[I wrote this text in 2019, for the 30 years anniversary of those events, but it got lost in the now-defunct FB Notes. It is a good story even today.]
I left my native land, Transylvania, which is a North-Western historical region of today’s Romania in January 1988. At that time, it seemed the Eastern Block, as the communist countries under the Soviet sphere of influence were candidly called, will last forever and the Cold War will never end.
I didn’t run too far, though… because I thought the only thing I could do for living was to read and write in my mother tongue – Hungarian. (Which wasn’t exactly the best career choice in the national-communist Ceaușescu-regime in Romania.) So, I ended up working as a journalist in the neighbouring Hungary’s capital, in Budapest.
The chaos started
On December 21st, 1989, an old friend (Sz. G.) also living in Budapest called me in the office to urge me to watch or listen to the news: the dictator’s (final) speech was interrupted by the masses and he and his wife had to interrupt the meeting. It has never happened before. And next day, on the 22nd of December, all the newscasts were about Ceaușescu and his wife on the run… they left Bucharest and went to an unknown location by helicopter.
Around noon, on that day, the deputy editor-in-chief (P. F.) of the very first private daily newspaper (Mai Nap) that was started a few months before in Budapest, called and asked me: are you coming to Bucharest? He was preparing to go there with a photo reporter, but they also needed someone with local knowledge and Romanian language skills. Yes, I answered without hesitation and ran home to pack a few things. We knew each other: I approached them earlier, offering to work for them and they even published a few articles by me. We left Budapest late afternoon; it was already dark, and we headed toward Arad, almost on the frontier, just north from Timișoara, where everything started days earlier around the house of a Hungarian Protestant minister – a former schoolmate of mine (T. L.).
South by South East
The plan was to go south by South-East and finally to arrive, perhaps by morning, to Bucharest, after driving across what used to be Wallachia, the region between the Danube river and the Southern Carpathian Mountains. That route should have taken us through Temesvár (that’s the Hungarian name of Timișoara) but military blockades diverted us. They claimed it was not safe… And this was happening the entire night: whenever we tried to turn toward South, we were always stopped and directed to go further East. We had to go even around Sibiu (Hermannstadt) from where we could have gone south-east directly to Bucharest – we were told that the famous Securitate was blocking the way because the dictator’s son used to be the “chief” in that area. The bad part was that we were supposed to be on the Southern side of the mountains, but we were still at the northern foothills and getting further and further from Bucharest. The last remaining possibility was to go through Brașov (Brassó, Kronstadt) turn toward the Predeal Pass and down to the capital. Good plan.
Till then we encountered only regular army units, well, they all were in uniforms, so we assumed it was the Army. Ambivalent feelings at every checkpoint: we were in a car with Hungarian plates (foreigners were always suspiciously regarded by the regime!) and the news were controversial. Some said the Army sided with “the people”, others said the Army was shooting at the demonstrators. As it turned out later, both were true.
By the time we got to Brașov, it was already early morning and daylight. It was here that we saw armed civilians for the first time … all in “revolutionary” fervour! To be honest, I was even more afraid of these youngsters with guns in their hand than of the soldiers. There was a mass hysteria artificially created by the Securitate – according to which there were “terrorists” everywhere trying to kill people. In the stories these terrorists were Arabs, Russians, generally bad guys… and now here we are: three guys in a foreign(!) car, trying to drive towards the highway to Bucharest! Of course, they stopped us, and the overly excited teenagers were yelling and gesticulating around us – with army rifles in their hands. Who the fuck gave them guns? – was the question in my mind but didn’t have time to figure it out because, being the only one who spoke Romanian, I had to explain who we were and what we wanted. Luckily for us, a few more mature persons showed up and calmed the agitated teens, after understanding who we were. The youngsters backed off but still watched us with suspicion, frustrated that they were void of the heroic act of catching some foreign ‘terrorists’…
We were informed that the highway toward Predeal and Bucharest was blocked, and we couldn’t possibly get through. We gave away the nice white bread we bought before we left exactly for such purposes: like many other basic food items, good bread was missing from the stores for years.
It looked like everything was against us and we would never arrive in the capital even if we were to drive 48 hours trying to get there. Encountering more blockades like this one, with heavily armed young „revolutionaries”, who haven’t been trained to handle weaponry… seemed like a dangerous adventure. What if they shoot before they ask? What if they fire those guns by mistake?
My colleagues decided that we should return – although on a different route. And there was also the question of how to inform the newspaper about our whereabouts. Just a reminder: this was the era before the ubiquitous cell-phones and (mobile) internet. Once we left, nobody knew what happened to us. My almost 15 years old son was at home alone in Budapest, watching the TV, as the entire continent was watching it live – what is happening in Romania. At a certain moment there was a brief announcement, as he told me later, saying that three journalists of Mai Nap left to report from the scene, but all contact has been lost with them… Oh, one of those must be my father – the kid thought, according to the story told later.
So, we decided to turn around and go toward my hometown – Cluj or Kolozsvár or Klausenburg – hoping to stop at my parents’ place from where we could eventually call in to the newsroom.
We already drove over 700 km since we left and we still had about four-five hours driving if nothing happens in the meantime. The hours were flying very fast. By the time we got out of the city and found our way toward “home” it was mid-day. On our way we met again more soldiers… At one checkpoint they jumped out from the ditches on the two sides of the two-lanes highway and after a friendly chat (and more bread given away) we sat in the car to continue our journey when one soldier ran after us: “If you meet terrorists ahead, come back and let us know!” – But despite our highly developed scouting abilities, we didn’t see any bad guys. Although, on a second thought —
When we were entering the town of Turda/Torda which is just 30 km before my hometown, I felt almost at home and began to look forward to seeing my parents soon. Earlier, in a small town, we stopped at the post office and succeeded calling my parents to let them know we were coming. The postal workers didn’t even charge me for the call – it’s revolution…
When going through the central part of that Turda town, there is a sharp, almost 90 degrees turn to the left and after taking it we had behind us an unfinished huge concrete building. From the top of it, suddenly someone began to fire at us. There were clear, distinct gun shots accompanied by short bursts of some kind of automatic firearm. Fuck, was the instant reaction of our driver, the photo reporter (P.Z.) and with all his over-one-hundred kilos, he pushed the pedal to metal. It took me a few more and long moments to realize what was going on – it was so surreal that I couldn’t figure out what were those sparks on the basalt pavement… And when I became aware that somebody is firing at us, my first thought was that the sound of the shots and bullets hitting the street was absolutely different from those in the movies! Just a dry “knock” without all that whistling invented by the sound engineers of the film industry.
When the road took us into the cover of the big church building, we stopped. The car was full of gunpowder smell and the driver said one tire was hit. Indeed, the rear left tire was all in pieces. Luckily, we had a real spare tire in the trunk. And I am sure we beat every Formula-1 tire change record, despite the fact that P. F. didn’t even have a driver license. When we were done, we jumped into the car, he still had the jack in his arms, and the driver started faster than a race car… As I was sitting in the passenger seat, later we realized that one bullet stopped in the fabric lining of the top of the car just above my head. Another one hit the trunk in the back, a few centimetres from the gasoline cannister… And there was a hole in the top of the hood – the bullet went out on the side, without hitting anything vital in the engine.
Home and home
As we arrived in my parents’ apartment, we took out a bottle of scotch (that was meant to be a Christmas present for somebody…) and the three of us emptied it in a record time.
Then we managed to get through the operator to the office, and the typist girl in the newsroom wrote everything what our good friend was dictating – he was very good at formulating the report on the fly as the girls were typing with the headphones on their ears. We all were in the hall of the apartment, sitting around the only phone set and listening as he was telling our adventures. When he was talking about the firing and the bullets, my mother looked at me silently, but I saw the question in her eyes: is this true? You were shot at? I just nodded and got another drink. It was like being given a second chance for life. A second birthday, as we were joking the next day on our way back to Hungary.
When the phone call was done, everybody started to talk at the same time: we had to release the tremendous tension and my parents wanted to hear everything of what had happened since we left Budapest. And then after a short sleep, we headed back to Hungary – toward West – on the usual route I used to drive when going to visit my old home. I was driving since I knew that way very well. The roads were almost empty: it was Christmas eve, December the 24th and a critical fuel shortage for many years. When I passed the occasional lonely vehicle, by friend warned: forget the fucking signalling, just go!
At the border, the guards were shocked on both sides, seeing the bullet holes and listening our summary report of the events. Finally, by afternoon we arrived in Budapest and I spent the Christmas eve with my son. We didn’t have a Christmas tree, didn’t have time to buy presents… yet we were happy to be alive and together.
My Christmas story of survival. I was 38 at the time…
(The following week, P.F. and I flew to Bucharest with the first plane that was allowed to land, carrying the Hungarian minister of foreign affairs – although that’s a completely different story.)
P. F. – Pallagi Ferenc, at that time deputy editor-in-chief at “Mai Nap”: still working in the media in Budapest
P. Z. – Pólya Zoltán (1953-2010), photo reporter and our primary driver
Sz. G. – Szőcs Géza (1953-2020), Transylvanian poet, later politician in Romania and then in Hungary.
T. L. – Tőkés László, Protestant minister, bishop, politician.