The camera slowly pans across the faces of the executed, across the waxy face of the woman, surrounded by a trail of blood in the dust of the barrack yard, and across the face of her husband, his eyes wide open in the moment of death. Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, their arms tied behind their backs, died on Dec. 25, 1989 in a hail of bullets from Kalashnikov machine guns.
The faces of the marksmen remain in the dark in the television images of the execution. In 1989, a year of sweeping change in Eastern Europe, the only chapter that ended with the death of a head of state was written by Romanian soldiers, and kept hidden from the public eye.
"Our mission was a suicide mission," says Dorin Carlan, which means it was top-secret, and the risks were enormous.
Carlan is one of three men from the 64th Paratroopers Regiment who carried out the death sentence against the Ceausescus. For a brief moment in history, he became a tool of the revolution. Today he ekes out a living as a legal advisor in the Romanian capital Bucharest. Carlan is a massive man with a melancholy gaze, and the events of 1989 still seem to weigh heavily on his shoulders.
During the last few seconds en route to the execution site -- a wall in the courtyard of the Tirgoviste barracks -- Carlan, a petty officer at the time, stood facing his commander-in-chief, the "Genius of the Carpathians," "Liberator of the Earth" and "favorite son of the Romanian people." As Carlan recounts today, "Ceausescu looked at me, broke out in tears and shouted: 'Death to the traitors! History will avenge us.' Then he sang the 'Internationale'. He and his wife were pushed up against the wall, and we fired. It had to be brought to an end."
Carlan served in an elite regiment which was supposed to provide personal protection for Ceausescu, the country's president and the general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party. After growing up as an orphan and later being raised as a Ceausescu loyalist, he still finds it difficult to talk about his action, as if trying to justify the breach of trust to himself. Carlan says: "We avenged the dead that Ceausescu had on his conscience. It was a mission of honor."
It has been 20 years since the end of the Romanian dictatorship, and yet the mission is still controversial. Was the execution of the Ceausescu truly a milestone along Romania's path to freedom? Or was it the original sin of the young democracy, as dissident and exile writer Paul Goma put it angrily, since "Ceausescu was stolen from those who suffered under his rule" as a result of the secret conviction and shooting.
The tribunal against the dictator, who ruled the country for almost a quarter century, was necessary to put a stop to the violence and anarchy in the streets, those who carry it out claim. But why did the overwhelming majority of the 1,104 Romanian dead during this tumultuous period die only after Ceausescu had fled from the capital? Who was shooting at whom, and who was giving the orders?