BUCHAREST -- Cristina Strugaru was not among the almost 16 million Romanians who voted in the recent national elections here. It is not that she is not a patriot. It is just that she feels she already has given the revolution more than enough.
"I will not vote, no," she says, tugging at her only black dress, uncomfortable in the humid Balkan spring. "The shock has been too great."
Instead, Strugaru, a shy 21-year-old, spent election day the same way she has passed every day for the past five months.
After a quick breakfast of powdered milk and weak cocoa, she dressed her 18-month-old twin daughters in donated clothes, bounced their stroller down five flights of dark apartment-house steps and headed for the Cimitirul Eroilor Tineri, or Cemetery of the Young Heroes. This is the final resting place for her husband of two years, Ioan, and 400 others who died during the violent uprising that toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
For many Romanians, the pain and fear of those days has faded in the excitement and novelty of the first real election campaign in 53 years. But for regular visitors to the cemetery, time has frozen in those cold, angry days of December.
The cemetery is not the traditional contemplative setting one might expect. It was dug out of a playground back in December when someone realized there was no room for new graves at the big city cemetery next door. Its bare-earth grounds sit beside a busy city street, and the keening of mourners is often drowned out by the grinding of bus gears.
Outside the hastily erected front gates, women sell bright orange penny candles. The cheap wax melts fast. Rivers of it run down the dusty grave fronts like gaudy holiday streamers.
What the cemetery lacks in pastoral pretensions it makes up for in wild invention. Many of the graves appear to be works in process, with the lived-in look of someone's living room. At one grave, a man with a metal file and trowel is setting out a cinder-block border, his suit jacket hanging from the carved wooden cross that serves as a headstone. At another gravesite, a man works with a welding torch.
The graves are but two feet wide and so closely packed that there is barely room to walk between them. They are not flat but raised, as if the dead had burrowed down into the earth for safety. The tops of the graves are raised even higher by a carpet of wide-mouthed glass jars stuffed with fresh-cut tulips, poppies and pansies.
One grave sprouts a Romanian flag and above that, in a place of honor, there is an old oil lamp that keeps a small flame and sends out a curling wisp of black smoke. The grave of a young air force officer is marked by an upright propeller blade. Some graves are marked by wrought-iron stand-alone gates, six-foot doorways to the beyond hammered in someone's back-yard forge.
"Mihai," reads the hand-painted sign on one such gate, "your sacrifice for liberty and peace was not in vain. You'll be alive forever." A newspaper obituary notice laminated in plastic informs passersby that Mihai, age 19, was shot and then run over by a secret-police van while running on the Palace Square from which Ceausescu's helicopter lifted off on Dec. 22.
By midday at the cemetery it is usually hot, dusty and crowded. Burly village ladies with flowered headscarves walk the lanes between the graves alongside office workers in ill-fitting, three-piece suits and carefully shined shoes. One of the country ladies is at the grave of Cristina Strugaru's husband. She is singing an atonal lament. This is Cristina's mother-in-law, Elizaveta, a widow herself. She is old and she mourns in the old way, sobbing unashamedly and composing her verses as she goes along:
"Ioanel, I'm calling for you,
"Open your mouth and talk to me,
"Your mother is waiting for you.
"But you were in the coffin on the dining room table,
"Who is going to tell your father,
"Who is going to take pity on your daughters?"
Her daughter-in-law, Cristina, of a different generation, seldom cries in public now. Instead, she busies herself replacing dead flowers and keeping an eye on the children, who sit playing in the dust.
Ioan Strugaru was 26 when he died, an electrician and homebody who was lured out of the house and into the revolution on Dec. 24.
"That morning the television said, 'There is no shooting; come out without fear,' " Cristina Strugaru remembers. "We heard shooting, but we went out anyway."
On the first day of the revolution they went downtown together, walking two hours because the streetcars were not working. She saw soldiers and civilians shot. That night, as she and Ioan cowered, terrified and excited, in a doorway they saw a hail of tracer bullets that she remembers as a "red cloud."
She was afraid, but her husband was exhilarated. "He said that if we didn't go out into the streets, the deaths in Timisoara would be for nothing."
Ioan Strugaru went out the door on Dec. 24 and never came back. At the streetcar stop a block away, a sniper's bullet hit him in the chest. He raised his shirt and said, "God, look," before collapsing, an eyewitness said later. A passing car took him to the local clinic, where the nurses put him on a door for a stretcher and sent him on to the city hospital.
Well-meaning neighbors told Cristina Strugaru that her husband had suffered "just a little scratch." She waited all night expecting him home. At 6 a.m. she went to the clinic and then on to the hospital intending to donate blood for her husband. At the hospital she found his name on the list of the dead. "After two weeks I buried him. Then I set out to retrace his steps." She believes the few feet he stumbled before he fell were his attempt to get home to her and the children.
In the early days of the revolution, the provisional government promised Strugaru and others like her special attention worthy of a "hero's" survivors. They were promised a one-time payment of 15,000 lei, or roughly $714, plus the first pick of the food, clothes and medical aid that came to Romania from the United States and Western Europe after the revolution.
But many of the families entitled to the help never received it, according to citizens groups that have sprung up to press their cause. Strugaru, for example, receives $71 a month in widow's benefits from the government to help raise her children. The citizens groups note bitterly that secret policemen receive a monthly pension of at least $380.
Strugaru does not complain but she will say she has not received the fresh fruit and whole milk that heroes' families were led to believe they would receive. Instead, she got a few cases of Russian canned fish and anemic-looking canned peas. When the clothes she was sent to pick up at the local government office turned out to be rumpled secondhand goods, she lost her temper. The clerk then went into a back room and pulled out two brand-new, tot-size snow parkas made in Spain, and matching sweat shirt and corduroy trouser sets from West Germany.
Sometimes it is hard for Strugaru to remember what the revolution was for. Food lines are as long as they were before in her crumbling neighborhood of ugly apartment blocks. The new glut of newspapers does not reach her. And unlike in central Bucharest, where oranges and bananas are often seen now, there is little fresh fruit, milk or quality meat to be had. The children eat a lot of potatoes, and they have the pasty faces to show for it.
Last summer, Cristina and her husband took the girls to the beach on the Black Sea. They posed with model sailboats, splashed in the waves and gorged on fresh fried fish and ice cream.
And this summer? "I have no plans," she says simply.
Most likely she will stay in sticky Bucharest, half hoping her bereaved mother-in-law will visit to help with the children and half dreading it.
In the meantime, she goes to the cemetery. With the other widows, mothers and fathers, she travels back into that cold winter. "We talk about how they died, where they fought, what they felt in the last seconds of their lives," Cristina Strugaru says.
"I go there and I feel lighter."