The Sun Always Rises at Dawn

I was a soldier in the Romanian army for 6 months. I was supposed to remain a soldier for 9 months, but a series of events made this experience much shorter. It happened exactly 20 years ago and today I’m going to tell you how these events changed my life. And the lives of other 22 millions people.

Please keep in mind that this post is rather long and it’s something personal.

December 16th, 1989

By that time, I was already in the army for 2 months. During October and November we did regular training and sometime around December we took the traditional oath. To serve the country, the supreme commander and so on. If you don’t know, in December 1989, Romania was still a communist country. And every soldier was supposed to defend the supreme commander, a ruthless and obsessive dictator, Ceausescu, by his name.

I couldn’t say the army was difficult until that day. We were “TR” (which came from “termen redus” or reduced period) meaning we all took the university exam: we were students. And students had a reduced military term, only 9 months, compared to the standard 21 months. Basically, next year, we had to continue our education: some of us were at the faculty of Letters (yours truly included) while some of us were at the Law school. We had a little bit of a comfort, bearing the fact that we were all potential “contributors” to our commanders.

Going to University in communism was either a matter of being rich (to pay for extra teaching hours or to bribe the teachers) either a matter of extreme hard work. My family wasn’t rich, to straight this out. Anyway, because we already took the exams for the University we were considered officers and had a different training. Suffice to say that until that December 16th we had the chance to fire every weapon allowed in our specific training (which was called “research and diversion” or “guerilla infantry with missions on the enemy territory”, as we were often called). We knew how to fire a “normal” machine gun as well as a grenade launcher or a high precision riffle.

December 16th was the scheduled day for the only war mission during peace we were supposed to have, which was guarding the facility perimeter. It was the only occasion (a part from firing exercises) when we were allowed to carry real ammunition. And to fire our guns if any suspicious person would have break the perimeter.

We started in the afternoon. I was in the first shift and I remember we had to go to our posts at 3 PM. We had 3 hours watch, 3 hours free time and 3 hours sleep. That was the normal schedule. My post was number 13 at the ammunition depot. Nothing really interesting happened during our service and we took the time to do a little field research, to measure the distance between our posts and to establish some coded signals. We had two whistles: one for everything is ok, that we should do every 15 minutes, and one for “we are under attack”, which we really hoped we’ll never use. After all, because we were TR, we only had to do facility guarding only for 3 days and nothing could happen in only 3 days, right?

After the first 3 hours we did an inspection on all the other posts of the facility and get back to the head quarters. I remembered I lied down and tried to sleep a little before the next shift, which had to start at 9 PM. But around 8:30 PM I heard some noises. A few trucks were leaving the unit. Inside I could spot some of the soldiers in the adjacent units. Our commander, a guy we used to call “Black Jim”, because of the color of his skin and very his popular propensity for whisky, told us: “There’s something happening in the city. I was afraid of that”. His skin wasn’t black anymore, but rather pale.

At 9PM, I entered my post. It was getting colder. There was a trench around my post and after a few minutes I went down letting only my head rising at the soil level. Around 10PM, only one hour after I entered my second shift, the guy who was supposed to change me at midnight came in. “They’re doubling the guards, said, there’s something going on in the city”.

December 17th, 1989

Somehow, that night I stayed in the trenches until morning. We had our whistles every 15 minutes and nothing happened. When we went for breakfast, at 6 AM, our colleagues were already there. They acclaimed and called us “heroes”. I didn’t understand. Many of them were pale, the same color as Black Jim. After we sat at the table, some whispers started to flow around. “There are problems”, “They will going to double the shifts again”. What they could possibly double, I thought, we were already doing 6 hours guard and 3 hours sleep. Which reminded me I didn’t sleep at all in the last 24 hours.

When we went to the headquarters we met a lot of new guys, mostly officers. There were short orders and a lot of movement. All I wanted was to sleep. Black Jim came again and told us we have to go to our posts again. We didn’t have more than one and half hour since we left them. Nobody was telling anything to anybody. We went to the post and for the first time I had a very familiar feeling when I went down in the trench. Somehow, that felt cozy.

During the day, nobody came to the ammunition depot to give us more news. Nobody came to change us, either. At noon, we saw a few tanks leaving the facility. Tanks? What the hell are they doing with tanks? We never saw tanks outside the unit until that day. Shortly after, a guy came and tell us to go take our lunch. We did and the facility looked empty. I tried to understand where were all the soldiers and couldn’t came up with a logical answer.

After lunch, we went back to the post. I started to feel more “at home” in the trenches than in our bedroom our the guard head quarters. All I was thinking was “I am only one and a half day until this thing will end. It’s only 3 days. It will end after one and a half day”. After dark, maybe at 7 or 8 PM, an officer came and told us the “local exercise alarm” was on. He didn’t use those words, but a military code. A local exercise alarm was serious. Very serious.

We had to go back to the facility and get more ammunition. Normally, we were doing our guarding mission with only 5 bullets. Now we could take at least 4 loaders, each with 30 bullets. What the heck am I going to do with 120 bullets, I was thinking. We came back in the ammunition depots in 30 minutes. And it was then when I just heard the first shootings. They cam from the town. Sometimes, I could easily see the light and the sound came one or two seconds after. They were shooting in Timisoara.

I will always remember that feeling: a deep, unavoidable grotesque emotion mixed with a very practical attitude: “Ok, they can’t shoot us here, it’s at least 4-5 kilometers from town”. Why they were shooting? Who? Why was the local exercise alarm triggered?

During the night, another officer came and let us know that the national exercise alarm was on (another military code, of course). Until morning, there was also a local alarm (like in a local, real, alarm) and then, in the morning, the general alarm.

December 18th, 1989

That morning, I was happy to be alive. The shooting went on until 2 or 3 AM. Around 5 AM it started to rain. Years later, they said that rain was there to wash the blood. We didn’t know about the blood, we only know that it was raining in December. Now I was pretty sure it won’t end in just 1 day. A number of times I started to wonder why this was happening to me. But then it got too busy to have time to wonder anything.

When we got back in the facility that morning, trying to have some breakfast, it was like chaos already. Trucks filled with soldiers, ammunition all over the place and Black Jim taking us apart and whispering: “The password is changed, guys. From now on the password is: instead of my mom crying, better his mom.” I couldn’t understand what he was telling, but then I realized: shoot anyone who might be dangerous, shoot to kill. It was war.

I think I spent a few hours wandering around through the facility (nobody had no idea about what was to be done and almost everybody was moving from one building to another chaotically). I tried to understand what was going on. Who shoot who? What was the meaning of “trouble” in the town? A few officers told me that it was an invasion and we had to go to the Hungarian border. Others told me there were a bunch of hooligans devastating stores. And others were looking through me and told me nothing.

I remember that during the day I took as many bullets as I wanted. Took the time to take out my gas mask and filled the bag with bullets. As a precaution. I think I had around 200 bullets with me. And I also replaced the semicircle, standard loader, with a machine gun loader (also called “drum loader”) with 45 bullets in it. It was the only way I was feeling a little secure. The whole world seemed to collapse and although I knew, rationally, that if I will be hit no bullet will save my life, just packing myself with guns gave me a strange feeling of security.

Somehow, the people with whom I shared my post were changed. When I went back to the post, around 2 PM, I was with a new guy. He wasn’t a TR and he was into town the other night. He didn’t speak for a few hours and then, after dark, started to talk continuously. I listened for hours. It was about his life, about his girlfriend and about the way he will live his life after what he saw and did the other night. “Brains are pink, you know that? Human brains are pink, now I know that” was just one of the sentences he kept whispering until the next day morning.

December 19th, 1989

That day was supposed to be the last one from our guarding service. But instead, we were confined in the ammunition depot and we weren’t allowed to go to the facility anymore, not even for lunch. There was a mobile cooking service installed and they were giving us food on the spot. It was war.

Usually, in the ammunition depot were only 6 people: 4 fixed in each corner, and 2 mobiles, patrolling on the longer sides. Now we were at least 30. Nobody knew what was really happening and all we could do was making assumptions. Nobody was really bold enough to think it was a revolution. Or if it was, we were so afraid and brain washed by the system, that we were actually frightened for the people who started it. They couldn’t stand a chance, we thought. The system was too powerful. They will be killed.

Now we knew that we were not going to the Hungarian border and all we had to do was to guard the ammunition depot. In my mind I drew a line between the ammunition depot and the outside world. I had my gun, I had the bullets and I had a few months ahead me in which my world would be only that ammunition depot. I was prepared to stay there for as long as it takes. The outside reality could take care of itself for a while, I’m not interested anymore. Projecting a reality confined to the ammunition depot, as terrifying as it may have sounded, was the only way to keep my mind working.

My world collapsed. In the ammunition depot, time was flowing differently. From time to time we heard noises from the city and during the night we could see some lights. Maybe they were shooting again, maybe it was only a tram at a crossroad, leaving sparkles behind. From time to time, we could also hear real bullets around us. Close. Really close. A sharp, distinct noise.

It was my third day in a row without sleep.

December 20th, 21st 1989

I don’t remember any normal flow of actions during those 2 days. Just separated events. And I know I was in the ammunition depot all time, without sleeping.

One of these nights we were surrounded by tanks. I think there were at least 20. An officer came and told us that a tanks unit will take position around the ammunition depot. They were there to protect us. Black, noisy and incredibly powerful tanks. One of them wanted to take a shortcut through the depot but one of our colleagues stood up. He actually fired his gun and the tank had to stop and take a detour. Confusion. Weeks later, my colleague was acclaimed as a hero.

Another event: I had a perimeter break up. I followed the procedure: shouted “Stop! Who are you? Stop or I’ll shoot!”. Nobody answered. I could clearly see the shadows of two men at around 50 meters from me, coming from the town. The second they heard me, they were down. Although it was dark, I could pretty much identify their location, even after they went down, so, after I fired one warning in the air, I aimed for that place. And shoot. And then I waited. In 30 seconds, a silhouette popped out of nothing 1 meter from me. It was a captain I knew from our facility: “Good boys, he told me. Don’t let anyone get near this depot”. The other silhouette popped in a few seconds, near the captain. He was a telecommunication soldier, carrying a radio station. “We thought you might need a radio station here, he told me, but now I see that nobody will get closer to this place. You don’t need it.”. “Why didn’t you answer when I asked who you are?” I asked. “I didn’t know you were talking to us”, answered the captain after a few moments. In the dark of the night I could see he was pale. Same color as Black Jim. Confusion. More confusion.

And yet another event: in one of these morning we found one of our colleagues sleeping in a dog house. On each sides of the depot there were guarding dogs. One of the dogs gave birth to a bunch of puppies. Our colleague was so tired that he took the puppies out, put his legs into the dog house and fell asleep. It was warm inside.

At some point, I saw a truck circling around the depot. I didn’t eat for 2 days and didn’t sleep for 5. I thought it would be a good time to go grab something to eat. I stopped the truck, got in and hoped it would leave me somewhere near our facility, preferably the kitchen. I was right. When I was close to the kitchen, I jumped out and recognized another 2 colleagues who were looking for food too. We ate silently and then split: they went back to the depot and I went to the infirmary. While eating I saw my face in a mirror: it was swallowed and red. I felt “good” but my face didn’t look good at all.

The doctor said something about not getting back to the post and putting me under observaton. I didn’t remember exactly what he said about my problem, but I promised I will be back if he let me change my clothes. He gave my a handful of pills, told me to take them immediately and that he will make the paperwork to take me out of the guarding service. I went back to our bedroom and threw away the pills.

Our bedroom was changed. There were officers I didn’t see before sleeping in half of our beds and some of them were listening to a radio. Fortunately, my bed wasn’t taken so I put my riffle under the pillow, lied down and fell asleep in less than a second.

December 22th, 1989

I woke up with an incredible feeling of happiness. Somehow, this feeling had something to do with the fact that I was still alive. The bedroom was empty now, I was the only one there. Took my riffle, went down to the facility yard, made a detour to avoid the infirmary and headed towards my post. After one dinner and a 7 hours sleep I was feeling reborn. I was actually eager to get my post back.

It was a sunny morning and, somehow, the depot was almost empty. My post was also empty and I felt good when I went down in the trench. I think I was continuing to feel that strange morning sensation for hours, that incredible happiness, because I don’t remember anything spectacular between morning and noon.

All I remember was that at noon, one of my friends came running, throwing away his helmet and babbling something indescribably. It was only after a few minutes that I understand what he was telling: “Ceausescu is running away. We don’t have a dictator no more”. He looked happy.

From that day on, my life – and the life of other 22 millions people – changed dramatically. I was to be relieved from service way sooner than I thought: instead of 9 months, I was to serve only 6. All my mental preparation for a longer war was blown away. In a few weeks, the military events were completely finished. And that was only the first change. Some things went for the better, some for the worse, but truth is those 6 days and 5 nights in the ammunition depot were fundamental for my life. Something really important happened to me. 20 years later, I still don’t know how to define it.

But that day, at noon, while looking at my friend’s babbling, I knew that I was finally getting over the biggest challenge of my life.

And I knew that I will never be afraid again. I also knew, in a short but explosive sparkle of understanding, that everything that was perishable, feeble, temporary and destructible in my being, died completely during that week.

If I was still alive after those days, I knew I will never really die.

And that was as true as the fact that the sun always rises at dawn.

28 thoughts on “The Sun Always Rises at Dawn”

  1. Pingback: 3 Life Lessons
  2. Great story, Dragos. Wow. Our lives are so precious and yet so unpredictable. It can be gone in an instant. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. (I found it through your 7 links post!)

  3. Wow Dragos.
    That was Awesome. I read it and was captivated the entire time. I stumbled upon a post where you mentioned staying up for that amount of time and wondered what was going on, but wow, that was intense.

    Great reading and a really well told story.

    Keep it comin,
    .-= Ryan M Hall´s last blog ..The Power of Letting Go – A Sedona Method Test =-.

  4. Wow, I read it in “one breath”. Fascinating.

    I was only 10, but I remember the events on Dec 22 quite clearly. I was playing in the street (in the village where I grew up) and I went to the house to ask for some water. The radio was on and my mother and my aunt were talking something and then suddenly the “normal” radio stops and someone’s voice booms: “Brothers, we have won! The dictator ran away!”

    It was the first time I heard that word, “dictator”, I didn’t know what it meant. I could see that my mother and my aunt were afraid and glad at the same time. They told me not to go play in the street any more 🙂 or, if I do, I should say nothing about it.

    Great story Dragos.
    .-= Gec´s last blog ..Loyalty Is Overrated =-.

  5. Sitting here in my nice warm apartment in Bucharest it’s hard to appreciate the changes that happened 20 years ago. Even harder because I was ‘on the other side’ of the iron curtain and Romania seemed like a world away as I was watching the news from my nice warm apartment in UK.

    And even harder … because the news only shows the big things. The execution of a dictator, a large number of people killed, famous people, infamous people. It doesn’t allow us to touch the personal stories. Those caught up in the events who’s stories are the real ones. The millions of souls affected.

    Thanks so much for sharing this slice of history and slice of your history.
    .-= Ian | Quantum Learning´s last blog ..Surviving Christmas =-.

  6. In order to know where you’re going, I have to know where you’ve been. So Thank you so very much for telling me.
    .-= Ericka´s last blog ..Now That’s a Big Bird =-.

  7. Thank you for this story. A post like this and the real life glimpse it provides into your life is exactly why I follow blogs such as yours.
    .-= Earl´s last blog ..Stop A Wastin’ Time in the Pursuit of Blame =-.

  8. Hi Dragos, that was a fantastic story. I love these personal stories where I get to know my fellow bloggers a little better. Makes you seem more real. I was lucky enough to be born late enough (1961) that by the time I hit 18 we no longer had a compulsory draft and there were no wars an longer. Vietnam was over. I remember the break up of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European communism as world-changing events. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s it was hard to imagine those days would actually come.

    Thanks for sharing this!
    .-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..Using Your Whole Mind – Book Review =-.

  9. I’m fortunate enough to live in a country, and time, where war is either part of history or only evident in the news from overseas. It’s amazing how our world has changed in less than a lifetime. Lets hope those still oppressed get the same opportunity. Thanks for sharing,

  10. I never get tired reading first-hand reports of people who were serving in the RA at that time. I’ve worked for years with Mirabilis and Mr. Roua and never knew the origins of his never fading ironical smile… Now I know: from listening to ramblings about the colour of brains, to delivering weather reports via WAP, there’s room enough for ironical smiling.

  11. I was 7 when those nights came. I remember watching the TV as Ceausescu gave his speech on the balcony, when people started boo-ing, and ran to the kitchen saying:
    “Mommy, mommy, something is wrong! People are boo-ing! They’re not supposed to do that!”
    I remember some months – years? – ago I had told my parents one day “But Ceausescu is stupid, isn’t he?” and my mom quickly said “Shh! Don’t ever say this to anyone! It’s dangerous!”

    I had just been made “pioneer” for 2 months. It seemed like such a big thing, wearing that red scarf around my neck.
    In that night – 21 of December – my father went into town with other men from the factory. And my mom and I were keeping the lights out. We saw lights in the woods and heard gun shots.
    We were wondering if my father was still alive.
    Then we went to sleep with our neighbors, because we were afraid to be alone. I remember having a blanket around me, in the pitch dark house, and hearing the gun shots. All other lights in the surrounding blocks were turned off.

    Everything was so confusing, yet we felt the change that was going on around us.
    I was impressed by the way you told your story, Dragos.

    Please make sure you translate it into Romanian and spread it around. I believe many of the people who have experienced those nights will be touched by it.
    .-= Maria´s last blog ..Business – Random Promotions =-.

  12. “And I knew that I will never be afraid again. I also knew, in a short but explosive sparkle of understanding, that everything that was perishable, feeble, temporary and destructible in my being, died completely during that week.
    If I was still alive after those days, I knew I will never really die.
    And that was as true as the fact that the sun always rises at dawn.”

    I love that you could take something so powerful from it. I’ve been watching bits and pieces on CNN lately about the revolution. It’s one I didn’t know much about before.

    Thank you for sharing you piece of history with us!
    .-= Gordie´s last blog ..How To Use Goals, Autosuggestion, Commitment And Consistency. =-.


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