Gunned down 30 years ago, a teenage girl lies in one of Romania’s graveyards, filled countrywide with over a thousand victims. They died in Europe’s bloodiest post-World-War-II internal conflict. The question remains: Why?23 December 2019
Raluca-Mihaela Salajan lies under a white marble slab in her home town in Romania’s far north. She was a bright student in a prestigious high school in Bucharest.
Aged 16 years 11 months and one day, in the afternoon of December 23 1989, a bullet ripped into her abdomen. Cradled in the arms of her boyfriend, 21-year-old student Marius Raica, she was rushed to hospital, but died the next day.
Marius told me he nearly caught them. He had tried to cling on to the skids under a military helicopter as it lifted the fleeing couple off the roof.
A few hours later the deposed leaders were locked up in a military base 100km north of the city. Amid continuing bloodshed back in Bucharest, both were executed at 2 15 pm on Christmas Day 1989.
By that time, several hundred demonstrators and fighters against what appeared to be a counter-revolution lay dead. All told, the death toll in the events leading up to and especially after the overthrow was in excess of 1,100.
Months later, on the orders of the new leadership, still seeking popular support, most of their bodies were gathered in one place for reburial.
That lack of popularity still exists today – questions linger about who or what was behind revolution’s orgy of violence… and why almost no-one has been told to account.
So there is a certain political and emotional underlay to the marking of the 30th anniversary of the Ceausescus’ overthrow.
Military bandsmen dressed in blue and gold laid a floral wreath at the cemetery. Inside the adjoining Catholic basilica priests and worshippers intoned hymns, next to a coffin-shaped box draped with the national colours and containing ‘holy earth’ from the graves.
Almost exactly thirty years ago I had been with Marius as he lit a candle and pinned a love poem on the branch of a nearby tree. We photographed him [photo above] at the precise spot where Raluca had been shot – in front of the military academy.
Marius had survived the conflict – unlike two other 21-year-olds whose young faces we can see carved on tombstones in the Cemetery of the Heroic Martyrs of the Revolution.
Under one of its marble slabs lies Daniel Constantin, whose inscription shows he was aged 21 years and nine months.
Another young victim of the same age is Nelu Olteanu.
Placing a candle on his grave, Nelu’s still-grieving mother Maria says the youngster was shot through the neck, from behind.
“We’ve given up trying to find out exactly what happened – despite decades of promises by the State that it would be fully investigated,” she told correspondent.world.
Only the day before, the country’s President Klaus Iohannis had told a commemoration ceremony making 30 years since the Ceausescus’ overthrow that the full truth behind the violent events still baffled the government.
“We want to know the truth about December 1989. We want the guilty to be judged and justice to be done,” the president said. He pledged to get to the bottom of it – eventually.
“I feel I should have died with the girl I loved,” Marius had told me a few days after Raluca’s death, as he placed a candle on the spot where she died.
A trail of her blood was still spattered on the paving stones where Marius had carried Raluca to what he had hoped would be safety from the bullets.
“I’ll never forget that look as her eyes met mine, when the bullet struck. She opened her mouth as though to cry for help – but no sound came out.
“I held her in my arms and stroked her face as the bullets kept whistling by.”
After Raluca was pronounced dead at the hospital, Marius had to phone her parents.
They blamed him for her death and banned him from the funeral.
“Her father said I had killed their little girl. They couldn’t forgive me for what happened to their daughter. And I can never forgive her murderers.
“When she died it was as though my soul had gone with her.
“My only wish was to die in battle and join Raluca. I went into the streets each day afterwards but somehow I survived.
“Now I want people to know the story of her death so they can understand what freedom has cost us.”
Thirty years later, that message seemed to resonate with two teenage boys who had come to the Cemetery of the Heroic Martyrs along with their father and their much younger brother.
“We have to remember them,” said 17-year-old Luca. “They’re important to us because they had an ideal and they fought for it.”
His younger brother, aged 13, added: “These people died for us and for our country.”
Still-grieving parents or widows interviewed there by correspondent.world said they were unsure that the sacrifice of their loved ones had been “worth it”.
They said they lamented rampant corruption in their country and resented control of politics and the economy by a handful of self-interested rulers.
But Luca was more positive.
“Each country has its problems,” said the 17-year-old.
“I think freedom is so important. I don’t think I could even have spoken to you at all openly like this in Ceausescu’s time.
“We should appreciate that this is a free country.”
If he is right then the several hundred in the Cemetery of the Martyred Heroes may not have died in vain.