Close to the noose: The history of a night

Translator’s note: Western feminists routinely claim oppression for the most trivial things that they happen to dislike. Here is a 25-year-old text depicting the true story of real oppression during the December 1989 Romanian Revolution.—LV

The law of the survivor is to bear witness. You are subjected to the moral imperative of seeing the world with the eyes of those who have ceased to see it for good. Nothing of what they have seen has any right to remain hidden. You are only free at the moment when you have the guts to bear the truth. It should also be noted that, following the ancient word of the Gospels, in Romania even the stones were crying out—so how could the people have kept on remaining silent?

But it’s not about the emergency of the revolt that I want to speak but about the things I saw in the 26 hours that I spent under arrest, first at the General Inspectorate of the Militia (IGM)[1] and then at Jilava Fort[2]. I was among the first to be busted, when the unbelievable resistance of the people of Bucharest against the Communist dictatorship was just beginning.

At first, there were only six of us in a room in IGM’s headquarters, and we weren’t allowed to sit. Then there were 25 of us. The door leading toward the hallway was open and guarded by one militiaman. Then, as the hours passed and we moved toward night, the door was shut and three armed militiamen were brought in. Low noises of a bizarre concourse could be heard from the room we were kept in. The noises resembled a breath stifled with a gag—gasping.

When night fell, a military major with a neutral, clerk-like face read off several names from a typewritten list. Mine was among those. I was pulled up and turned to face the wall with my hands behind my head. Seven others were with me. I remembered the feeling of intolerable moral aggression when their hands searched between my legs—with contempt and brutality. They put handcuffs on both of my hands. We were formed into a disoriented and chaotic line and pushed into docile hobbling along the dark hallways of Bucharest’s Lubyanka[3].

Here, I was about to witness the first signs of the violent repression that was going on outside. The hallway I was walking through, convoluted through the entrails of the building like a segmented serpent, led to more rooms (I counted four of them), all filled with people. But these weren’t people I would normally meet on the street. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call them “bodies,” namely a pile of whacked bodies. They were muddied, beaten, disfigured, and scared. A young man was just getting boot-kicked in his shin bone: the one who was doing the kicking was a kid with piercing eyes and pleasant features who kept asking his victim to keep, for the bloody hell, his face against the wall.

A bearded man, with the air of a painter, was screaming loudly at the bayonet with which a militiamen was ravishing his testicles. Others, the luckier ones, were only sporadically beaten when the militiamen would provoke one another and then rush to strike while cursing. Those who didn’t have their hands beaten and broken yet were still clinging to the wall like drunk people usually do (although nobody was drunk in there); the others, whose hands were fully red with their own blood, were clinging to the walls with their chest or cheeks in an effort to avoid pissing off the militiamen, who wouldn’t stop screaming, as if they were possessed: “Just stand straight, you animals, stand straight! Stand straight, you bloody cow, can’t you hear me?”—and then the strikes followed, and then more beatings and so on until the gasps became rarer and the aggressor lost his breath. On the thin layer of plaster on the walls were wide, unregulated drawings made by splattered blood.

The hallway floors were covered in randomly thrown bodies. Between them, stepping and kicking, were the boots of the militiamen who were making footpaths of order. Filled with hatred, spurred on by the lectures from a violent military major and other militia members, they were constantly cursing but in a monotonous way, always mentioning the comrade secretary general. Both the fear of their superior officers and the pleasure of disposing of bodies were visible on the faces of these kids in uniform, who were only asking for the mere sketch of an order so they could torture with a clean conscience.

They were randomly hitting whoever happened to be around: using their fists, boots, police sticks—anything would do in order to produce and exacerbate the suffering. It was a horror spectacle. Other militiamen were assisting on the sidelines, smiling while smoking. There was no inmate in the hallways who wasn’t bleeding, and almost all of them were gasping. They had all been terribly beaten. Several of those lying down on the floor were begging in whispers for medical assistance: they had been wounded by gunfire. The militiamen who were leading the group I was part of were screaming at us not to turn our heads. But it was impossible not to watch: even if we had all been blind, our terrified skin would’ve instantly gained sight features anyway.

We were shoved onto the plateau in IGM’s backyard, which was now drowned in darkness. The apartment buildings around us seemed mournful. I hadn’t seen any lights on, although I was looking for them in the hope that someone would see us. The militiamen who shoved us into the van were using flashlights to see where they were going. There were a lot of them and they were whispering. They ordered us to only stay on the left side. We could not have stayed in another position anyway given that we were bound to one another by handcuffs. The space in the van was too tight, and two of us, with injured hands, had to sit on the knees of the others.

I heard an authoritative voice asking how many “pieces” were inside. “Seven,” was the prompt answer. “Bring seven more,” the first voice shouted. After a moment of silence, someone asked with a less authoritative voice: “Are … are … we shooting them now?” “No, no shooting. An order is being expected,” someone else responded. I sadly understood then that the repression had been more powerful than the protesters, that the killings in Timișoara would continue, and that in Bucharest those of us who were already in custody were bound to become the first exemplary victims. Since my hands were bound, I made the sign of the cross with my tongue inside my mouth[4] and started praying. I quashed my sorrow by humming the Lord’s Prayer.

The van hit the road a little while after. Through the small window just above the driver, we looked out at the night. We got onto Eforie Street, crossed the Dâmbovița River in the Izvor area, and then headed on to the Victory of Socialism Boulevard toward the Devil’s House (which was improperly called by the official press “The Republic’s House”). I was instantly stricken by the symbolism of this forced descensus ad inferos[5]: with the notable exception of the presidential cars, I think that the cars of the repression were the first to have inaugurated the glorious “victory of socialism.” The symbol was dictating this confirmation: one can only reach the victory of socialism through organized death. Our destination, as we had come to understand with time, was Jilava Fort.

When we arrived, we were identified again. Admission papers were made in our name. And then we were thrust into some sort of preventive arrest—63 individuals in a room of less than 15 square meters surface. The room had a ventilation system of Yezhov and Yagoda[6] type: it was calculated to make you suffocate without actually choking to death. Obviously, nobody could sit: we were so jammed together that if a round of bullets had been fired through us, our bodies would have continued to stand. That’s how we spent our night: torture through sleep deprivation amplified by our wounds, suffocating and with a clear knowledge that we would be shot.

We discovered that in the face of death, the physiological needs go silent: I didn’t feel hunger for a second, although I’d spent the entire period without eating. I wondered what those who had open wounds were feeling. I also discovered that the imminence of death rips people’s identity. None of us had the curiosity to ask his cell neighbor his name and none of us presented ourselves by name. We were already cloaked under death’s anonymous and indifferent decency. We’d all consented to it, with much naturalness and, I’d say, grace. It was a grace in which we were co-existing.

Most of us had been bestially beaten. Many had open wounds, the blood crusting in a repelling manner with the mud we had been dragged through. Our clothes were wrinkled and soaked with blood: the stains were starting to dry but the smell was unmistakable. One of the men in the cell had his cheek cleft in three lines with frayed edges starting from the cheekbone. I saw a man with his shankbone fractured from the beatings, and from whose hideously tumefied face the blood kept flowing, curdling beneath his dewlap and on his neck like icicles.

A young man had been beaten so hard that, despite his unsmiling, disfigured face, he was constantly giggling, which scared us even more. I later found out from those who had witnessed his torment that he had been beaten for an hour with boots solely in the head by two militiamen (a first sergeant and a sergeant major: one of them was rustically named Gheorghe). The poor fellow had lost his mind. It’s useless to describe the horrific effects of the human cruelty. Their parade, despite the horror, is monotonous: the ways of torture are finite; but the degradation, the outrage, and the suffering are infinite. So it remains the fact that each of these men had been tortured in cold blood by a fellow human being, a fellow whose sole motivation was a slightly bigger salary and a few petty privileges.

More arrestees arrived throughout the night: their conditions were worse and worse. Ours, by contrast, actually seemed better. And so, through them, I found out that the demonstrations could not have been dismissed until only very late at night; I also found out that many people had been shot or simply squashed by tanks, and that in the upper side of Royal Street, the special troops were doing 15-minute shifts, beating people with an unprecedented cruelty.

It has been told to me about people arrested and dragged by their feet to the nearby Negoiu Hotel, where they were smashed with their teeth against the wall and crushed by beatings. Transformed literally into an inert mass, they were then shoved into vans and expedited to Jilava. Some of the arrestees were whispering with horror about mercury-filled batons, whose strike literally ripped the muscle apart, smashed the bone, and could crack one’s skull. A bearded young man told me about the fate of a teenage boy who had been injured at his feet near Danube block. As he was groaning and dragging his bloodied foot, he kept on shouting against Ceaușescu until two militiamen dragged him into a building’s vestibule and, behind the door, blew his brains out with two gunshots.

When dawn came, they took us out of the kennel in which we had been suffocating. They separated us into groups of eight and shoved us into another van. In front of me, on the bench, there was a big young man who was groaning slowly. He looked crushed. I managed to find out from him that he had been beaten with a baton until he had lost consciousness; when he regained it, he discovered that he had gone blind. He started screaming. After beating him for screaming, the militiamen, who by now knew that he had lost his sight, kept on savagely hitting him in the liver, kidneys, and testicles—this time because (they thought) he was shaming them. Now he was laying in front of me, a mountain of pulverized meat from which a small, plaintive, lost voice was intermittently coming out.

Travelling through the milky fog of dawn, which seemed stuck on the wet pavement, we were heading toward the core of Jilava complex. We drove along a road lined by two-meter-tall fences topped with barbed wire and then stopped in front of a dirty booth guarded by a soldier. The one with smashed sight stayed in the vehicle while the rest of us got out. I don’t know where he was taken. Later on, I looked him up among those who were set free—but I couldn’t find him. Even today, I don’t know if he is alive. As is the case with almost all my detention colleagues, I still don’t know his name either.

We entered into a sort of wine cellar with grained white walls more than 1.5 meters thick arched over the line of the floor. We headed toward a dead-end cut with whitewashed bricks. They ordered us, by calling us all sorts of names, not to turn our heads. On my right side, on the wall, around the height of my shoulders, I saw some longish ragged stains of brown. It took me a moment to realize they were dried blood. Some zealous soldier had struck the head of an inmate against these walls as he was passing by. Once I had realized that it was blood, I started sensing its smell.

A warder with a brutal voice told the militiaman who was guarding us to take us next door: “I will arrange those now,” he added. When we turned our heads, I saw him: I don’t know what my colleagues thought, but in my case, that was the moment when I sensed fear for the first time. The room “next door,” where we were supposed to be “arranged,” also seemed, like all the others, built into the ground. An unsettling “hospital wine cellar.” Near the wall on my left side was a string of chairs. We sat. Only when I allowed my eyes to look around the room did I understand where we had been brought.

Placed in the middle of the room was a chair with a backrest; around it, rope was cut into pieces; a table with a faience panel was only one meter away and on its white glow I saw two iron bolts and a few crumpled cloths; two plastic barrels of 50 liters, one ladle, and a huge funnel were next to it. But what was obvious, what was screaming from every object that my eyes were seeing, were the pools of wet blood on the floor and the cloths soaked with fresh blood. Around the chair—blood; on the table—blood, the cloths—blood. A human had been tortured here just a little while before, and we had been brought in to take his spot.

Malraux[7] used to say that nobody can endure torture. Well, none of my accidental colleagues had shown any signs of terror. Their dignity impressed me. And then, as if we’d been suddenly illuminated by the imminence of torture, we exchanged among us the first phone numbers, as each and every one of us believed that the other would make it out alive and we were ensure that our families would get word of the fate that had been foredoomed on us. I sensed derision toward my future mutilated body, which would have been separated from life in screams and pain. I was finding out with a certain level of indifference that even the suffering can make you blush.

But God wanted this cup[8] to pass us. Roughly 15 minutes afterwards, the warder with a brutal voice dragged one man to the chair in the center of the room and evacuated the rest of us—without calling us names this time—to cell 88. The man he dragged to the chair had been horribly mutilated even before the torture commenced, his moribund leg throbbing and twitching. In cell 88, we were crowded hurry-scurry—probably on purpose—until we ended up staying three people in the same bed.

So we sat waiting for the questioning and the beatings to start. We listened. We looked at each other and inspected the cell. We were getting our instincts accustomed to the heavy breathing of the dungeon. Time passed. Every once in a while the door was opened and a name was read. Over time, the risk of being called out didn’t produce any emotion from us. We were getting used to detention in the same way we had immediately accepted the unimaginable dirtiness of that hideous penitentiary.

Being at the mercy of the energumen who had taken Romania into absolute possession, we knew that we were haunted by death at every step. Slowly, cautiously, with a certain level of disgust, the discussions started: for the first time since we were locked up, we started piecing together an image of the amplitude of the demonstrations. An appeal for a general strike on December 22 was discussed insistently. Within ourselves, as is often the case with those who are isolated, our hope was getting chaotically mixed with our resignation. It is perhaps the reason why every one of us toward himself and any one of us toward the others had not yet identified as individuals again. None of us needed a name in order to consider the other a trustworthy colleague. Spontaneously, we, the imprisoned of a rebellion fallen out of the sky on the head of the bizarre Romanian people, did not need a name in order to identify ourselves.*

I record this fact with amazement, as its significance remains to be understood. We met each other—in the sense that we made our names known to each other—only when it was announced that we’d be set free in a few minutes, somewhere around the afternoon. Also at that moment, a priest from Greaca who had been arrested with us loudly delivered an extraordinary paternoster and the hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary, which starts with “It is truly right to bless you[9]…. ” I don’t know how many of those there were believers in their everyday life. But it is a fact that we all rose and all at once, as if we were asking for forgiveness, cried. It was by far the most emotional moment of the detention period.

Anyway, the wounded were eventually hospitalized and the ill got medicine only after the release order. Without this order, the militiamen would’ve left us all to die with a clear conscience that they were only doing their job.

One last detail, with a symbolic value: we were taken out of the cells into a yard that seemed sheltered from the other buildings and had the aspect of a wide trench: in there, our rings, money, watches, and IDs were given back to us. The yard had three sides of brick-and-mortar walls and one side made from soil shaped as a tall wave guarded by pavilions with soldiers armed with field machine guns. The side of the yard formed by the narrow wall was, apparently, the place where the death sentences were carried out. I got closer to it: the wall had a reddish-brown colour and the mortar was gnawed at, as if it had leprosy, by the holes left by bullets. Underneath my feet the ground was so trodden that its flatness suggested the lack of elasticity of the skin of a dead person. The wisdom of chaos had made it so that we were set free through the spot where people were usually set free of their lives. With this last symbolic coincidence, I came back into post-Ceaușescu life.

I operate under the absolute certainty that if the Communist regime in Romania had not fallen on December 22, 1989, most of those who had been arrested the day before would have been shot. The events would have followed the already practiced course by the murderers in Timișoara: beatings, arrest, torture, shootings—disposal of the bodies. For this reason, because I know to whom I owe my life, for me, starting with December 22, people are of two categories: those who went out of their homes into the streets in the morning of December 22 knowing they might get shot—and who saved my life; and those who refused to protest and who, in my opinion, consented to my obliteration from among the living. My blood relatives, for instance, protested on December 22 but were waiting, with a cowardly prudence, to see what would then happen. As were most of the people to which I belong through birth, they were also waiting for things to be decided through others so they could then take advantage, one way or the other.

I shall never forget. I would also like to say that all those who led the arrests, the inquiries, and the detentions were not regular people, nor were they normal. They were criminals, specifically paid to torture and kill. These people were groomed for such acts, and most of them loved their jobs. They will always be able to say that they were merely doing their job and/or duty. Today, as if nothing happened, they mix among us on the streets: the assassins are moving around in Romania among their former and future victims. They are only waiting for a new regime to offer them the legal possibility to intimidate, torture, and kill again.

I dedicate this memorial essay to all of those who have dared: my love is headed toward them.

January 21

  • I shall provide here the only names that I remember: Mihai (freshman student at electronics), Gradin Bogdan (whom I’ve seen again in the PNȚ[10] group at the great protest January 28, 1990, and whom I know he was then part of the hunger strikers in the University Plaza), Gabi Garabet, Andrei Ion, Alecu Ivan Ghilia, Popa Laurenţiu, Nicolescu Lucian. I was arrested together with Vali Constantinescu and was kept at IGM in the same waiting room with Mariana Berechet. Other than that, I don’t know anything else.

Note: This text first appeared under the title Unter dem Strang: die Geschichte einer Nacht, in Neue Literatur, 41. Jahrgang, Heft 1-2, Januar-Februar 1990, p. 105-110.

Translated by: Lucian Vâlsan


[1] The Militia (Miliția) was the name of the police force under Ceaușescu’s regime.

[2] Jilava Fort (also known as “Jilava Fort 13”) is the prison located in Jilava commune where political prisoners used to be taken, particularly in the early years of communism:

[3] Lubyanka is the popular name for the headquarters of the KGB and affiliated prison on Lubyanka Square in Moscow, Russia.

[4] Using one’s tongue to do the sign of the cross was common in the Communist era among Christians who were in situations where an open display of religiosity could’ve brought them repercussions.

[5] Descensus ad inferos means literally “the descent into Hell,” and in this context it is a reference to the Christian theological concept of Harrowing of Hell:

[6] This is a reference to the NKVD chief during the Stalinist purges: Nikolai Yezhov and his predecessor, Genrikh Yagoda. These two are considered by many historians as the most ruthless enforcers in the entire history of NKVD/KGB and are believed to have designed some of the Soviet-specific methods of torture.

[7] André Malraux (1901-1976) is the author of the book Man’s Fate and was the Minister for Information and Minister for Cultural Affairs during the presidencies of Charles de Gaulle in France.

[8] By “cup” it is meant the biblical concept of “cup of suffering” mentioned (among other places) in Luke 22:42 (King James Bible): “Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”

[9] The original words are “Cuvine-se cu adevărat să te cinstim….” The full translated text is available in The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (A New Translation by Members of the Faculty of Hellenic College/ Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology).

[10] PNȚ = Partidul Național Țărănesc (The National Peasants’ Party). The PNȚ group in early 1990 was an attempt to revive the pre-Communist historical party ( that had been dissolved by the Communist authorities in 1948 and had all its leaders decimated in the gulags.

Recommended Content