Romania 1989: rapid action

17-12-2009 Interview

In December 1989, the ICRC reacted rapidly to the violent events that led to the fall of the Ceausescu regime. An interview with Francis Amar, the former head of the ICRC's operations in Europe


  Photo collection: Romania 1989: the end of the Cold War and the start of ICRC operations in Europe   
Francis Amar, former head of the ICRC's Europe and North America Region 
   What operations did you undertake in this fast-moving context, one that was completely new for the ICRC in this region?  

At the time, the ICRC zone that covered Europe and North America was somewhat unusual, in that it wasn’t undertaking any operations.

The situation in Romania had started to deteriorate around 16 December 1989. But Romania was a very closed country, one that the ICRC didn’t know well. When the situation worsened, we had no contacts on the ground who could have helped us to see more clearly what was going on.

We had already made an “offer of services” to the permanent mission of Romania to the UN in Geneva. No reply. The media were starting to report that people were taking to the streets, something quite unknown in Romania. That’s when we realised that things were hotting up.

On the morning of 22 December, I went to the permanent mission again. I was met by a terrified chargé d’affaires, who was clearly very worried about being unable to contact Bucharest himself, and hence being unable to give me a reply.

I came back to ICRC headquarters, where the decision was taken to go to Bucharest regardless. The ICRC doesn’t often do that.

We took the decision to go into Romania at quarter to twelve on the last working day before Christmas. So we had to start mobilizing people. I went down to the cafeteria, where the annual Christmas lunch was just starting, and found the head of the relief division, Andreas Lendorff. I dragged him away from his Christmas lunch, took him aside and told him “We're going into Romania. Today.”

At 6 p.m., two aircraft took off from Geneva airport. One was occupied by six delegates, led by me. The other was carrying 3 tonnes of medicines and medical supplies.

That morning, we’d been at the permanent mission to get a response. At 11.45 we took a decision. At mid-day we started to mobilize. At 6 p.m. the aircraft took off and at 9 p.m. we landed in Bucharest.

 The ICRC operation started on the evening of 22 December. What was the situation like when you arrived, and what were your priorities?  

We rented two planes, loaded them and took off. A few hours later, we were over Bucharest.

It was 9 p.m. The pilot called up Bucharest tower to request permission to land. The reply was “No. The airport is closed. You can not land. You must leave.” He insisted … “Red Cross flight …” etc. Still no clearance to land. “Now what?” he asked. “Listen, is it physically possible for us to land?” His response was “It’s a bit dodgy, because we need landing lights. But I'll see.” Then, to the tower: “We are going to land. Please switch on the landing lights.” Basically, we forced them to let us land, and land we did.

The airport had closed a few hours previously, leaving hundreds of passengers from all over Europe stranded. We couldn’t get out of the airport either. The army had taken control of the place and they were in the middle of a stand-off with the Securitate (the paramilitary security police), still loyal to the old regime, whose leaders were trying to flee the country. The Securitate troops were trying to capture the airport so they could leave, while the army was defending the airport and preventing them from doing so.

We were stuck at the airport for about two-and-a-half days.

While we were stuck there, our main tasks were to look after all these stranded civilians, stop the soldiers shooting the prisoners they were holding in the basement and contact our Romanian Red Cross colleagues in Bucharest, to organize our transfer to the city. We also treated the wounded, most of whom had bullet or shrapnel wounds.

 We now know that the number of victims was hugely exaggerated. Were you aware of the discrepancy between the numbers in the media and the reality on the ground?  

No, not initially. When the ICRC decided to go into Bucharest, it based its operation on the information available in the media at the time. We were expecting to find bodies everywhere.

There were casualties in the various hospitals, because there had been fighting, but it was a question of hundreds, not thousands. It took us a few days to realise that while the situation was serious, it was nothing like as dramatic as one might have feared.

 What were the top priorities in terms of humanitarian aid during the emergency phase?  

There were medical needs, but not necessarily those we expected. We thought the hospitals were going to be short of blood, for instance. In fact, they weren’t. The blood banks were working pretty well, and there were donors. There was a need for some more sophisticated medical supplies, but the needs were nothing like sufficient to justify the aid that was arriving in Romania.

The ICRC action that had the greatest impact in the first few days was our intervening on an ad hoc basis to prevent summary executions.

Even at the airport, ICRC delegates were confronted with situations where, clearly, people were about to be executed on the spot wit hout trial. If the ICRC had not happened to be on the spot at that moment, with a delegate who could raise his voice, intervene and physically prevent this, a few more lives would have been lost. The delegates took a few risks, certainly, but it was the only thing to do.

Once of the delegates’ most important tasks was to explain to all the people we spoke to the importance of not getting into a “revenge at any price” mentality. They had to try and calm things down and remind people of a few basic rules of international humanitarian law.

 The events in Romania provoked a worldwide wave of solidarity, which was in fact out of proportion to the needs. What do you particularly remember about this huge mobilization, especially by the Movement?  

National Societies from all over the world wanted to help the people of Romania, who were assumed to be half dead of hunger. They weren’t. During the two days following our arrival, about 30 aircraft landed at Bucharest from all over, full of all sorts of goodies. When the first team was able to leave the airport on 24 December, I left Jean-François Berger in charge of coordinating the arrival of the aid that was beginning to converge on Bucharest via this, the only entry point for airborne freight. He did an amazing job over the next few days, helping these people to unload their aircraft, storing the supplies in a hangar and assessing what we had and what we could best do with it.

 What was the role of the Romanian Red Cross, and how did you work with them?  

At the time of Ceausescu, the Romanian Red Cross was completely under government control. The new political authorities quickly appointed a new president of the National Society, and she set up lots of very useful contacts for us, bu t her role wasn’t easy. Not only was she new to all things Red Cross, she was also wearing two hats – deputy health minister and chair of the Romanian Red Cross.

The Romanian Red Cross helped us set up a central depot, in which we concentrated all the aid the National Societies were sending to Romania. From there, we could redistribute these goods, mainly through Romanian Red Cross volunteers.