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.