BUCHAREST, ROMANIA -- This city, dusty, disheveled, demoralized, wears its heart on its sleeve. Its grief is visible. It is like some vast outdoor funeral parlor, with flowers, wilting or dead, everywhere -- on window ledges at University Square, on sidewalks by lovely old 19th-century townhouses half demolished by Nicolae Ceausescu in his frenzied construction of a triumphal route from the white marble "Palace of the People" to his own.
Candles, narrow tapers made of animal fat instead of wax, burn at all hours. Some of them are sheltered in rusting little black-metal stovelike shrines. At the heart of this panorama of sorrow stands the startling new "Cemetery of Heroes" with stark white marble crosses jammed close to each other right to the sidewalk. On a Sunday afternoon, it is crowded with ill-dressed mourners, tending the plants, looking at the tombstone pictures of the mostly young casualties of the December revolution.
A young flier is buried with his propeller. The question in the air seems to be, "What did they die for?"
The December revolt was bloody. But after the events in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, it was at least expected. What happened in June is a raw wound. No one thought that Ion Iliescu, the new president, would so soon demonstrate what they had feared from the first -- that he is not dedicated to democracy. Hundreds of miners, carrying crowbars and clubs, swarmed into Bucharest and bludgeoned dwindling dissidents into the ground. Iliescu, a man with a Nixonian smile, denies he summoned the miners, although he thanked them on television when their bloody work was done. Just two weeks ago he told a delegation led by Sen. Robert Dole that he had no choice but to accept "help": The police couldn't cope, and the army refused his orders.
Romanians feel they are better off than under Ceausescu, whose regime was more vicious and suffocatingly Stalinist than Moscow's. But they obviously think they booted their chances. A tattered sign in University Square, a last relic of the dissidents -- "Neo-Communist Free Zone" -- imparts a sinking feeling of "all's to do again."
Why did Romanians give Iliescu such an overwhelming mandate -- 85 per cent of the vote? Because they knew him? He was a high official of the Communist Party who broke with Ceausescu in 1971 but never lost his place in the party. During the events of December, he seized the television station and became Romania's most famous and popular public figure. Some say that Romania voted for Iliescu because it did not want to make a complete break with the past. Communism, particularly the Ceausescu brand, was hideous but at least it guaranteed jobs and light work. Democracy represented a risk.
The reason could be simply new proof of the old political adage: "You can't beat somebody with nobody." The candidates of the other parties had between them 48 years of exile. In Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the people voted for strangers on the premise that anyone is better than a communist.
U.S. Ambassador Alan ("Punch") Green, a genial Oregon businessman, was in Washington presenting a blueprint for helping Romania when the miners attacked. Washington's reaction was sharp. Green boycotted the Iliescu inauguration. Today an optimist in Bucharest is someone who thinks that a third revolution can be bloodless. Everything is in short supply -- diapers (I was told), bras (I could see) and vegetables -- though Romania's soil is the richest in Europe. One afternoon I saw two lines extending three-quarters of a mile in either direction from two tables set up on a sidewalk. Some enterprising merchant was selling toilet paper.
Ironically, the place to go to see a happy face is an orphange. They are cheerless, presided over by directors with steel teeth. But they are where a foreign couple can meet and claim a child. Before, applications had to go through the president's office; now a tribunal makes the judgment -- "very kindly," according to an English-speaking lawyer who hopes to make adoptions a growth industry, at $5,000 per case. Romania has 300 orphanages and they are overflowing -- the result of Ceausescu's ban on birth control and abortion.
The most peaceful place I saw is a gigantic tract on the edge of town called the Museum of the People. The grass is cut, the flower beds are weeded and samples of the cottages and stables which Ceausescu bulldozed in 5,000 peasant villages are reverently preserved. Each region is represented by a characteristic building. The peasants forced out of these villages are crowded into rural apartment buildings without heat or running water. That is how Romanians were treated for 40 years, without mercy. And they did not have any Walesa or Havel to set an example; their intelligentsia was terrified. It's no wonder their vision is a bit warped and they have trouble finding their way.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post.