Timisoara Massacre

On December 16, 1989, thousands of people took to the streets of Timisoara in Romania to protest food shortages, harassment of a dissident ethnic-Hungarian priest, Laszlo Tokes, and the dictatorship of Nicholai Ceausescu in general. Many protestors were teenagers and students. Timisoara, near the border with Hungary, was the country’s second largest city and the brutal suppression of these protests marked the beginning of the end for the Ceausescu regime.

A few days after the massacre in Timisoara, Ceausescu gave a speech in Bucharest before one hundred thousand people, who shouted down the eccentric tyrant with the cries of “Timisoara!” and “Down with the murderers!” Ceausescu tried to escape the country with $1 billion, but he was captured and executed. It was the last of the popular uprisings against communist rule in eastern Europe that year, and the only one that turned violent.

With Ceausescu gone, Western journalists are invited to see the horrors of the Ceausescu regime.

Already on the day Ceausescu was overthrown, locals in Timisoara were unearthing mass graves. In Timisoara, there were 65 deaths and 268 injuries on the first day of the demonstrations, on December 17. On the following days, the Communist authorities attempted to hide the deaths by announcing that the missing students had fled across the Yugoslav border. To support this lie, the corporse were taken out of the Timișoara county hospital and secretly incinerated. It was in this desperate and paranoid atmosphere that the inhabitants of Timișoara began to dig up public gardens, canals, vacant lots, and major cemeteries to find their loved ones.

On December 22, 1989, the interim Romanian government showcased nineteen bodies found in a shallow grave as the victims of the dictatorship. Yugoslav news agency Tanjug quoted a death toll of 4,630, a number later picked up by other Yugoslav and Hungarian news agencies, and by the usually reputable French news agency AFP.

Robert Maass took the above infamous photograph of an unidentified man crying over the bodies of a mother and an infant. Although it was widely assumed otherwise at the time, it later transpired that the crying man and the dead women were not the dead infant’s parents. One month later, it turned out that the corpses were of people who died before the protest even took place: the mother died of cirrhosis, and the infant of crib death (or sudden infant death syndrome).


The local authorities stage-managed the gruesome event primarily for the international media. As the media in Romania was tightly controlled by the state, many international news network repeated raw footage coming in from the Romanian television, adding to the misinformation. Absurd news coverage followed, with one breathless report in TF1, France’s most popular domestic network, reading:

Ceaușescu, suffering from leukemia, would have needed to change his blood every month. Young people drained of their blood would have been discovered in the Carpathian forest. Ceaușescu vampire? How to believe it? Rumor had announced mass graves. They were found in Timișoara. And these are not the last.”

The magazine L’Événement du jeudi repeated similar claims in December 28, 1989: “Dracula was communist.”

By then, AFP journalists were privately noting that the death toll of 70,000 reported throughout Romania was probably greatly exaggerated. On January 27, 1990, Colette Braeckman wrote in Le Soir: “I Saw Nothing in Timisoara” and questioned the images shown on televisions worldwide. Three days later, Le Figaro confirmed that the dead shown on television had been unearthed from a “pauper’s cemetery.”

Controversy followed, and Timisoara became a byword for media manipulation and sensationalism. It is a photoevent that clearly illustrates the themes we have again and again seen: Can we rely on photographs, and by extension, photographers? Can photographers and newsmen escape from attempts to manipulate them?

It is now believed that the number of dead in Timisoara was probably fewer than 100. Ten years on, the BBC mused whether the key events of the revolution were stage-managed by enemies of democracy (namely the anti-Ceausescu forces within the ruling elite) and whether the Romanian revolution was not a revolution, but rather a coup d’etat. Today, some twenty years after these events, with Romania firmly inside the European Union, we often forget that communist allies controlled politics and economy in Romania until 1996, and that successive Romanian governments blocked attempts to prosecute those responsible for the bloodsheds of 1989.

 

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