Romania: Breaking Our Own Heads (11/98)

Last summer, on the eigth anniversary of the June 13-15, 1990 coal miner’s massacre of Romanian anti-government protesters, a hunger strike was held at University Square in downtown Bucharest. The strikers staged their protest at the location of the bloodshed beneath the twenty-two story, luxury Intercontinental Hotel and across from the fountain colloquially known as Tianemen Square II. The idea was to draw attention to the government’s reluctance to prosecute those responsible for the three days of violence that killed 60 people and injured over a thousand.

The husband of Gabriela Lepadatu, one of the hunger strikers, was shot in the neck on his way to the store to buy bread in 1990. "All I want to know is who killed my husband and why," she said, sitting on a blanket in the hunger strikers’ compound between her ten and eleven year old sons.

Viorel Ene, president of the Association for the Victims of the Minors, called the strike off after 19 days. "I called it off because it is not okay to die for," he exlained. "It has been eight years and the government has done nothing and I don’t want to see others get hurt and suffer for nothing." The association was formed in 1996. Since then, it’s been pressuring Romanian President Emil Constantinescu to keep his campaign promise to publicize all government files regarding the miners attack and prosecute those responsible.

The May-June, 1990 student protest which instigated the attack began as a small rally against the election of former high level communist to leadership positions in the new democratic government, including Romania’s first president, Ion Iliescu, and prime minister Petre Roman. The protesters demanded the immediate enactment of a law forbiding former communists from holding leadership positions in the new government, as well as immediate privatization of television and the press.

At 4:30 in the morning on June 13, police and special military forces stormed the protester’s compound. Those caught in the area were beaten and arrested. As word of the violence spread, people began gathering in downtown Bucharest. By that afternoon 100,000 people were protesting the strong arm tactics of the new government and demanding the release of those arrested already.

That evening, as speculation grew that President Iliescu might be forced to resign, he put out several pleas for support over the state-run television and radio. He labeled the demonstrators drug addicts, fascists, and "Legionnaires" (an extinct Romanian nazi party), claimed they were staging a coup, and pleaded for citizens to come to downtown to save democracy.

When Gheorghe Dunca, the father of two teenage daughters, heard that plea he responded in support of the new government, but was shot by police. They claimed he was setting fires. Photographs of his corpse surrounded by burglar tools were circulated by the press for the next few days, reinforcing the message that the protesters were a threat to society.

Within hours of Iliescu’s nationally televised plea, thousands of coal miners began arriving from the Jiu Valley, 210 miles west of Bucharest. Armed with bats and axes — and accompanied by police — they indiscriminately beat and arrested people.

Niculae Alecu was on his way to work on June 14 when he was accosted. "I was pulled out of the crowd of commuters and surrounded by miners and they began to beat me with their bats," he recalled later. "I fell and they kicked me like I was a ball." Then he was arrested and held for five days at Magurele military camp, along with 700 others. At Magurele, prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured. After his release, Alecu’s needed six months of treatment for his injuries.

While groups of miners policed University Square in downtown Bucharest, others vandalized the offices of the leading opposition parties and newspapers. Also vandalized by miners were the offices of an association for victims of the 1989 anti-communist revolution, an association for Romanian political prisoners of the communist regime, a woman’s rights organization, a writers’ association, and two Bucharest universities.

Eugen Chitu was in the Bucharest University building when the miners broke in. "They came into the university and beat us like animals… One miner hit me on the head with his ax and I fell to the floor. Then he swung it at my face. I raised my hand and blocked it and it broke two bones in my arm."

Two days later, addressing a gathering of miners at Free Press Square in Bucharest, Iliescu publicly thanked them for their assistance and "high civic discipline." Meanwhile, 60 people had been killed and over 1000 injured. Another 1000 were arrested and held without charges for as long as four months.

The Association for the Victims of the Miners Attack demands prosecution of those responsible for the deaths and injuries of innocent people. They’ve gathered their own evidence and compiled a list of 27 miners and government officials, including former president Iliescu and former prime minister Roman. Since 1996, the association has been pressuring prosecutors and other government officials. "When they refuse to meet with us we blockade their door," says Ene. In 1997, he forced a meeting with the minister of police regarding the gathering of evidence for the prosecution. "When we met he said that it was old history and that he didn’t have time for us," he recalls.

Following a July, 1998 meeting with the new general prosecuter a follow up was scheduled for the next month. But when respresentatives showed up, he refused to see them. "His secretary told us he didn’t have time for us and that was it," says Ene."We don’t want favors. We just want what is right."

"I tell him (Viorel Ene) many times to stop and put it behind us because nothing will come of it and he always tells me, ‘no, I can’t stop until I see the guilty suffer like we have," says his wife, Sonia. Yet, the guilty apparently haven’t suffered. Both Iliescu and Roman are presidents of their own political parties. Roman is also president of the senate and a strong candidate for the 2000 presidential election.

In September, 1998 General Prosecuter Alexandru Tuculeanu, number twenty on the association’s list of responsible individuals, was proposed for a promotion. The Association for the Victims of the Miners Attack immediately protested at the prosecuters offices." While we were there Tuculeanu passed us and looked over at us and laughed like we were a joke," says Ene.

Elena Negula, a victim of the miners attack and hunger striker, sums it up in an old Romanian idiom, "we want to make something good and instead we break our own heads."