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The bloody week Ceausescu's Romania fell

In December 1989, protesters took over state television and talked a nation through a revolution.

Crosses and coffins prepared for people killed during the anti-communist revolution sit against the wall outside the autopsy room of Coltea hospital in Bucharest Dec. 23, 1989. More than 1,000 Romanians were killed across Romania during clashes between demonstrators and Ceausescu's security forces, in what amounted to eastern Europe's most violent anti-communist revolution. (Lucian Crisan/Reuters)

PARIS, France — The last chunk of Iron Curtain — Ceausescu’s Romania — suddenly teetered in December 1989. By Christmas, it was a blood-spattered, rusted relic.

On the morning of Dec. 21, from a balcony above a massive crowd, Nicolae Ceausescu droned on about his own glory. Muttering below erupted into an angry roar.

Days earlier, troops had brutally quelled an uprising near the Yugoslav border. Rumors of massacre turned many against the megalomaniac who had ruled them for decades.

The crowd surged forward, and the durable dictator took half a step backward. Watching on television in Paris, I felt the electricity. The balance of fear had shifted.

I ran to the Associated Press photo desk. Within an hour, we organized a charter flight to Bucharest. The French military cleared us. We did not ask the Romanians.

As our aircraft approached the pitch-dark Bucharest airport, landing lights switched on. At the immigration desk, an officer stared at me without saying a word.

“How are things going?” I asked. “Better now,” he replied, and he stamped my passport.

Our little band from Paris and another from Rome commandeered a bus to the outskirts of the city. Several of us flagged down a battered little Dacia. We asked the driver what was happening.

“Oh,” he replied with a wide grin, “a small revolution in a small place.”

We found our way to the 13-story state television tower, freshly renamed Free Romania Television, under heavy siege by Ceausescu’s holdout militia, the Securitate.

A National Salvation Committee had claimed power and was holed up on the third floor as rocket-propelled grenades blew away entire rooms above them.

For days, Securitate snipers picked off Romanians, who dashed across downtown streets and dove for cover. Scared kids who had never held a rifle manned roadblocks.