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Romania's Rush To Judge Ceausescu Haunts Retired General


All right, we should warn you, this next story could be disturbing to some listeners. So if you're with young children, you might want to turn the radio down for the next three and a half minutes or so.

Twenty-five years ago this Christmas, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his hated wife, Elena, were executed by a firing squad. Their deaths ended a quarter century of oppression and misery for most Romanians. And yet, many in that country, including some of their opponents, questioned the summary nature of their trial and sentence. One of those people is the commander of the military base were the notorious couple spent their final four days. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently met the retired general in his home north of the capital, Bucharest.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Andrei Kemenici lives in a two-room apartment near the military base in Targoviste where the Ceausescus were killed on his watch on Christmas day 1989.

ANDREI KEMENICI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: The 78-year-old retired general likes to make jokes about how communism is better than democracy for Romanians like him. But his smile fades when I ask him about Ceausescu and his legacy. Kemenici says he resented the last communist leader using him and other soldiers to bring their countrymen to heal.

KEMENICI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: He adds, given that Ceausescu regime routinely killed Romanians, there was no other sentence possible for the dictator other than death. But when police brought the Ceausescu to then Colonel Kemenici's headquarters on December 22, 1989, he says he was actually ready to protect them with his life. He says his order from his superiors was to hide the couple and make sure they came to no harm. But Kemenici says the order wasn't always easy to obey given the dictator constantly needled him.

KEMENICI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: He says every time he met with Ceausescu, the prisoner would shout, hey colonel, don't you know, I'm the one protecting the sovereignty and unity of Romania. Kemenici says Ceausescu's attitude changed the day before his trial as if he realized he'd lost control Romania.

KEMENICI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: I was no longer his slave. From then on, Ceausescu called me comrade colonel. Kemenici says he promised the leader that he and his wife would be moved to Bucharest for a proper trial. But his superiors had other plans.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: After a brief military trial, the chief judge, Gica Popa convicted the Ceausescus of genocide and sentenced them to death.


NELSON: It wasn't until soldiers came and bound them before hauling them outside that the couple understood what was about to happen.


KEMENICI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: Kemenici says everyone other than Popa watched the execution. Instead, he stayed behind and rummaged through desk. The retired general recalls telling Popa, you didn't see what you did. Popa took off his cap, made a sign of the cross and said God help us. Then he laughed and said, you know what? They still deserved it.

Kemenici says he's convinced Popa killed himself a decade later because he felt guilty. He says Romanian officials rushed to judgment, never gave the Ceausescus a chance to reflect on their actions. But Kemenici says he thinks about what happened every day.

KEMENICI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: His granddaughter, Eliza Burcea, arrives and gives him a hug. Like her granddad, the 23-year-old feels Ceausescu deserved his fate, but questions the process.

ELIZA BURCEA: Yes, I think it haunts everybody.

NELSON: But Burcea says she is proud of the role her grandfather played. She says without men like him, democracy might never have come to Romania. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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