As usual, what I write here is a personal story. Take it as such. I tried not to write anymore about the incredible similarities between Romania’s ’89 and UK’s ’16. I wrote before about the coup, the New Man, Newspeak, or being again an “enemy of the people”. It is painful to write these stories.
There are sometimes “triggers” which I cannot ignore though. This morning, Paul Bernal wrote:
Only yesterday Boris Johnson invited us to be his friend. Just no. We inhabit two different worlds. Prof Dougan says it better than I do.
Only a few weeks ago, Romania celebrated 30 years from the “Revolution” or from the fall of communism or from the “events in December”. I wanted to write something about this on 22nd of December which is the day when 30 years ago, Ceausescu left in a helicopter only to be killed by his own people on Christmas day.
I refrained. It was too painful. Paul and Kate, unknowingly gave me a nudge.
I was a first-year undergrad in Bucharest. When “the events” started in Timisoara in the West of the country, we did not know about it. In the student residence hall where I lived, we had no radio or TV and even if we did, all the media was in government’s control. People we did not see before came to our residence hall and made sure that everybody packs and the residence hall is closed. We did not understand this hurry but given that it was close to Christmas, we were happy to go home a bit early. The trains were super crowded and there were no tickets. Both my brother and I made it home however, to a small city 100 km West of Bucharest. At home, we listened to Radio Free Europe and the soothing voice of Monica Lovinescu who before taught me Borges was now speaking of mass demonstrations and killings. When the demonstrations started in Bucharest too, my brother and I wanted to go back. With tears in his eyes, my dad implored us to let him go in our place. As we were discussing this and we were close to leaving, somebody knocked hard at our door. It was Adi, a good friend of ours. He just returned from Bucharest. No idea why from the train station he stopped first to our place. My dad keeps Adi in his prayers to this day. “You cannot leave the train” he said. “They are shooting everywhere. We just crawled on the platform and back and then the train reversed from the station”. We decided to go together in the centre of our little town. As we walked, I saw a car coming towards us, mounting the pedestrian zone and stoping less than a meter in front of us. We stopped too, paralysed. Two men, one with an army-like gun descended, and pushed my brother and our friend in the car. I was left on the pavement scared and shocked. Where did they go? Where I can search for them? I surely cannot return home without my brother.
Thinking of this now, as an adult, living most of my life in freedom, it feels oh, so fucked up. It makes me angrier now, than it made me then. What I would like to tell to the readers of this post which more likely will be from the UK, the country where I live now, is this: people like the ones whose work was to close the residence hall in order to avoid students’ participation in the revolt, exist among you here in the UK. People like the ones who voluntarily picked my brother and his friend from the street, exist among you here in the UK. What makes totalitarian regimes dangerous is the willing and enthusiastic participation of these people. My brother and his friend could have been dead because of them.
The three of us, walking on the streets of a small provincial city in Romania in December 1989, did not look like “locals”. My brother and I, bored with the complete lack of fashion sense in the communist retail shops, would make our own clothes adjusting patterns from old magazines. We were dressed in black and we both had long hair. Looking back, we were just creative kids who did not have any art lesson in the communist Romania. Our creativity looked for an outlet and our looks almost led to my brother dying on the hands of some enthusiastic idiots.
Here is to looking different! When totalitarians get in power, they hate all those who look different. At the beginning of 2020 in the UK, I fear for the wellbeing and safety of all gender diverse people in a country where PM’s advisors look for inspiration to Orban’s family policies. You think this is an exaggeration, no, it isn’t. Stay safe.
I walked to the closest police station in town and asked about my brother and his friend. I was directed towards a room where my brother and his friend were in a company of an army superior officer. The guy gave us a little speech. Please go home. Don’t walk on the streets. There are many crazy people with weapons. Nobody knows the sides. You could be dead in an instant. Hide your camera. You can wait here until we are sure the crazy ones are gone.
I don’t even remember if we went home or not. I remember that the night found me serving tea and bread to the soldiers guarding various points in the city. We gathered at a priest house, the grandfather of a friend. His wife organised the tea making and bread cutting. This in a country where bread was rationed and the tea was made of some plants you gathered on your summer holiday. I am not sure why there was shooting with live munition in our little town but there was. The sound is not something that you can forget once you’ve heard it.
The sound of live munition stayed with me over the years. The abject fear that my brother is gone. The thank you exchanged with the soldiers, boys literally my age, in charge of defending a country. Thinking of my high school colleagues who were conscripted in the army while I was allowed to start university straight after high-school. They were now somewhere spread all over the country, holding weapons and hopefully being served tea.
I lived almost all my professional life in the western world, working for the biggest banks and consulting companies, in glass buildings and often being chauffeured to advice C-level executives. “You need to do some hand-holding here” said one of them when he needed to take a decision about a certain IT system. Others, very few I have to say, bullied me especially when they were afraid that I will break the artificial glass ceiling. “With this voice you’ll not get anywhere in this business”. “You are too short”. “ Because you are a mother and you are not hearing well, we don’t think you perform as well as you should”. As I advanced in my career, I got to recognise these phrases for what they were: attacks on personal features that one cannot change, as a way to undermine your confidence and stop you in your path. Essentially though, I am the girl who through random shooting and random madness, served tea in the night to frightened soldiers. This experience even if I was not invoking it consciously was making me become an observant. In a glass building, in a free country, a powerful person chose out of all options available to them to bully me, and I could become quite detached right there and observe them in detail. I knew that I was lucky not to meet this person 30 years ago because I knew on which side they would be. “I am lucky”, I was telling myself, “that I meet you only now.” Their choice made me sad though. Out of all options available to you in a free country, in full freedom, you choose the option to play a mini-tyrant. How very sad.
For the UK in 2020 however, the lesson is this: the people able and willing to cooperate with a totalitarian regime are among us. They have all kind of jobs and they will co-operate, have no doubt about it. Johnson will be enabled by many. Resist.