By Alison Mutler
We were flying towards Bucharest when the message came into the cockpit that there was gunfire at Otopeni Airport making landing dangerous. The pilot who’d volunteered for the flight, was on a mission, not merely doing a job. It was a charter flight and I had been allowed into the cockpit. He told me that he was of Romanian descent and was thrilled to be flying in ITN news to cover the uprising against Nicolae Ceausescu, who had run the country with an iron fist since 1964. By this time, on the evening of Friday Dec. 22, Ceausescu had fled the capital with his wife Elena, but his regime hadn’t yet been overthrown. Unarmed anti-communist protesters were being shot down in the street. Little did we know that the shooting of ordinary citizens would continue days after his and Elena’s death at a military barracks on Christmas Day. Thirty years later, we still don’t know why the shooting continued after Ceausescu’s death and who ordered it.
A decision was made by the senior producers that we’d turn back and fly to Budapest. I made the somewhat stupid suggestion that we could land in a field, but cooler heads prevailed.
My main concern, and that of the ITN producers, was whether I’d be allowed into Romania, as I was the only Romanian speaker in the group who’d also worked in the country. I had tried to enter the country in August 1989 to film a story about systemization and had been refused entry. The refusal had been noted in my passport. But a regime change was underway, and I was allowed to cross the border from Hungary to Romania several times (the full visa price paid each entry), as we went into Romania to film and then back into Hungary to send the footage by satellite.
Three years earlier, a couple of months after the Chernobyl explosion, I had visited Romania as a student. The British Foreign Office had advised us not to eat meat as it could be contaminated from radioactive material. Romania had severe food rationing then, but foreigners had access to meat, a luxury. I remember the people who served the food looking at me rather oddly as I refused pork neck and beef steaks. I explained I was a vegetarian; it was the only excuse I could think of.
Romania was not a free country before 1989. The streets were silent, there was little television and people were afraid to speak to foreigners, as it was all but forbidden. Conversations with foreigners had to be reported with the Securitate, or secret police. I can remember snippets of conversation about Ceausescu knocking down old buildings, and of course we learned Romanian in the lessons, but you couldn’t really speak freely. One Sunday, I snuck out of Bucharest with a fellow student and we went to Mogosoia where we met two young men who had gone to prison after trying to escape Romania illegally. We were invited to their home, ate polenta with fried egg, and were treated with friendship and warmth.
I spent 10 days in Romania during the revolution; the most dramatic and scary part were the days I spent in Timișoara, where we encountered road blocks with soldiers wielding bayonets and shooting at the hotel we were staying in. By December 26, my birthday, it was over. Romanian TV showed images of the Ceausescu’s bodies, the hotel brought out steaks, salad and champagne that they’d probably been hoarding, and we headed off to Bucharest in a hired Dacia. By New Year’s Eve, I was on a flight out. But that was only the beginning.
I came back to Romania many times in 1990, with a rock concert and various television crews. Quite by accident, I witnessed the coal miners’ bloody crackdown of an anti-communist protest in University Square in June 1990 where six people died and hundreds were injured. I still remember filming in a Bucharest hospital and miners telling me they objected to the students because they “know books.” In other words, they could read and therefore were not productive members of society.
I moved to Romania in June 1991. It was my “do or die” moment. I gave myself three months to make a go of it as a journalist. I’m still here and I’m still a journalist. I worked as a freelancer in the days when we sent copy down the telephone line or on a telex and then for 25 years for the Associated Press. In the early 1990s, I loved Tuesdays and Wednesdays because the best weeklies would come out and there would be piles of newspapers on the pavement in Piata Romana when I came down in the morning. Now, there are few papers, as most news outlets are online. Television is live and runs all day long rather than bulletins at certain times throughout the day and radio hasn’t changed so much, still a reasonably reliable source of news and information. I am working for a new site, universul.net, mainly on the English section with Dan Turturica, one of the bright and smart people I met in the early days when I arrived in Romania. It’s like I’ve come full circle and am back where I started. Journalism is one of those professions that chooses people. It chose me as much as I chose it.
I read the news the moment I wake up and before I go to sleep. News is just stories about the world and what happens and people and what they get up to. The great and the good, the anonymous and the ordinary, we are front-line witnesses; we tell the story of the world, as it happens.
Alison’s book “Plecata la Revolutie” chronicles her entanglement with Romania starting from school days in Tunbridge Wells when she first picked up a book about Romania in the local library through to the revolution and then to the moment when Romania joined the EU. The book is part autobiography and partly a selection of stories Alison wrote for the AP. It’s available in all good bookstores.