A train journey for dozens
CLUJ-NAPOCA, ROMANIA-- His train was pulling into the Bucharest station when the phone rang. Marc Paul, a 24-year-old geology student from Cluj-Napoca, a city of 326.000 people located 324 kilometers to the northwest, was on his way to a massive anti-corruption protest that rocked the Romanian capital earlier this year. His mother Elena was on the line.
“We couldn’t be more proud of the man you’ve become,” the 48-year-old woman said, with voice trembling as she asked her son to pick up where her generation seemed to have failed. “During the revolution, we were exactly your age now. We had at our feet a hurt, recovering world, and above a cloudy sky. We thought that we only had to look up and the sky would become clear. But it was not like that.”
Marc Paul is his parents’ offspring in every possible way. Even from a young age, the thin, big-eyed student proved himself courageous in speaking his mind and fighting against injustice. “He was always fascinated when we discussed our history,” Elena said. Inspired by his parents’ activism during the Romanian Revolution in 1989, he organized a 50-strong group of students to join anti-corruption rallies in the Romanian capital.
With his parents’ words in mind, national colors painted on his face, Marc’s group got off the train and headed for Victory Square chanting “Be afraid, the students raise!”.
The first rays of the sun have found the students still in the Square, in a frenetic and energetic atmosphere. Even though they went without sleep that night and the day was unspeakable cold, the students continued singing and jumping with banners, as if energized by the promise of the new dawn. Crammed into large groups in order to warm up, they kept chanting “Cluj is here since 1989” and “Bucharest, don’t forget!/Cluj is on your side!”.
“We wanted to show that, as just like in 1989 when the students did not sleep, we didn’t sleep either this time,” Marc said.
The need for change
This time, half a million Romanians took to the streets after the government passed a decree to decriminalize corruption involving sums of less than 200,000 lei. Approved overnight on New Year’s Eve and without any input from parliament, the decree would have stopped all investigations for pending corruption offences, freed officials imprisoned for corruption, and blocked further investigations related to those offences from being brought to justice.
“We, the students, have so far participated in protests, even if the world did not know. It was about our future,” said Alexandru, one of the students who traveled with Marc from Cluj-Napoca to Bucharest.
Some 200 thousand students gathered from across Romania to participate in the protests, said Victor Hornicu, professor of contemporary politics at the Faculty of European Studies from Babeș Bolyai University in Cluj. In his view, the number demonstrates a real need for change. “This impressive number of students screams for democracy,” he said. “Those nights, thousands of voices became one in the fight against corruption.”
An adventure inspired by parents
Activism against corruption runs in the Paul family for a long time. Elena and Viorel, Marc’s parents, were student leaders during the Romanian Revolution, which led to the death of former head of state, Nicolae Ceaușescu, and the fall of Communism in Romania. The two then secretly organized daily protests in the Union Square in Cluj-Napoca.
Using a complex system of coded messages based on student slang, the two managed to trip the Securitate -the Romanian secret police at that time- into not suspecting their actions. “It was extremely dangerous, of course,” Elena said. According to her husband, they lived in fear all their student life. “We used to walk the streets with our heads down and with our stomachs upside down from the fear,” the 52-year-old man said. Viorel, now a grey-haired truck driver with baggy clothes, said he was interrogated several times by the Securitate, but he was never beaten or imprisoned. “They knew I was up to something but they didn’t have enough proof to charge me,” he said.
Marc’s mother, an accountant for a small construction firm in Cluj, said she doesn’t regret her actions, even though the result was disappointing. “Romania became a democratic country only with the name,” the short-haired elegant woman said. “The descendants of the communists are still running the country and are spreading corruption everywhere.”
However, Marc witnessed another small victory for Romanians. After he attended three nights of protests in Bucharest, the coalition withdrew the controversial executive order as it became clear that they lacked the mandate to implement the law. A day after the decree was scrapped, Marc got on the train to Cluj-Napoca more confident in the Romanian youth than ever before.
Now back to his fourth year at university, the student dreams at continuing his activism in education and social change for youth.
“I want change,” he said. “And we, the youth, are the source of that.”