Why Christmas has two meanings in Romania: Paul Davies returns 30 year after reporting on the fall of Ceausescu

  • By ITV News Correspondent Paul Davies

On Christmas Day 30 years ago Dorin Cirlan squeezed the trigger of his automatic rifle and put a bloody end to the rule of one of Eastern Europe’s most powerful dictators.

Cirlan, then a junior officer in an elite parachute unit of the Romanian Army, had been hand chosen to be part of a three man firing squad that would carry out the death sentence just passed on the country’s Communist President Nicholae Ceausescu and his wife Elena.

Three decades on he showed me around the now disused military barracks in the town of Targoviste where the Ceausescu's were tried and executed.

"The biggest shock was their appearance," he said.

"Propaganda made them out to Gods but he was just a poor old man, filthy, unkempt, fearful. His wife was the same," he added.

  • Paul Davies reporting from inside the besieged Romania TV Station in Bucharest

The makeshift courtroom has been left just as it was that day in 1989.

The small wooden seats where the pair listened to accusations of genocide and corruption are still in the same place.

As the former paratrooper guided me out to the courtyard where the couple would be shot he confirmed there had never been any doubt about the outcome.

Before the trial began the three members of the firing squad had been told what their roles would be.

"At least we granted their last wish that they died together," he said, before adding quickly that he didn’t feel bad about what he did as it was in the best interests of his country.

You could argue that I was one of those who benefited from the gruesome death of Ceausescu and his wife.

By Christmas Day 1989 along with my ITN camera crew I had already spent four days under fire at the state television station TVR.

Many of those who guarded the TV station were students. Credit: ITV On Assignment

The imposing tower block with its huge television mast on top had become the heart of the revolution.

Journalists and technicians there, used to working under the control and censorship of Ceausescu’s Communist Party, had seized the opportunity to tell the country that the dictator was losing his grip.

Leaders of the various revolutionary groups had made the TV station their headquarters.

Inevitably it became a target as forces still loyal to the President including many of his dreaded Securitate secret police launched an attack to silence those who were now calling themselves Free Romanian TV.

The television building had its defenders, hundreds of them.

At first it had been students arming themselves with home made petrol bombs but soon they were joined by young soldiers from the Romanian Army.

The streets around TVR became a battleground.

People took to the streets in a December uprising against Nicolae Ceasescu's 24-year long communist regime. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Day and night the buildings defenders exchanged gunfire with snipers who had taken up positions in the surrounding houses.

For my ITN team, cameraman Sam Gracey, sound recordist Paul Douglas, producer Peter Wallace and field editor Brian Packer, it was a Christmas week that will never be forgotten.

Along with the Romanian television workers we slept on the floor of the besieged building when the battle raging outside would allow it.

It was dangerous and lacking creature comforts but it was also the only place in Bucharest at that time you could send television reports back to the UK.

I even presented News at Ten live from inside the siege.

Christmas Day began with the ITN team again waking up on the floor greeted by our Romanian colleagues with bread and cheese that had been smuggled in at great risk by brave young people who had dodged the bullets of snipers who clearly were not observing this special day.

In fact Christmas Day would be a turning point in this revolution and the spilling of blood would play a key part as we were soon reporting the arrest of the fugitive President Ceausescu and the trial that was staged immediately and would be followed by his execution.

The television people wanted to broadcast proof that Ceausescu was dead saying only then would those still following him believe their cause had been lost.

Late on Christmas night the new authorities taking charge of the country released the pictures of the deposed ruler’s lifeless body at the foot of the wall where he had been shot .

From that moment there was indeed a marked reduction in the street fighting.

Within a couple of days the ITN team was able to leave its Christmas home in the TV station.

Dorin-Marian Cirlan at the wall where Romanian dictator Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were shot on Christmas Day 1989. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Whatever the moral arguments over the death of Ceausescu, and it would soon become clear his trial had been a farce, there can be little doubt the grim sentence carried out by paratrooper Dorin Cirlan and his two colleagues effectively ended any resistance to this revolution.

Thirty years on Cirlan believes what he did was a good thing for Romania though he can still see the elderly couple in their final seconds in front of the firing squad.

The memories particularly strong this time of year.

Three decades later returning to Bucharest for ITV’s On Assignment programme I also revisited the television station and found opinions had mellowed since that day when many of them had celebrated the dictator’s violent death.

Dorin-Marian Cirlan was one of three soldiers who carried out the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Credit: ITV On Assignment

"I regret that it was like that. It wasn’t human in fact," said ElMarie Ionescu, now retired but back then head of TVR’s International section and ITN’s Christmas angel providing us with with food and somewhere to escape the bullets as well as the means to send reports back to London.

"Ceausescu wasn’t human with us but that doesn’t mean that we had to be like that too," she added.

ElMarie prefers to remember the positives of that Christmas.

The nights spent sharing floor space in a building under siege, days spent sharing meagre provisions as well as the dangers, forged friendships that endure to this day.

For very different reasons, the man from the firing squad and all of us who spent Christmas 1989 in Romania will never forget it.

Written in memory of Paul Douglas, ITN’s sound recordist in 1989 and in so many ways a star of our coverage of the revolution.

Paul would become a highly respected cameraman and died working for CBS in Iraq.

Never forgotten by those who had the privilege to know him.

  • You can watch Paul Davies return to Romania 30 years after covering the fall of Ceausescu on Tuesday night, 'On Assignment' on ITV at 11:15pm