Romania (continued)

Continued from December 31, 2019 (scroll down to previous post)

It was December 29th, 1989, when I reached the little outpost of Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde) on the outskirts of Szeged, Hungary. I'd been in Budapest for two days, trying to figure out whether and how to get involved in the widespread and largely spontaneous aid effort for newly-liberated Romania. Following gleanings of information from the Red Cross office and elsewhere in Budapest, I had gambled on taking a train to Szeged and finding my way to the coordination center that was trying to organize deliveries of incoming supplies. It was an extremely cold winter; Romania had been shaken by a violent uprising and repression, followed by the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day. With the border suddenly open, news was reaching western Europe of the terrible conditions faced by many Romanians, opening a vast well of sympathy and generosity. I was there in hopes of being part of this in a meaningful and helpful way. I was also there for the adventure of it.

As things worked out over the next week, I was able to fulfill both hopes. At Médecins du Monde, I met Kamel, Miroslav, Philippe, who seemed to be running things, and a few others, men and women, some French, some Hungarian, perhaps an Italian or Belge. Directions and updates came in by phone and fax from offices in Paris and Bucarest. The situation was moderately chaotic, with drivers calling in from the road in many places in Europe, asking about logistics, needs, routes, and so on. Struggles with phone lines and connections were hobbling operations; staff came and went, returning from or departing for locations in the field, offices in Hungary and France, reconnaissance or logistics trips into Romania and elsewhere. Lines of command and authority were somewhat unclear -- a source of some tension in the office, I soon observed.

I came into this swift-moving situation as a fresh face, a polyglot volunteer with earnest desire to be useful. That first evening, Philippe took me to an adjacent warehouse where several trucks were parked amidst stacks of boxes and plastic bags -- goods dropped off by donors arriving in cars, trucks, vans, buses, and even by motorcycle. We spent some time sorting boxes and loading them into trucks. The warehouse was unheated, and no one spent too long in there. A bit later, warming up in the little office, I found myself interpreting among German and French speakers, receiving and delivering information through the phone in all the languages I knew. It felt good to draw on my language skills.

Poor telephone connections in Romania created difficulties establishing where supplies were most needed, getting accurate information to people who needed it, capturing real-time, reliable information about the evolving political scene in Romania, the intentions of the army and police, the truth about events of recent days and each new day.

No one really knew how safe it was to travel in the country, though convoys had so far reached destinations and been warmly received by local officials and medical workers in various towns. However, one Médecins du Monde team had returned earlier that day from a medical delivery in Timisoara, where the first violence of the revolution had broken out, and reported that as they were unloading they had been fired on from military helicopters and had had to take refuge in the hospital. Luckily, no one had been hurt. This seemed to be an exception to the general impression that the revolution had "succeeded" -- the definition of this was very much in flux -- and to the sudden openness of the new Romania to the outside world. If it was a rebirth, it was still in its earliest infancy.

I was introduced to communication protocols: how to log calls, take information from drivers; what to tell them, what information to share. Things were evolving constantly at a hectic, ever-shifting tempo. English and French were the primary languages spoken; Miroslav and another man sometimes spoke Czech, a language then still completely unfamiliar to me. Kamel, I think, was North African. I was currently the only German speaker. A large Austrian convoy was set to arrive the next morning; I was on the phone a couple of times with one of the drivers, doing my best to translate from French and English into German, and back, on a scratchy phone line, guessing my way through unfamiliar Austrian accents. It was imperfect, but better than nothing.

Late in the night when things had quieted down enough, Miroslav called it a day, and all but a skeleton night crew loaded into cars and drove over to the university where the crew was housed. It wasn't luxury accommodations: pads and mattresses on the floor of a large room, knapsacks and suitcases spread around in various states of disarray; some tables laden with packages of chips, stale bread and cheese, cereals, exhausted-looking fruit, mini-cartons of juices and bottles of water. I was given a yoga pad, and I had brought a sleeping bag, so in short order, exhausted and heavy with the need for sleep, I was sacked out on the ground and snoring away with the best of them.

Too early, before light, the crew was awake, scarfing down what passed for breakfast, making coffee and tea, and then returning to the office, where new developments were afoot. The Austrians had arrived. A man named Thomas, a German-speaker and MDM staff member, had shown up and seemed to be taking charge; as the day went on this appeared as a source of conflict between him and Miroslav. The Austrians caught a few hours of sleep in their vehicles, then, with photocopied maps in hand and instructions, contact names and numbers, caveats and warnings and safety tips delivered, the three mid-sized tractor-trailers chugged off, diesel clouds black in the sharp new light of a frigid winter day. Temperatures were well below freezing, the air motionless and relatively smog-free with sun glittering on the frozen ruts and puddles of the parking turn-around.

Some long-awaited equipment arrived by van: a new telex machine that was meant to improve communications. The French driver was also a technician who spent a couple of hours setting up the new equipment, while I and others moved things around in the office to make room while continuing to field calls, respond or follow up on faxes, and a host of other administrative and logistical tasks. As the telex was switched on, it blew the fuses out and all the communication equipment went dark. The good-natured, unflappable French electrician sighed and set about restoring the electrical grid. In another hour all was up and running again. I still remember the quiet efficiency and unassuming competence of the French technician. He seemed like a person who had seen every sort of situation in the field and was ready to respond to whatever was thrown at him. I liked him immensely, and was sorry when he left later in the day.

Through that day I continued with tasks both menial and mental: sorting, packing, moving supplies; running into town with another worker to bring food; taking calls, interpreting, straightening up and sorting papers and office supplies. I was gratified when Miroslav complimented me on my organizational skills and appreciated some suggestions I made for improving efficiency. He encouraged me to stay on indefinitely, but I explained that I was a teacher and on Christmas break; I had to be back at the Ecole d'Humanité by Jan. 8 for the start of second semester. "Well, I'll put in a good word for you with the Médecins du Monde office, and if you ever want to come work with us again, you'll be welcome."

I had my camera with me, the one I had found on the ground amid the crush of East Germans pouring through the Potzdamerplatz opening in the Berlin Wall six weeks earlier (see post below: 30 Years Ago - Berlin). I had made little use of the Nikon so far, but had loaded it with a roll of Fuji slide film and had one more roll in my pack. I'd been taking some pictures; a few of the best can be seen in the first installment of this narrative, in Budapest. Here, unfortunately, my lack of skill with the camera produced some unfortunate bad exposures. Most of the pictures from those and the following days were poorly set and came out dark, much to my disappointment. Now, in 2020, I've been able to scan and lighten some of these enough to at least show some details. Below, a picture taken at Médecins du Monde in Szeged, with Miroslav in the center among the Austrian drivers just before their departure.
Médecins du Monde field station, Szeged, Hungary; December 30, 1989   Photo: Will Rose

So, another day passed. I was getting the feel of things at the office, and a clearer picture of what was going on in Romania. Desire to see Romania was an ongoing itch, and I hoped an opportunity might come up to accompany a convoy, or drive in on my own with one of the loaded vehicles in the warehouse. The following morning, that opportunity came along.

Two vehicles arrived from Czechoslovakia: a municipal bus and a small private van, as I recall, both piled high with packages of supplies collected from local people, churches, schools, etc.; the bus driver and his son, and their friend in the van, had driven through the night from a town in central Czechoslovakia. They, too, needed rest and fuel and instructions. Miroslav gave them all the information they needed in their common language. Meanwhile, a delivery truck arrived from France, the driver alone. In the early morning hours, it was decided that the three vehicles would travel together to the town of Deva, about 200 kilometers east of the Hungarian border. I suggested I might join the group as an extra driver/rider in the truck, and the idea was readily accepted by all. The truck driver was tired, and glad to have someone to spell him for a while. I was thrilled; here was the chance I'd hoped for: to get into Romania, experience first-hand the events unfolding, and do so in the context of a delivery of supplies, an aide and member of the team.

A few hours later, we departed for Deva. I rode with the trucker, following the bus, which was well-identified with medic red cross signs; the van brought up the rear. We stopped near a town called Makó, before the Romanian border, and fueled up. Sorry again for the poor quality of the picture. It's a shame I didn't get the f-stop settings right! It's so much easier today, with cell phone cameras and video...
Fuel stop in Mako, December 31, 1989   Photo: Will Rose

We drove through several small Hungarian villages -- Deszk, Ferencszállás, Kiszombor  -- where rows of tidy bungalows lined the road, ending abruptly and giving way again to empty, tundra-like expanses. After our fuel stop, we continued to the border, where, on the Hungarian side, we were virtually waved through with a look at our passports, itinerary and crossing papers provided by Médecins du Monde. Then, at a slow creep, we approached a colorless and forbidding set of buildings and barriers; a wide area held numerous vehicles in waiting, but we rolled unimpeded up to to a gatehouse where a young soldier in uniform stood with lowered automatic weapon; another uniformed guard came out and asked for our passports. We sat a long time after he disappeared into a large rectangular building on our left side. Eventually he returned and asked us all to come into that building, which we did obediently. At odds with the forbidding appearance of the structures, the guards were exceptionally pleasant, friendly, happy.

Inside, the place seemed to be one great room with some desks and small offices at one end, a fireplace at the other (at least this is my recollection.) Some tattered armchairs were drawn near to the fire, which seemed to be the primary source of heat. On a wooden table, a black and white television showed a blurry image of a man at a desk, a civilian, it appeared, who was delivering what seemed to be a long official address. Several uniformed men sat watching this intently; one got up as we entered and came over to us, our passports in hand. He spoke French, which I and the truck driver could follow. The younger Czech man could speak some English and I translated for him, but he didn't get a lot of it. It was one of those European-style conversations where everyone is speaking something other than their native language, in halting, broken phrases, using hand gestures and facial expressions to convey what cannot be found in words.

I learned that the man speaking on the television was Ion Iliescu, the provisional President of the new, post-revolutionary government. He was addressing the nation, explaining the steps being taken to restore and preserve order, to care for the people, to establish a new government, to purge the military where needed, to hold accountable those who had murdered Romanian citizens and terrorized the population. I understood none of it, despite my elementary studies in Romanian. What remains etched in my memory, however, is that cavernous room, the flickering fire, the fuzzy ancient television, the calm, droning voice of the new President, and the astonished, uncertain sense of new-found liberation that pervaded the spirits of those we met here and further on in our travels.

The officer holding our passports led us to a desk and we explained where we were going, gave the names and addresses of the people that were expecting us in Deva (several deliveries had already been made there to a Romanian branch of the Red Cross, and communication had been possible, unlike to many other locations across the border, by phone.) He studied each of our passports, looking each of us in the face and nodding affirmation -- we matched our photos -- and stamping each one; then he handed the whole lot back to us and with a broad smile said, "Bienvenue en Romanie libre!" Welcome to Free Romania.

The smiling soldiers outside gave us V-for-Victory signs as they lifted the red-white crossing barriers. The Romanian flags hung stiffly on their poles, swaying slightly in an icy breeze. I don't know whether these flags, like most of the others we saw later on the journey, had a hole cut out of the center where the Communist hammer and sickle insignia had been excised, just as Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu had been summarily removed from power and existence.

Monument in Deva, Romania, with altered post-revolution flag  Photo: Will Rose, January 1990

As the drab buildings and limp flags of the border fell behind, we entered a new land. My memory and notes are imperfect regarding this leg of the trip, but in studying maps and street views, and reading my journal and other letters from the time, I think we must have been on Route 43 -- the modern A1 motorway north of there didn't exist at that time -- which became A68 after the border. We passed through the medium-sized town of Nadlac, where scenes were unfolding that I remember as a composite image from all along the route east: as our convoy marked with large red crosses on a white field passed through towns and villages all along the route to Arad, our first stop, people stood at the sides of the roads, waving, showing the ubiquitous V-signs, waving Romanian flags, cheering. Clearly, many vehicles had been pouring through into once-isolated western Romania; all knew that our western vehicles were a sign of the open border, of sudden openness to the rest of Europe. And surely, all hoped that their welcome might move us to stop and share some of the bounty.

But we had been cautioned not to stop. Not for fear of our own safety, but for concern that the goods might fall into the wrong hands and end up on the black market or seized by unspecified "brigands." This was a big part of what Médecins du Monde was trying to accomplish from the Szeged outpost: reach out to responsible organizations and entities within the country who had the best prospects for seeing to an equitable distribution of the donated goods. We kept moving, waving and V-signing back, honking the horns, showing our appreciation for the people as well as we could. I can still see their figures and faces: old women in heavy long coats and dresses, head scarves; men in fleece caps or fedora-style hats, black coats or pale blue work clothes; children bundled in thick layers of drab clothing, teenagers yelling and waving, smiles as wide as the horizon. It was hard to drive past all that excitement, all that desperation and need. But we had to stay on task.

In mid-morning we arrived in Arad, a sizeable city and county seat. We pulled into a central square in front of administrative buildings, crowded with excited, cheering locals, and were greeted by someone from the local city council, who made speech and accepted an allocation of supplies that had been designated for that place. The bulk of our delivery, though, was intended for the city of Deva, in the county of Hunadoara, another 100 km east. We handed out chocolates from the windows of the truck, and some packs of Marlboro cigarettes we had picked up in Makó. These were clearly highly prized. The scene verged on chaotic, and I could see how trying to unload anything there, if we had opened the vehicles, could have led to disaster.

In Arad, I switched places with the driver, who was exhausted and soon fell asleep with his head against his rolled-up coat. The road grew narrower and less maintained. We were on E68, part of the Route 7 highway, or DN7 (Drumul National 7), and soon entered more hilly country with ridges to the north and south as we wound along the valley of the Mures river. The sunny, cold afternoon darkened as a grey mist descended over the landscape, smelling of coal and sulphur. There were few vehicles on the road; those I saw were often farm vehicles, or small trucks, working vehicles. Once we encountered a horse-drawn wagon loaded with what looked like dirt-crusted rocks; my best guess was they were beets or turnips dug from the frozen ground and on their way to a farmhouse. The driver of the horse team sat hunkered in blankets and gave no sign as we slowed and passed. This was only the first of several horse-drawn vehicles I saw elsewhere in my trips to Romania. It never failed to stir something in me, a kind of longing for a time when people moved at a slower pace and cultivated animals as work partners -- a romanticized vision of what was surely a difficult and marginal life for people in rural Romania at the end of the Ceausescu dictatorship.

This leg of the trip seemed long. The road wound through side valleys, curved up long hills, through tiny hamlets of battered stucco and brick, where ochre tiles and thatch served as roofing, dogs slunk away from the approaching roar of our vehicles, and still the occasional flag waved or group of locals raised their hands in greeting and surprise. The day lay dying under a shroud of haze. Miniature mountain ranges of ice-capped snow demarcated the sides of the road and eddies of crystal powder whirled across the cracked asphalt; bristling forests clothed the passing hillsides in a threadbare mantle of ice and snow. The river valley offered occasional dim vistas of winding river, icy banks, meadows and fields ribbed with extruding tooth-like fenceposts, trees bent under sheathes of ice. The world outside the cocoon of the truck cab was remote and forbidding; it was tempting to imagine grim mountaintop castles, vampires, wolves howling on wind-swept uninhabited stretches. There was very little light, no neon signs or street lights in the villages we swept through. 

I was intent on careful handling of the truck, using the gears to climb and descend the slopes, watching for ice, for obstacles, for anything unexpected, keenly aware of being deep in a strange country, a place where fear and oppression had reigned for decades, longer, perhaps; fear and want were etched into the land like the grooves in the faces of the old people peering up at us as we rumbled through their little towns in clouds of snow and unattainable hope.

About 20 km before Deva, Yves, the French driver, woke up and said he'd take the wheel the rest of the way into Deva. I flashed my lights for the bus ahead, and the convoy pulled off into a siding. I was glad to hand off the responsibility to Yves, who had made the trip once already to Deva and knew the route and the location of the administrative building that was our destination.

Deva appeared huge to my eyes as we emerged from the last dark hills and saw its hazy lights stretching across a valley below. It was around 5:00 pm on December 31, 1989, New Year's Eve in Romania, as night settled in full over the last day of that revolutionary year: 1989.

To Be Continued....