Oct. 21, 2009 -- 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."
A Mysterious Overthrow
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?
The figureheads and masterminds of the mysterious overthrow, which took place behind the Iron Curtain in 1989, are still alive today. One of them is poet Mircea Dinescu, who announced the news that the despot had been overthrown on a live television broadcast. He has since been sharply critical, on talk shows and in opinion pieces, of what he calls the failed revolution. Another is former President Ion Iliescu, who continues to wield power today as an eminence grise of the political class. And then there is Victor Stanculescu, a former virtuoso classical singer with the rank of a four-star general, who transformed himself from a confidant of the Ceausescus into a traitor in their eyes in December 1989, and is incarcerated today in the Bucharest-Rahova maximum-security prison.
What seems to be clear is that there was a popular revolt, supported by thousands and thousands of oppressed, freezing Romanians who also lacked food. There was also a small group of potential insurgents, veterans of the party, military and security organizations who had been thinking about overthrowing Ceausescu for a long time. Eventually, a time came when the two movements intersected and were briefly united. The result was a powerful wave of resistance that brought down the regime on Dec. 22, 1989.
For General Victor Stanculescu, that historic day began with a trick. Stanculescu, who was also deputy defense minister, asked a doctor he trusted to put a plaster cast on his left leg, which was completely healthy. Freshly returned from the front in Timisoara -- where protests against the Ceausescu regime had been brutally suppressed for days -- the dashing and clever general realized, earlier than other members of the party, military and intelligence leadership, that the regime could no longer be saved.
The resistance began in Timisoara, a major city in the western Romanian portion of the Central European Banat region, when Pastor Laszlo Tokes was told that he was to be reassigned. The eloquent and intrepid pastor, a member of the Hungarian minority, was a popular dissident who had vocally criticized the regime's ongoing human rights violations. He was a thorn in the side of a regime with a history of making people like Tokes disappear. On Dec. 16, 1989, the members of his congregation formed a human chain around Tokes's house in an attempt to prevent security forces from taking him away.
That was the beginning. Starting in Timisoara, the revolution began to spread throughout the country like a wildfire. The army and secret police units fired at their own people for days. Ceausescu underestimated the scope of the resistance. Even as bodies were lying in the streets, he traveled to Tehran on a state visit, leaving his wife Elena to run the country for two days.
Ceausescu Left in Dark
Back in Bucharest, the "Conducator," or "leader," decided that it was time to address the people from the balcony of the Central Committee building. The response was unheard of: boos and catcalls. The image of the Romanian leader wearing an Astrakhan fur hat, grimacing as he attempted to quell the protests, is part of the iconography of the Romanian revolution.
"The Securitate kept Ceausescu in the dark about the true situation in the country," says former General Stanculescu. Then he recounts what happened in those last few, dramatic hours, how he limped into the Central Committee building on the morning of Dec. 22, 1989, his leg in a cast, to discover that he had just been promoted to defense minister, replacing Vasile Milea, who had refused to order the army to shoot at the people and was found dead only minutes earlier. To this day, no one knows whether Milea was murdered or committed suicide.
More than 100,000 angry protestors had already gathered outside, on the square in front of the party headquarters building. Ceausescu stepped onto the balcony one last time, armed with a megaphone, but he was unable to make himself heard.
While the angry mob stormed the Central Committee building, pushing its way past heavily armed secret police, Stanculescu organized the escape of the dictator and his wife. He ordered a helicopter flown to the roof of the building. Accompanied by two politburo members and two bodyguards, the Ceausescus managed to save themselves. "Victor, please take care of our children," Elena Ceausescu called out to the new defense minister, according to eyewitnesses.
'The Dictator Has Fled'
Stanculescu denies this. The former general, now 81, is only willing to concede that Ceausescu's wife, known as "Office Number 2," had favored him as the army's representative at official events "because, unfortunately, I was more attractive than the others." At the trial in Tirgoviste, shortly before the court pronounced its death sentence, Elena Ceausescu recognized her mistake, and called out: "There is a traitor among us. He is known."
At the time, says Stanculescu, shrugging his shoulders, he had only one choice, "to be killed by the revolutionaries or the Ceausescus."
The general's decision to change sides and join the insurgents is one of the key moments of the revolution. In his position as the new defense minister, he secretly ordered the army to return to the barracks. Surrounded by the chaos of a leaderless country, he tried to remain calm, and after the Ceausescus, having briefly disappeared from the radar screen of the security agencies, he decided what was to happen to them. In the end, Stanculescu even personally selected the marksmen who would carry out the execution.
But at that point the Ceausescus still had three days to live. When the helicopter stopped at the Ceausescus' summer home in Snagov, Elena quickly packed jewels and bathrobes into their suitcases, while her husband was on the phone searching for places where they could go. At the pilot's suggestion the two boarded the helicopter again and -- Romania's airspace having been closed in the meantime -- after a short flight, were dropped off in an open field in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It was the beginning of a grotesque odyssey.
'You Are Now in the Hands of the Masses'
The aging Ceausescus spent the next few hours wandering through the scenery of a country they had shaped to satisfy their gruesome demands, but had never experienced from an ordinary perspective. Their first vehicle broke down, and a second vehicle took them to an agricultural technical institute in Tirgoviste, where they were taken into custody by a militia in the evening. "You are now in the hands of the masses," Ceausescu was told. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "In whose hands?" he asked.
At that point, the "masses" were receiving their marching orders from Studio 4 in the Bucharest television center. Poet Mircea Dinescu had arrived there at about 1 p.m. and, after being introduced as "our hero," was put in front of a microphone. In the midst of the chaos, he managed to express the inconceivable in words: "The army is with us. The dictator has fled. God has turned his face to the Romanians once again. We have won."
We? In this hour of triumph, Dinescu still had no idea who else had joined him and occupied the headquarters of the state-owned broadcaster. He was overjoyed to have an audience once again, after months of house arrest. Dinescu, the gifted lyricist and probably the most eloquent rebel of the Ceausescu era, had hurled angry verses at the wall of silence in the name of the people: "I will break open the wall with a pickaxe and let you look in."
That afternoon, Dinescu found himself surrounded by a colorful mix of people. In addition to a few declared regime opponents, there were generals in full regalia and senior members of the Communist Party in the building. In the midst of it all was Ion Iliescu, who was once Ceausescu's crown prince and had subsequently fallen out of favor. Now, 18 years after being marginalized, he seized his opportunity.
Many of his colleagues who gradually began to arrive at Studio 4 and soon formed the core of the National Salvation Front, were old acquaintances. There was Silviu Brucan, the party ideologue of the last Stalin years and later Romania's ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, whom Ceausescu had eventually placed under house arrest. There was General Nicolae Militaru, who is believed to have conspired against Ceausescu in the 1970s. And there was General Stanculescu, who was constantly in contact with the group by telephone.
Was this a team of clever contemporaries who had happened to be "at the train station" when the revolutionary train arrived, as the crafty Brucan would later say? Or was it a small group of conspirators loyal to Moscow, for whom Brucan, as he claimed, had received the Kremlin's blessing to overthrow Ceausescu in 1988?
A Collapse of the System
Nowadays Iliescu would no longer mention "the noble goals of communism" that Ceausescu had allegedly betrayed. After 1989, Iliescu served two and half nonconsecutive terms as president of Romania. During that time, he ordered security forces to brutally suppress protesting mine workers, but also steered his country on a course to NATO and the European Union. Today, he is almost 80 years old, and he is at peace with himself. He arrives at our meeting surrounded by bodyguards and assistants.
The constant talk of a coup d'etat is nonsense, says Iliescu. The popular uprising was a reaction to a dictatorship in which no one could speak his mind, he says. "It was the collapse of the system." He, Iliescu, slid into the situation at the last minute, "with my moral authority, which I had acquired in 18 years as Ceausescu's opponent."
Only a few hours after arriving at the television station, Iliescu told millions of viewers nationwide that a group calling itself the National Salvation Front had assumed power, and that he was its leader. There are various theories as to what happened under the command of the National Salvation Front in the days leading up to the execution of the Ceausescus.
One thing is clear: More than 900 people died throughout the country.
They died in Bucharest, Sibiu, Brasov and Timisoara. They died as a result of shots from nine-millimeter Stechkin pistols -- the kind used only by special units of the Securitate secret police -- but also as a result of bullets from other guns, sniper fire and Kalashnikov salvos. Weapons were distributed to civilians, members of the secret police were spotted in army uniforms and foreign mercenaries working for the Securitate. There were reports of 4,000 Russians in the country, says Stanculescu, "supposedly tourists, always four men in a car, as if they were on their way to a gay wedding."
"We have no proof that such things happened. Intelligence services are always nearby when there is a revolution," says Iliescu, who became Romania's first democratically elected president in 1990. He admits that the widespread chaos in December 1989 was aggravated by made-up reports from the television headquarters controlled by the National Salvation Front leaders -- reports that the drinking water had been poisoned, the army was on its last legs and unknown "terrorists" were in the pay of the counter-revolution.
Creating a 'Reason to Kill Ceausescu'
"Tensions were stirred up at the time to create reason to kill Ceausescu," says former General Stanculescu. By whom? "You'd have to ask Iliescu."
The implied accusation that Stanculescu makes 20 years later leads to the core question of the revolution. If the "terrorists" were invented or controlled by the Front leaders, the show trial of Ceausescu was unnecessary and the deaths of hundreds of innocent people were crimes for which the leaders of the coup should be held accountable.
Who were the "terrorists?" Ion Iliescu doesn't miss a beat. "They existed within the Securitate, the army and the special forces," he says, smiling the wise, unflinching smile that earned him the nickname "little grandmother." "Why should we have had to provoke these people? It wasn't necessary. It was the will of the people to get rid of the Ceausescus." General Stanculescu handled the details of the trial and execution. He says he wanted to be informed by the Front leadership as soon as they had agreed on how to proceed against Ceausescu's using his direct telephone line, extension 262. A code word had been arranged for the final preparations: "Apply the measure."
Stanculescu received the call to proceed on Dec. 24, 1989.
The next day military judges, prosecutors and attorneys were flown in helicopters, under a shroud of secrecy, to the barracks in Tirgoviste, where the Ceausescus had been held for the last three days. In addition to representatives of the National Salvation Front, which now ruled the country, General Stanculescu and Carlan, one of the three executioners, were also on board the helicopters.
"We flew at about 200 kilometers per hour, and only 10 to 30 meters above the ground, to avoid the radar," says Carlan. "After we had landed, Stanculescu mustered us in the barrack yard and asked: Do you know who is here? The Ceausescus. There will be an extraordinary military trial. If the verdict is the death penalty, which of you will be able to execute it?
All eight paratroopers assembled in the barrack yard volunteered. Stanculescu picked three men, calling them "thoroughbreds." "Thirty shots," he told the men. "Automatic fire."
The two bodies were wrapped in tarpaulins, flown to Bucharest by helicopter and buried separately at a cemetery in the city's Ghencea neighborhood. But the executions did nothing to dispel rumors about the secret show trial, the new rulers' true objectives and the "betrayed" revolution.
The key players in those December days in 1989, people whose lives intersected at a historic moment, would soon embark on separate paths in the new Romania.
Dinescu, the poet, established satirical magazines and was moderately successful in his campaign to expose the Securitate files. Speaking matter-of-factly, he likens his efforts to the act of stirring "a vat of hot tar with a toothpick." Today he runs a winery on 100 hectares along the banks of the Danube in the Wallachia region. He has sorted out the debris of his revolutionary dreams. Politics in Romania, he scoffs, is in the hands of "semi-illiterate people." "The slaves of days gone by have become the masters."
General Stanculescu became a businessman after 1989 and was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison for "manslaughter in a particularly serious case," during the deployment of the army in Timisoara. The press attacked him and his wife committed suicide. During an interview in September, Stanculescu reflected back on the historical events, saying: "It was a crazy time. I have no regrets."
Dorin Carlan continues to fight, unsuccessfully, to be appointed state secretary for revolutionary matters -- a recognition for his contribution to the overthrow that he believes is only fair.
"I was the executioner," says Carlan, "and the trial was a farce. But the verdict had been pronounced, and it had to be carried out. I was one who carried it out."