Freedom 101 ~ Claudia Serea

“Romanian brothers, we are under attack! I repeat: we are under heavy attack! We are being fired upon by unknown hostiles. We need help! Come to the areas of conflict to defend the Revolution, to defend our hard-earned freedoms!”

Many Romanians heard this call in December 1989. The Romanian Revolution was raging, and it was broadcast live on the public TV station. The shooting started the evening of December 22, after Ceausescu fled the capital in a helicopter. Until December 22, we knew he was the one responsible for the bloodshed. Starting with that evening, the so-called “terrorists” were blamed. Twenty years later, still no one knows their identity.

I was on winter break from college in my hometown of Târgoviste, spending the holidays with my family. I was twenty, and my brother was sixteen. We both watched the events in Bucharest on my parents’ old, black and white TV.

“We are free, Romanian brothers, free!” the people shouted in front of the cameras, making victory signs. My brother and I embraced, cried, and jumped for joy.

The Romanian Revolution on national TV was the ultimate reality show. We were glued to the TV screen. For the first time, we saw live, chaotic images of people of various backgrounds crowding the small TV studio, trying to make their way, physically and electronically, to us, the country’s audience. Unscripted, unrehearsed, it was a freedom of speech spectacle.

The television staff apologized for the years of lies and censorship. Victor Rebengiuc, a well-known actor, came into the studio and offered a toilet paper roll, recommending to the news anchors to wipe their mouths before speaking of freedom.

Former members of the nomenclature declared their innocence. Others presented themselves as the new leaders. Dissidents denounced the years of persecution and called for unity and a change of regime. Young men with scruffy beards and wrinkled clothes addressed the cameras in the name of the martyrs already fallen in the street fights. The footage spread quickly across national and continental borders, a live image of the fall of the Communism. Communism was over. We had seen it on TV.


Târgoviste was a quiet town, a mix of historic buildings and socialist-gray apartment blocks. But in December 1989, the town suddenly became alive. The central square was the site of an exhilarating celebration. Large crowds demonstrated against the Communist regime in front of the white County’s Party Committee building. People climbed on top of cars and cheered while the drivers drove around, honking. My brother and I mingled with the crowd, happy to be part of this huge tide.

A wave of enthusiastic destruction swept the town. People threw Ceausescu’s portraits out the windows. From building tops, other groups dismantled and tore apart the metal slogans that read “Long live the Romanian Communist Party.” Propaganda materials, banners, and books were gathered in the street and set on fire. Grown people acted like kids, dancing and thrashing away all traces of the Communist past. They even cut out the Communist symbols from the red-yellow-blue flags, leaving big holes in the middle, and waved them high.

“We love you, freedom,/ Either we win you,/ or we die trying” chanted the crowd, followed by “We are not going home/ we are not leaving/until we have won our freedom.” They started singing “Romanians Awake,” a patriotic song banned since 1947. The song gave me chills. It called for action against the tyranny and instantly became the national anthem and a staple of the revolution:

 Awaken, thee, Romanian, shake off the deathly slumber

Into which you’ve been sunk by a barbaric tyranny.

Now or never to a bright horizon climb

That shall to shame put all your enemies.

Night came, lit by fires and songs. That’s when I heard the first gunshots, around the town’s steel plant and the local army base. The rumor machine, which functioned so well during the Communist regime, proved useful again, amplified by frightening reports on TV and radio of thousands of victims of the “terrorists” loyal to Ceausescu.

In Bucharest, attacks were reported at the TV and radio buildings, the central telephone building, the international airport, government buildings, the Ministry of Defense, train stations, and many other locations. The events were grossly exaggerated. Guerilla fighters, dressed in black jumpsuits and wearing night-vision goggles, swarmed the capital in the dark. There were reports of sniper attacks, air strikes, and commandos. The water treatment plants were under attack, they said, so the population shouldn’t drink the water; it might be poisoned. “Stay inside, lights off. Cover your windows with blankets.” It was total chaos.

In Târgoviste, there were rumors that some of the revolutionaries had freed the criminals from the county militia station and that the local army unit, where the Ceausescu couple was being held, was under heavy attack. Anti-air artillery and war ammunition were used against phantom targets. The air was thick with confusion and fear. That’s when the call to arms was given.

“Romanian brothers, we are under attack! We need help! Come to the areas of conflict to defend the Revolution!” Even Ion Iliescu, a second-tier activist who emerged as the revolution’s political leader, went on air and asked the citizens to volunteer in the areas of conflict. A young man with a couple-of-days-old beard and a desperate look in his eyes followed:

“Romanian brothers, students from around the country! Come back to our campuses! Come back to our universities! We need your help to guard the schools against looting and terrorists! We need your help to guard our freedoms!”

I felt as if he said: “Claudia, leave your home and volunteer at your college.” I didn’t know how, or what exactly I was supposed to do, just that I needed to go there.

When I announced to my parents that I had decided to go to Bucharest and help at my school, they were stunned; but they didn’t try to stop me. They just got that worried look in their eyes. They were thinking of the images on TV showing Bucharest as a city at war. But I wasn’t thinking of danger. I was excited and wanted to participate in the most important event of my life. My younger brother was jealous that I got to go and he had to stay at home.

I wanted to leave for Bucharest right away. My mother thought otherwise.

“No one in their right mind would be at school on Christmas day,” she said. “Let’s celebrate Christmas together. After that, you can go.”


I don’t remember having a Christmas tree or gifts that year. We spent Christmas afternoon waiting for the broadcast of the trial and execution of the Ceausescu couple. They kept announcing it would be broadcast live in a few moments. The moments turned into minutes, then into half an hour, an hour. Nothing happened.

“We apologize for the delay,” the news anchor kept repeating. “The live broadcast will begin in a few minutes.”

Time flowed in slow motion while we waited on our living room couch, as did everyone else across the country. The news anchor said several more times that the broadcast was about to begin. Then, we found out that the tape of the trial had been flown to Bucharest from Târgoviste and was being edited. For the first time in days, I felt something was not right, that we weren’t being trusted with the truth.

Finally, the broadcast began. The dictator couple was escorted out from an armored military vehicle into a small room with tables and chairs inside the barracks. They looked tired, old, and surprisingly human. Elena Ceausescu wore a coat with a brown fur collar that looked like a dead animal around her neck. Nicolae Ceausescu had a scruffy beard and spoke in a guttural voice. He kept looking at his watch. Was someone supposed to come and save them? He waived his hand and kept saying that he would talk only in front of the National Assembly.

The prosecutor accused them of genocide, of killing 60,000 people, of undermining the national economy and starving an entire nation. Hardly any evidence was presented, but they were swiftly sentenced to death by the military tribunal.

The short trial was over. The couple was escorted to a non-descript wall in the yard of the military barracks. Gunshots followed, but the tape didn’t show the firing squad, or the couple being shot. We saw only the bullet-ridden wall, the cracked cement pavement, and their bodies with dark stains behind their heads. With their limbs in awkward positions, they looked like rag puppets. We watched as one of the men checked the bodies to make sure they were dead.


“How long will you stay?”

“As long as I need, Mom. Most likely, a few days.”

“What will you do there?”

“Help with anything needed. Volunteer at the school.”

“What will you eat?”

“I’ll find something to eat. I’ll buy bread.”

“Where will you sleep?”

“I have the key to the dorm room. I could even sleep in the classroom, on the benches.”

“Be careful if you decide to sleep in the dorm. Strange people might be roaming about.”

She had a worried, inquisitive look in her eyes. I acted as confident as I could.

“I’ll be careful, Mom,” I said. “I won’t be alone. I’ll stay together with the students, with the other girls.”

“If you run into trouble, call home. Father will come to pick you up.”

I embraced her, and she held me tightly in her arms.


On December 26, my father drove me to the train station in his white Skoda car. We didn’t talk much. As usual, I was intimidated by his serious face, his piercing eyes.

It had snowed and the air smelled clean and cold. The ground was lightly covered, and there was a thin layer of mud on the sidewalk. My father parked the car in the lot behind the train station. From the nearby park, I could hear the crows. A light breeze moved the treetops and the branches carried what looked like black fruits: black clusters of crows. We went inside to get my ticket.

Târgoviste’s train station is about 100 years old. It’s a red brick building with brown tile floors, a tin roof, and high glass ceilings over the platform, with nooks full of pigeons. The small ticket windows are behind forged iron bars. The waiting room is dark, with wood benches worn smooth and polished by the travelers’ bodies.

A few people were waiting. Two women, dressed completely in black, with head kerchiefs covering their hair, chatted quietly. I thought they might be mothers or relatives of shooting victims, traveling to Bucharest for funerals. Further back, an unshaven man in brown work clothes slept across the benches. A gypsy woman came in, carrying a dirty raffia sack full of empty bottles. She wore a long, flowered skirt and a copper coin necklace. Leaving the sack by the door, she went toward the two women to beg for money.

“Let’s wait outside,” my father said. “The train is leaving soon.”


Growing up, I was never close to my father. It was hard to find something to talk about that wouldn’t turn into a lecture on his part, or into embarrassment on my part. I was surprised when he started talking as soon as we got to the train platform.

“Claudia, there is something I want to tell you. Bucharest is an unsafe city now. I hear there are groups of civilians that search the cars and patrol the streets looking for terrorists. They might be armed, but you shouldn’t be afraid.” He stopped, trying to find words that wouldn’t scare me.

“If anyone stops you and asks you for identity papers, show them this.” He handed me a folded sheet, yellowed by time.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s a copy of my sentence to political prison,” my father said, pausing. “I didn’t think the day would come to talk to you openly about this,” he continued.

I was stunned. I had known for years he had been imprisoned in his youth for political reasons, but he always avoided talking about it when my brother and I were present. He was afraid we would mention it to friends and someone would report us. Being associated with anyone known as an enemy of the regime was a dangerous thing. Better keep everything secret. Better not to know the truth.

My father even forbade my grandmother to ever mention to us anything that happened in the 1950s. When we were old enough to understand, she told us some of the facts anyway.

I unfolded the paper and glanced at it. My hands were shaking, and I couldn’t read it. All I could see was the official stamp on top that read “People’s Republic of Romania” and, underneath, “The Craiova Military Tribunal.” I felt a claw in my throat.

My father tried to maintain his composure, but his voice was emotional:

“Be careful with it; it’s an important document. It will prove to anyone that your family fought against the Communists.” Another pause. Then, he continued:

“This paper shows your family’s true identity.”

My train to Bucharest was announced over the loudspeakers. We crossed the tracks with wood beams that smelled of petroleum and walked to the second platform, where the train waited. I didn’t know what to say.

“I have to go now, Daddy,” I muttered. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be okay.”

“Good. You do that,” he answered. We embraced and he kissed my hair.

“I’ll be home for New Year’s Eve,” I said, climbing the car’s steps.


The train ride to Bucharest is about an hour long by express and two hours with the local, going south. The local train stops in every village along the way. I like riding the express with its old-fashioned compartments, sliding doors and burgundy vinyl seats. It’s unmistakably romantic to sit by the window and look at the empty fields dotted by lone trees, listening to the noise and cadence of the wheels in full speed.

I turned my eyes to the yellowed paper in my hands.

“Sentence Nr. 297

The public sentencing from July 28, 1958

The Craiova Military Tribunal”

My father was born in September 1939. He was little over 18 years old when he was arrested in January 1958. A young boy, a civilian, judged and sentenced by a military tribunal. His nineteenth birthday would find him in political prison. 19, I thought, a year younger than I was.

He was accused of writing poems hostile to the Communist regime and of reading them to his family, of being a dangerous individual, part of the conspiracy led by my grandfather. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. My grandfather was sentenced to 25. My two other uncles were imprisoned, too. My grandparents’ property, house, and belongings were confiscated. All of this happened because my grandfather didn’t give up his land to the state.

My grandparents’ family was the victim of a widespread wave of violence against the peasants that took place between 1958 and 1962, when the Communist regime forced completion of the collectivization, the nationalization of the land that had started in 1949. Countrywide, tens of thousands were imprisoned for similar reasons, and the private property of middle class peasants shrunk from 44.7% in 1958 to 3.5% in 1962.

Gone are the coffee, oil, and flour,

The wheat is nowhere to be seen,

Poor, dear Romanian country

The Russian People set you free!

My father recited these lines on rare occasions, after drinking too many glasses of homemade wine. It was the poem that sent him to prison. His notebook was found by the secret police when they searched my grandparents’ house. Most of his poems were written while Romania was still under soviet occupation after WWII. The Red Army retreated in 1958, but it left behind a regime at war with its own people.

1958, the year that marked a turning point in my father’s life. 31 years later, another turning point: 1989.

The train had stopped in the field, waiting for a signal. Outside my window, a barren tree stretched its branches, without a single leaf to hold against the cold wind.


When I got off, I noticed the soldiers right away, dressed in full combat gear. They were everywhere, patrolling the platforms, individually or in groups, watching the travelers. Heads down, the two women dressed in black passed me, making their way through the crowd on the platform. Side by side, their shoulders seemed to share an invisible weight.

Bucharest’s North Station (Gara de Nord) was busy and bustling. Built by the Strousberg Franchise between 1868 and 1870, the North Station was opened to the public in November 1870. It originally had six lines and a central building guarded by two towers. In 1896, the entrance became The Royal Salon, created for the visits that the King of Austria, Franz Joseph, and the King of Serbia, Alexandru Obrenovici, paid to the King of Romania.

Little was left from these glamorous times. The hallways and waiting rooms were cold and dim, crowded with peasants who carried large sacks filled with bread. In the 1980s, there were severe food shortages in Romania. Bread was rationed everywhere except in the capital. The peasants from the villages surrounding Bucharest commuted often to buy bread for their families and to feed the pigs they raised.

Several times over the years, the station was rebuilt and expanded. The number of lines increased to 16. In 1932, the main entrance was finished in neo-classic style, with exterior columns and three big doors.


I passed through those columns in a river of people that spilled into the surrounding streets paved with cobblestone and crowded by trolleys, taxis, tramcars, luggage, passengers and pigeons.

I smelled smoke in the air. The buildings in the North Station neighborhood had a after-bombardment look: smoldering, disfigured by bullet holes, broken windows, debris everywhere. The people hurried about with worried looks on their faces. Outside the North Station, groups of armed civilians and soldiers stopped the cars to search the trunks and ID the drivers. A couple of young men were distributing free newspapers to the small crowd gathered behind a truck. I took one. The headline said: “They died for our freedom.”

The Polizu Complex is a short walk from the North Station. Built in 1884, it housed The National School of Roads and Bridges before becoming the home of the Polytechnic Institute. From the old Polytechnic, only the School of Industrial Chemistry was left here. All the other schools had been moved to a newer location on the banks of the river Dambovita.

Polizu is a maze of century-old three-story buildings joined by narrow passageways that never see the sunlight. Its impressive architecture always made me feel small and insignificant. By contrast, the skinned-off walls and weed-infested interior yard were a bizarre sight, a cross between Twin Peaks and Jane Eyre. One could get lost in its arches and tight alleys, which is what happened to me the first time I went to find out if I had been admitted to college.

It was 9 p.m. on a July night. My mom and I walked around for hours without finding the entrance. We were tired of circling the dark Polizu neighborhood of crumbling houses. Dogs barked at us from behind fences. We asked some women having tea on a balcony. They didn’t understand what we were looking for, or maybe they were just too old to care or deaf.

Finally, we found our way to a building in the back of the complex. The results were posted on one of the tall windows, behind wrought iron bars. I climbed up, and saw my name among the 400 others who had been accepted for the next student year. I jumped down and embraced my mom.

“Now don’t get married right away, like I did,” she said, lifting me in her arms.


The gates were open, and Polizu looked like a fortress abandoned in a hurry. I walked inside its walls, hoping to see someone I knew. Building A had the door open, but it looked deserted. My steps echoed on the checkerboard floors, and I expected to see someone behind every column. I heard voices and followed them toward the main auditorium.

I was surprised to see fewer students than I had imagined, maybe 12 people. I didn’t know most of them. I joined a small group where I spotted two colleagues who lived in Bucharest. They were glad to see me. I was the only one from outside Bucharest who had showed up. I felt a little embarrassed to explain why I was there:

“I came because I thought you needed help,” I said.

They were talking about the shooting victims they knew: students from our school or from other schools in the city, neighbors, friends, or their parents’ acquaintances. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who had been shot or hurt.

I knew some details from the media, but to hear my colleagues’ first-hand accounts was shocking. I cried as I heard about the high-school students who died before December 22 and the heavy fighting that took place in the following days and nights in Bucharest’s downtown.

For the first time I learned of a harrowing incident that happened at Bucharest’s international airport, Otopeni, where 48 soldiers sent to defend it were mistaken for terrorists and killed in friendly fire. There were casualties in all the areas of conflict. Few terrorists were captured or killed. Nobody knew who they were, only that they attacked mainly at night.

“How are we gonna guard Polizu against terrorists?” asked Cristina, a red-haired girl with a lot of freckles and a mouth with pouted lips that always seemed to be saying “Oh.”  “Did you guys think about that?”

None of us knew how to answer her question.

“We’ll find a way,” said Crina, the only one among us who was married. “Maybe the soldiers from the North Station will help.”

“Let’s talk to the other guys,” I said, pointing to the group behind us. “We’ll figure it out together.”

More students arrived, some from Bucharest, some from other towns. Now we were over twenty people, including a handful of guys. The door opened, and Stefan entered the room.

He was very tall, with a wide smile and huge hands. He was one of the few men in our class, and he had no trouble getting noticed or being liked, which is why he had been elected as leader of the Communist Students’ Union, the party youth organization into which everyone was automatically enrolled once admitted into college.

Stefan had a talent to congeal any gathering around him. After catching up with the ladies, he looked around and said:

“So, what are we waiting for? Down with Ceausescu!”

From the wall of the auditorium, Ceausescu’s one-ear portrait was looking at us. Stefan and a couple of guys tried to knock it down. Stefan climbed on a chair and used a broomstick to push it. We cheered and laughed as the portrait came crashing down. He jumped on it from the chair and others helped shred it to pieces.

“Let’s search the school for other portraits!” he yelled. “We can make a nice bonfire with them.” He left with a couple of guys. They returned shortly carrying smashed portraits, a red flag, a banner, and some books.

“Burn them! Burn them!” the group shouted.

“No, no, take it outside!” a girl spoke up. “We don’t want to burn down the school!”

“That wouldn’t be such a bad idea,” grinned one guy. In the interior yard, we made a mound of all the propaganda materials, and Crina lit the fire with her lighter.

“Down with Communism!” yelled Stefan, taking out his red Party membership card. He ripped it apart and threw the pieces into the flames. Everyone tossed their Union cards into the fire. The flames reached higher and higher as they burned through the papers. Excitement illuminated our faces. The ritualistic burning of the Communist past was a staple of the new, unknown era that had begun.

I threw my card, too, into the fire. I never liked that picture anyway.

We went back talking all at once. We couldn’t agree what to do next. Someone said: “We need to organize ourselves.”

“Yeah,” said Stefan, “let’s make a new students’ association. Enough with the Communist crap. Let’s make a list of demands, too.” That sounded great, everyone was demanding many things these days.

Back in the auditorium, we made a list of demands of the new students’ association. We wanted radical changes. We asked for the dismissal of the dean and all the teachers who were Communist Party members. We wanted a complete reform of the academic structures and demanded to have a say in the curriculum taught in school. We decided to send our document to the Ministry of Education, maybe even read it live on TV the next day. We wanted to freeze the academic year and not take any exams until our demands were met. All of us signed the petition, and each of us contributed 10 lei to the new students’ fund.

We wanted to elect Stefan as our new leader, but he refused:

“It has to be someone who wouldn’t be associated with the Communists,” he said. I admired him for stepping aside. We finally decided to hold a bigger meeting once the other students were back from vacation and that we’d elect the new leaders then.

“Let’s talk about guarding the school,” said Cristina. “That’s why we came here in the first place.”

“We have to talk to the soldiers at the North Station,” said Crina, “to let them know we’re here to help.”

“Would they give us firearms?” someone asked.

“Let’s go find out,” said Stefan.

He took a small group to talk to any commander he could find. Cristina, Crina and I borrowed some money from the students’ fund and went to buy bread for lunch.

When we got back with the bread, Stefan and the guys had a surprise. He had arranged for a sergeant and some soldiers on duty to guard the campus overnight with us. To the girls’ disappointment, they would give weapons only to the guys who had completed the mandatory military service.

Stefan found out from the army unit that near North Station there were trucks with foreign aid waiting to be unloaded. He had taken some of the boxes back to the school, to be distributed in the following days. All of us went to help unload the trucks and carry the boxes back to a storage room in our building.

We filled the room with boxes and we started opening them. Happy like kids, we discovered Spam cans, Pepsi, chocolate bars, blankets. Some of us crowded in the small storage room to have lunch; others set up camp in the auditorium.

I was ravenous. I made a big sandwich with fresh bread and slices of Spam. It was one of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve ever eaten and was perfect with Pepsi and some chocolate for desert. As the late afternoon blurred the contours of our faces, we laughed, shared stories, and enjoyed the unexpected food aid gift.

Stefan and other students had brought sleeping bags with them and camped on the auditorium’s wooden floors. I made an improvised bed from cardboard boxes and blankets. We didn’t turn the lights on, for fear the terrorists would see us.

The building didn’t have any heat, and I was cold. Cristina and Crina smoked to keep warm. In the dark, I could see the red tips of their cigarettes, but I couldn’t hear what they talked about.

At 9 p.m., the sergeant and six soldiers showed up. We treated them with Spam sandwiches, Pepsi and chocolate. The soldiers were very young, probably just out of high school. They wore khaki uniforms and were armed with AK47s.

We split up in small teams to cover the two main buildings, and the sergeant set up 4-hour shifts starting at 10 p.m. and ending at 6 a.m. the next morning. The teams would guard the hallways on every floor. I was on the same team as Cristina and Crina, joined by a soldier named Robert. We chose the first shift: from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Robert was skinny, with gray-blond hair cropped too close to the skull—a new recruit’s haircut. His weapon seemed to weigh a ton, and he slouched when he walked. I wasn’t confident he’d be able to fight any terrorist, but none of us looked any more competent.

The noises faded into the night, and an eerie silence surrounded us. The hallway was pitch black. Soon, my eyes got used to the dark, and I could see our silhouettes against the white walls. We weren’t supposed to talk. We listened for suspect noises. Soon, we heard the distinct rat-tat-tat of machine guns. They seemed to come from different directions. Some were far away, others closer.

“The bastards,” said Robert. “Ceausescu is dead, and they are still shooting.”

It was windy. I could hear the rain falling on the roof and through the tin gutters. Outside the tall windows, I could see the dark treetops swaying against the night sky. My eyes started playing tricks, making me see silhouettes at the end of the hallway. The three of us looked like ghosts as we sat on metal chairs and watched the hallway of the deserted building.

I grabbed Cristina’s hand, as she grabbed Crina’s. We didn’t talk, but I was thinking What if someone comes? What will we do? What will Robert do? Cristina squeezed my hand, and I felt reassured.

Suddenly, I heard a noise. It was faint, but I could hear it clearly through the rain.

“What the hell is that?” I asked.

We listened. There it was: tap, tap.

“It’s a terrorist,” whispered Cristina, and we laughed nervously. Tap. We heard it again. I felt a chill down my spine.

“Stay here,” Robert said. “I’ll check it out.” He slouched into the darkness.

Robert was gone a long time. We listened carefully but heard only the rain.

“What if he’s not coming back?” I asked. My heart pumped in my throat. The girls didn’t answer.

After what felt like an eternity, we heard steps, and Robert slouched toward us.

“It was an open window on the other side of the floor. I closed it,” he said.


After four long hours, we slept on our makeshift beds in the auditorium. The morning found me crouched on the floor next to Crina and Cristina, my back and bones sore from the hard planks. I got up quickly and stretched.

The sergeant and soldiers had orders to go back to their unit in the morning, and they gathered their arms and equipment and left. Later, we found out they had been sent somewhere else and couldn’t come back to be with us another night.

The day was gray and damp, and the revolutionary enthusiasm had washed out with the rain. From our group, people started to leave as well. Stefan announced he’d go back home that morning.

“What will you guys do?” I asked Cristina and Crina.

“We are going to help at the roadblocks,” said Cristina. “They need people to search the cars. What will you do?”

“Go home, I guess,” I answered.

I was a little disappointed that I had to leave, but staying seemed pointless. There was one more thing I wanted to do: light candles and pay my respects to the shooting victims in downtown Bucharest.

The metro was closed, so I took a trolley, a longer ride through dismal neighborhoods where people and buildings alike looked weary. The euphoria from the previous days was replaced by a somber, grieving mood.

I got off at University Square and couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d never seen a war zone before, but this certainly was one: a sight of utter destruction. The buildings were gutted, blackened by fires, and disfigured by bullet holes. The church Coltea was smoldering. The University was still standing, and next to its wall was the vigil site. There were wreaths, photos, and hundreds of burning candles. A wall in the back had in black graffiti: “Here people died for freedom.”

I smelled smoke and burned wax as I made my way through the small crowd that filed in a continuous stream in front of the candles. The candles were sheltered from the light rain by a troita, a small tin awning decorated with icons and flowers. The wall on top read “Peace to you, our dead.”

A few women dressed in black were tending the vigil. They handed out cheap candles, their faces marked by a mute despair, as if they were asking Why did this happen? Why did my child die? I took a candle and waited in line a few minutes until I came closer and could light it from the others. I placed it under the photo of a handsome young man and crossed myself. The wax sizzled and dripped as I stared at the photo of someone I’d never met; someone who died for my freedom. I didn’t know what freedom was, but this guy died for it. I was crying inside.

I left toward the Palace’s Square, where tens of thousands had gathered in previous days. The vast square was empty now, guarded by tanks fanned out in formation in front of the former Royal Palace. The guns on the turrets had flowers in them, red and white carnations. People had offered flowers to the soldiers who came to help them in the fight.

The palace had hosted an art museum, which was now destroyed by bullets and explosions. The historic central library and buildings across from it were in ruins, with collapsed roofs, bombed walls, gaping windows, and mounds of smoldering wood beams and debris. Black smoke billowed over the square. I had spent countless hours at that library, studying for exams, listening to the violin sounds coming from the restaurant Cina across the street. Tears streamed from my eyes, and I didn’t try hiding them anymore.

No one ever found out who the terrorists were. Twenty one years later, the mystery persists, surrounded by conspiracy theories and controversy, similar to the mystery of President Kennedy’s assassination.

December 22, 1989 marked the turning point of the revolution: the day the dictator fled and victory was declared. This date shows its importance in the victims’ numbers, as well. In Bucharest alone, 49 were reported dead and 599 wounded before December 22, victims of the Communist repression, as opposed to 515 dead and 1162 wounded in fighting the so-called “terrorists” after December 22.

On my way back to the North Station, I passed by the school to see if my colleagues were still there. They weren’t. I took a can of Pepsi for my brother and chocolate for my mom to use for the glaze on the New Year’s Eve cake.

Years later, after I moved to New York, I came across a line written by one of my favorite poets, e e cummings: freedom is a breakfastfood. This made me smile and think that, for me, it was—literally. Lunch food, to be exact.