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In Romania, Ceausescu's death haunts Christmas

Many Romanians regret that reviled Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were hastily executed on Christmas Day in 1989.

A photograph of Romania's late Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is displayed at his grave in a Bucharest cemetery, Jan. 26, 2008, during what might have been his 90th birthday. Year after year, nostalgic Communists gather to mourn Ceausescu, who was executed on Christmas Day together with his wife Elena in 1989. (Mihai Barbu/Reuters)

CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania — Twenty years ago, as Romanians were celebrating their first free holiday in decades, they rejoiced at the news that dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena had been shot dead on Christmas day. It was the ultimate proof that the communist regime had crumbled irrevocably and that the late-December revolution had indeed succeeded.

But every Christmas since has brought a feeling of uneasiness — even anger at times — at how the Ceausescus were handled during their final days, after being apprehended in the small town Targoviste. Especially on this anniversary year, as the country closely revisits the events of eastern Europe’s only bloody 1989 revolution, Romanians vehemently contest the Ceausescus’ execution, which followed a one-and-a-half hour kangaroo-trial.

Many, such as retired engineer Aurel Badea, think that the hasty court proceedings were just a “masquerade” meant to eliminate the couple for the benefit of others who wanted to grab the power fast and easy. “They should have had a proper trial and then lengthy, harsh penalties,” Badea said, “in order to suffer just as much as others had suffered under their regime.”

One of the key people able to explain the decision to set up the military tribunal and then carry out the execution in such a rush and in a secret location is Ion Iliescu, who became the first leader of the revolutionary forces and then twice the president of democratic Romania. After giving many vague, stereotypical justifications over the years, this month he admitted that this episode was “quite shameful, but necessary.”

According to Iliescu, the chaos that gripped cities and towns across the country after the Ceausescus fled Bucharest by helicopter on Dec. 22, 1989, could only be stopped by taking them out of the picture. Indeed, soon after they were executed, the random street shootings that claimed more than 1,100 civilian lives during those very confusing days came to an end. (Culprits for the massacre, said to be either army personnel and/or so-called “terrorists,” have yet to be identified, found or brought to justice.)

Be that as it may, conceded 57-year-old math teacher Georgeta Pop, the situation was still mishandled. “It was the biggest mistake of the Revolution,” she said. “Of course we were all ecstatic to get rid of them, but under no circumstances should they have been killed on such a holy day!”

On this particular point, Romanians usually bow their heads, some with shame, some with an uncomfortable feeling of guilt. A very religious people, many of whom celebrate Christmas with long traditions, such as singing carols and going to church, they are not particularly proud to carry the legacy of such a crime.