Petre Bacanu, sentenced to die for starting a clandestine newspaper during the regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, spent almost a year in prison, watching rats crawl out of the toilet in his tiny cell.

Doina Cornea, a noted human rights activist, was followed everywhere by Ceausescu's hated securitate. Once when she tried to meet with foreign journalists, the not-so-secret police threw her to the ground. Five times she tried to rise; five times she was beaten down, she said.

Then came the revolution. Then went the revolution.

Cornea, 61, whose treatment under Ceausescu was the subject of an Amnesty International "urgent action" alert, first grew skeptical of how much things had changed the day after the December revolution. She found out from the radio that she had been included as a member of the National Salvation Front, the new government, along with many old communist faces. She had had nothing to do with her inclusion.

Bacanu, 48, editor of the opposition newspaper Romania Libera, understood the new government's character when about 100 tons of donated U.S. newsprint intended for him ended up being used for the mouthpiece of the Front.

But the fragility of Romania's fledgling civil society did not become clear to the rest of the world until 10 days ago, when miners summoned by the government to clamp down on student protesters rampaged through Bucharest, clubbing anyone in their path and sacking the offices of the opposition political party and Romania Libera.

Cornea and Bacanu were both in Canada at the time, attending an international conference. Shocked at the violence, they arranged a hasty trip to Washington for three days of meetings with members of Congress, administration officials and private groups.

Seeking assistance for the opposition and trying to convince U.S. policymakers of the new regime's perfidy, the duo ran from office to office, slept little and left for home exhausted but pleased with the reception for them and their cause.

"If we'd kept them up 24 hours a day, they would have gone 24 hours a day," said a staff member at National Strategies, the group that picked up the tab for the visit with contributions from Freedom House and the private German Marshall Fund.

Their days were a blur of meetings: Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), President Bush's deputy national security adviser Robert M. Gates, a reception at a Romanian Orthodox church in Bailey's Crossroads and many more. One meeting with a State Department official went to 1 a.m.

At each stop, the two repeated their simple message: Democracy in Romania is in dire need of help.

"We thought fear in Romania was over. We thought everyone will be free to say what they want," Bacanu said, in a quick interview between stops. "It was just a temporary joy. We soon realized that the people in power were not able to think differently than the communists."

Cornea said each day makes it clearer that the Front lives up to its name, that it is nothing more than a facade for former party hacks who have simply renamed the security apparatus Ceausescu put in place.

"The elections were not free," she said, "the elections we waited for so long." If the government won the vote, it was only because of its tight grip on the media, she said.

It's a grip Bacanu has felt too many times. A journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with Romania Libera -- even under Ceausescu the most liberal of the nation's papers -- he was constantly threatened, moved from section to section of the paper, his byline sometimes forbidden.

Finally he was arrested as a leader of a dissident group. Then the revolution flung open the door to his cell. "Now we can write anything," he said.

Getting it printed is another matter. The government runs the only printing plant in the country and also controls circulation. Nevertheless, Romania Libera is the largest paper in the country and had a circulation of 1.5 million until the Front decreed a paper shortage, halved Libera's allocation and started up two official publications.

Bacanu has been asking U.S. help so Romania Libera can get its own press and with it independence.

Cornea's weapon has been her conscience. At first she only encouraged her students at Cluj University, where she taught French, to think for themselves.

But after smuggling a letter critical of Ceausescu to Radio Free Europe, she was fired in 1983. Beatings, internal exile and hunger strikes for better treatment followed.

Now, Cornea said, she would like nothing more than to go back to her beloved books. That seems unlikely.

"If the concepts stay at just an intellectual level, they are dead," she said.