The Woman in the Blue Dress
“Around 5 a.m. on the 14th, everything seemed to be over. Amid a sinister silence, facing the sun as it was beginning to rise, a hideous shadow crept in from Piata Victoriei accompanied by a blood-curdling rumble in a tense crescendo (which would turn into a grotesque patter of feet). The first squadrons of miners were occupying University Square.”
Photographer Andrei Iliescu is describing a photo album he had just posted to Facebook. The day was June 14, 1990.
A France Press correspondent, Andrei Iliescu climbs the stairs to the first floor of the Intercontinental Hotel, and from its ring-shaped balcony, snaps shots of the horrors taking place below.
“The miners were hitting anybody they came across, men, women, children. Every once in a while they would glance up at me and threaten me with their cudgels.”
Around 7 a.m., he captures one of the most iconic images of the June 13-15 riots.
A dark-haired woman in a blue dress and sandals is grabbed and carried through the air by two young men wearing miners’ helmets and coveralls. All those around her are menacingly clutching their truncheons and cudgels. The woman wraps her tense fingers around her raffia bag. It looks as if an entire world is in danger. Nobody comes to her rescue.
25 years later, former President Ion Iliescu, who had thanked the miners for “establishing order” in University Square, is being prosecuted for “crimes against humanity” in the June 1990 riots.
Today, we wanted to find out who the woman in the blue dress was, if she was still alive, and if she was still in the country. We looked, and we found her.
"I'd rather be a loafer..."
Her name is Ioana-Izabela Odor, she used to work as a researcher for the Metrology Institute and is 64 years old. She is retired now, and receives us in a small room full of paperwork, stamps, and receipts. The brave woman from 1990 has no intention of being idle - she is president of her tenants association.
Izabela Odor was among those who had pinned a “Loafer” badge on her lapel in protest of Ion Iliescu’s labeling of the University Square demonstrators.
For 52 days in the spring of 1990, the center of Romania’s capital was occupied by citizens unwilling to accept that the second echelon members of the former Communist Party had clung to power under the guise of the National Salvation Front, despite Iliescu’s initial promises that the Front would not morph into a political party.
Thousands of people - in fact, tens of thousands at the apex of what was a marathon demonstration were congregating every evening to listen to speeches delivered from the University balcony, to pray and to sing. One particular chorus would become emblematic for the protest:
I'd rather be a drifter
Than a traitor,
I'd rather be a hooligan
Than a dictator,
I'd rather be a loafer
Than a party cadre,
I'd rather be dead
Than a communist!
The University Square phenomenon began on April 22, 1990, but lost its momentum and magnetism after Iliescu’s landslide victory in the May 20 elections where he received 85% of the votes and the National Salvation Front got 66%. The Student League had withdrawn from the protest and only a handful of people were still gathering at night. The enthusiasm and hope had all but disappeared.
On the morning of June 13, the police received orders to clear out the Square and the City Hall sent equipment to pick up the tents, blankets, placards and personal belongings of those still remaining in the self-declared “neo-communism-free zone”.
Izabela Odor put on her lapel pin badge and went to sing “We’re not leaving here, we’re not going home” one more time.
The violence got out of control after several police buses were set on fire - which proved to be the provocation intended to justify the authorities’ use of force.
Izabela Odor, who was 39 at the time, rushed to her relatives to watch the televised coverage of the events unfolding in the square. “Of course they were not broadcasting anything, just some lies,” she now recalls.
"And they started to beat me..."
"That night, the 13th to 14th of June, I listened to the BBC and understood the miners had arrived in Bucharest. Leaving my relatives' home, I had to take the subway, either at the Romana Square or at University. Of course I went to University, around 7 in the morning. So I reach the boulevard, where the Liberal Party now has their headquarters, across the street from Dalles. There, at the top of the building, was the supervisory unit of my institute. Across the street, the miners were beating a gray-haired man wearing a white shirt. They were covering him in blood."
Izabela Odor says it did not occur to her to keep quiet and walk on. What's more, she actually took the old man's aggressors to task.
This is her testimony.
"I started to make a scene: What's this? Is this democracy? The miners surrounded me. A guy in a blue overalls and a workers' helm, which sat all wrong on his head, appeared. He had a long rod, a ruler.
I was talking, speaking loudly. He started yelling: Misses, get to work! To work, misses!
- But what are you doing here?, I asked.
- Oh, yeah?, he went, and whistled with two fingers in his mouth.
The next moment, I'm telling you, I have no idea where from, a bunch of strong men in black coveralls appeared. They started to give me a taste of their truncheons... I don't know what they were, they pretended to be miners, but their coveralls were new - black and new.
They hit me twice, like this, and I slapped one of them - whack! And they started to beat me. A beating with rubber truncheons ensued. Of course it hurt, they took my hands, you can see in the picture, and from the Liberal Party headquarters, there, they crossed the boulevard with me to take me... To the Police! To the Police!, they were shouting."
"Beat her! Hit her! She was shouting, 'Down with Iliescu!".
Nobody came to her rescue. The street was not deserted, but the few women there were actively encouraging the miners.
"When they started beating me, there were a couple of women in the street. One of them, slightly older, you know, the type with large grocery bags, as we used to say, and another one that I'd had an argument with the previous evening. Well, what I couldn't understand was... a bunch of women see another woman grabbed and dragged by huge men, and they shout encouragements: There you go! Beat her! Hit her! She was shouting, 'Down with Iliescu!'. So the men grabbed me from under the women's noses, crossed the street with me, and we arrived at the Batistei intersection where I tripped and fell at their feet. I told myself, That's the end of you, honey! This is where you die!".
She was afraid the miners would kick her. She knows, as she did back then, that they could have murdered or mutilated her. To this day she thanks God she managed to get away.
"They picked me up and carried me towards the National Theatre... Or was it a hotel? I don't remember. There it was full of miners, black coveralls left and right... But in the lobby there was a guy in a white shirt who was presented all that were captured. There was another woman there, and a man, older than me, who'd also been beaten. It was my understanding they were sending them to the Coltea Hospital. I told the guy, 'Mister, I am going to work! What have you got against me? I live in the neighborhood!' He looks at me and says, 'Let her be!'
They took me from there, they made me cross the University Square and they brought me towards the Army House, 'Lady, go from here...' I kept telling him this and that, that it's not right. I didn't feel how badly beaten I was because I was in shock. You can imagine. But I kept preaching, I was telling him, 'History shall punish you!'
Then he said to me, 'Lady, these people have come here directly from their shifts and we cannot control them anymore!' He even introduced himself, I don't remember his name, but he was an engineer. Close to home, I came across the two women with grocery bags, 'Aha! They beat you! Serves you well!"
The newspaper on the wall
When she got home, her neighbors came and helped her undress, wash, and bandage her wounds. "My back was blue, my hips and arms were blue".
Luckily, she had gotten away with little more than bruises and a broken tooth. She obtained a forensic certificate and spent two weeks on sick leave.
Today, she has the strength to joke about it. "I used to sleep on my belly, like this, like a frog", she says and leans over her paper-filled desk stretching out her arms along her body.
She first saw the photograph Andrei Iliescu had taken of her in the "Free World" newspaper printed in the United States.
"A couple of Romanians from New York were on their way to the airport, to get to Bucharest, and they were handing out these newspapers to passengers so that they would be aware that there is another version of events, different from the official one. There I was in one of those newspapers, surrounded by miners - a picture taken from above the intersection. Oh boy, my colleagues put it up on the wall at work!
Now I can tell the story and laugh, but back then I couldn't even speak for a few days... from the excitement, from all the screaming I had done to be left alone. My mother once told me, when I was younger, 'If anybody attacks you, scream at the top of your lungs!' I was screaming at the miners, they were telling me to shout, 'Live Iliescu!' instead. I didn't shout that, but I could have died there".
"Let there be a sentence, even a suspended sentence"
All these years, Izabela Odor has had mixed feelings about Ion Iliescu. At first, she hated him. When the miners came again to Bucharest in the fall of 1991 to topple Petre Roman’s government, she thought she was witnessing the fall of Iliescu’s power too.
Although she had barely escaped the previous year, she mingled among them. The miners were shouting slogans against Roman, she was shouting, ‘Down with Iliescu!’
Later, during the 1996 elections when Emil Constantinescu won, she thought justice would be done. But in 2000 she saw Iliescu take up quarters at the Cotroceni Palace once again.
Now, after she has found out that the three-time President will be prosecuted for the miners’ riots of June 1990, she does not necessarily picture him in handcuffs.
“I would like to see a sentence, even a suspended sentence. Well, because he asked the miners to come, he thanked them! Later, for humanitarian reasons, let’s say, he doesn’t actually have to go to jail... But history has to record that he got punished for this. I’m not keen on seeing Iliescu shackled, but something like this must never happen again, that’s the idea.”
After all these years in which the perpetrators have enjoyed protection - I ask her - was it worth getting beaten in the University Square?
“Europe looked upon us accordingly, the whole world saw what Iliescu did. They saw his autocratic attitude and how he instigated one social group against another. He turned the miners, if there were really miners among them, against protesters for freedom. Using bludgeons and beatings instead of a peaceful exchange of ideas.”
Did she ever have nightmares, was she ever afraid to walk down the street at night all these years?
“No. I was so convinced I had done the right thing, so convinced that one day justice would be done, that I never experienced fear.”
She no longer has the blue dress. She gave it away one rainy day to a woman with a small child. Izabela is a real treasure of a woman.
She accompanies us to the door of her apartment building, and, as we're trotting down the stairs, she exclaims with a smile:
"Good bye, and... you know, 'Down with Iliescu!'".