CLUJ, ROMANIA -- The angry students who marched through this ice-bound Transylvanian city last week asked a question that resonated far beyond its boundaries.

"Do you think you can buy us off with a few oranges?" their banners demanded of Romania's ruling National Salvation Front. "We want the truth!"

If Cluj is any indication, that truth will be a long time coming.

One year after Eastern Europe's bloodiest popular uprising, even the most basic facts about the Romanian revolution remain unclear, encased in a thickening carapace of official secrecy, conflicting claims and stonewalling by the Romanian army and the National Salvation Front.

More than 1,033 civilians died in last year's uprising, most of them in the three days of shooting and terror between the flight of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu from Bucharest on Dec. 22 and his execution on Christmas Day.

The new provisional government, a group of soon-to-be ex-Communists, blamed the shooting on Ceausescu's secret police, the Securitate, and claimed to have arrested 1,000 "terrorists" who had waged a three-day war on the people.

Yet one year later, the National Salvation Front, still in power, has not brought forward even one of those "terrorists," much less put them on trial.

More than half the old Securitate has been rehired into the police, the army and a new agency known as the Romanian Intelligence Service. Its chief is a former Securitate officer who has already informed parliament that the agency is engaged in domestic spying, collecting files on hundreds of members of "extremist groups."

About 80 percent of the National Salvation Front's members, including dozens of newly appointed mayors and governors, are former members of the old Romanian Communist Party. The front's top leaders, most of whom held responsible party positions under Ceausescu, have not been eager to discuss their pasts.

One year after the revolution, the government still provides no official biographies of top officials.

"There's a lot to be forgotten," one Western diplomat said.

The front's leader, President Ion Iliescu, has surrounded himself with several men who held responsible positions in the Ceausescu regime. One new aide is Ioan Talpes, the chief of military affairs and public order, formerly known as a protege and right-hand man to ex-deputy defense minister Ilie Ceausescu, the dictator's brother.

"It wasn't a revolution, it was a tragicomedy," said Gabriel Cojecaru, a member of the recently founded Association for Truth in the Revolution in Cluj. "In a revolution, something has to change. But very little has changed here, only the names."

Anti-government demonstrators have protested in Bucharest, Cluj and Timisoara periodically over the past year and again during the anniversary last week, demanding answers.

Nowhere is the gap between revolutionary myth and reality more evident than here in Cluj and in the curious case of a small, ragged-looking actor named Calin Nemes. On Dec. 21, 1989, Nemes bolted back a cognac to steady his knocking knees, according to his account and those of friends, then pulled up his shirt to show he was unarmed and walked toward a line of panicked and heavily armed soldiers who stood in the street that has now been renamed Liberty Square -- and who soon shot and wounded him.

Nemes' walk set off a bloody afternoon of rebellion -- 26 dead, 104 wounded -- that is now considered the most straightforward incident in a complicated revolution.

While the uprising in the capital, Bucharest, was complicated, lasting several days and nights and involving Securitate, regular police and army troops, "Cluj is the only place in Romania where we know who did the shooting, where and when," said Daniel Necsa, a journalist with the Cluj independent daily newspaper Nu.

Part of that certainty stems from an extraordinary series of photographs taken by a local language teacher who had brought his camera to the square that day. Yet even with the pictures, the Cluj case is beset with inconsistencies, stonewalling and possible slander.

Many in Cluj -- from barkeepers to bookstore clerks -- say Nemes is a hero, and survivors want a trial to determine which officers ordered the army to shoot at the people.

But the local governor, a former party censor and professor of Marxism, tells journalists that Nemes was drunk that day.

The army has delayed an investigation of the events in Cluj for nearly a year. It dismissed the only investigator to issue an arrest warrant and released the only two soldiers arrested after the local army barracks made an anonymous threat to invade and occupy Cluj.

After first denying that soldiers fired at citizens, the army now admits that the soldiers shot but blames Nemes, insisting that he attacked the soldiers and tried to persuade them to shoot their commanding officer.

"The one to blame for deaths is Nemes," the army newspaper wrote on Oct. 22. "The title of hero fits Nemes as well as a bishop's mitre fits a clown."

Critics say the army fears a trial because it could implicate or at least tarnish many senior officers still in command, and thus challenge the most important myth of the revolution: that the army was on the side of the people.

If true, that claim makes the army, along with the National Salvation Front, legitimate leaders of post-revolutionary Romania.

But if, as critics believe, some of the army command fought for Ceausescu, then a trial in Cluj could be the beginning of a chain of culpability in the army's and the front's top commands, perhaps leading all the way to the present defense minister, one of the generals who organized the violent suppression of the revolution's first uprising, in Timisoara, on Dec. 17.

"If the commander of the 4th Army in Timisoara was involved, then the next question people will ask is what about the commander of the 3rd Army in Craiova, where 19 people died?" Necsa asked. "A trial in Cluj would be the first real trial, and they are not anxious to start it."

On Dec. 21 last year, a day before Ceausescu's flight, Nemes kissed his wife and baby daughter an agitated farewell.

For four days, Romanians with short-wave radios had been picking up tense, static-filled reports on foreign radio about death and violence in Timisoara. Reports said the army had fired on crowds of unarmed adults and children. Much later, it was established that several dozen people had been killed. But that day, Yugoslav radio, for reasons still unclear, spoke of as many as 4,000 deaths.

"Calin," his wife had begged that morning, "if something happens, I'm not saying don't take part, but promise that you won't start it."

Strange things were happening in the center of town, according to accounts by Nemes, his friends, others who were present and the newspaper Nu. Near the theater, Nemes saw the local drama critic lean out of a second story window and shout, "Victory!" -- four times.

A professor walked by and told Nemes that Ceausescu had been booed and whistled off the balcony of the Communist Party Central Committee building in Bucharest by demonstrators who had infiltrated one of his choreographed rallies.

By noon, Nemes and five friends stood in the square, not sure what to do. "In 1989, it was the first time in our lives that we made politics," Nemes said last week. "It was very hard."

They called to passersby: "Stay with us! In Timisoara women and children have died! We cannot accept this!"

No one came forward. Looking back, Nemes thinks that most Romanians who saw him in the street probably believed he was a provocateur, sent by the secret police. The six decided to split up to recruit supporters.

Nemes and a childhood friend stopped at the university library, at the Arizona, the local artists' cafe, and at The Fisherman pub, where Nemes said they each had one cognac to steady their nerves.

By 3 p.m., 100 to 200 people had gathered. Nemes sat on a bench and tried to collect his thoughts. The only words he wrote were "Romanian brothers."

"We didn't know what to do. Then we saw Calin," said Sorana Rotta, a university student. "He wasn't drunk, but he had been drinking. He was the only one with the courage to say something."

Nemes stood. "I think you have heard about what happened in Timisoara. This is not a world we can live in," he said. "Down with the dictator!"

The crowd shouted: "Timisoara!" and, in tentative voices, began singing a patriotic song, "Wake Up, Romania."

A truckload of soldiers and one officer pulled into the square.

Nemes said he made calculations. "I wanted to run, but how could I?" he recalled last week. "The people were there because of me. I wanted to plead, 'Don't shoot!' but I thought if I did, the people would become afraid.

"I decided, if I show my bare chest and walk forward, they won't attack."

What Nemes did not know was that several days earlier, according to army statements, the commander of the 4th Army of Transylvania had received instructions from Ilie Ceausescu. The orders authorized the army to take extreme measures to defend itself from "terrorists, hooligans and thieves."

According to statements of soldiers published later in the Cluj newspaper, the four units on the street that day had been chosen because they were strangers to Cluj.

Nemes attempted a stream of confident, sarcastic chatter and slowly advanced. Several in the crowd followed his lead.

"Sure, we are your enemies, we with bare chests and no guns, go ahead and shoot," he said.

"All I have is this broom," said a boy in a dark jacket who carried a kitchen whisk.

Photographs show the soldiers drawing closer together. They raise their machine guns. Their bulky captain glowers and turns, watching the crowd. He raises his pistol to ear level, barrel toward the sky. A woman in a ski parka kneels on the curb, face contorted, hands clasped in prayer.

According to Nemes, the captain became angry with his troops: "Come on, fire! Why don't you shoot?"

The last thing he remembers, he said, is attempting to push the captain's pistol away from the crowd.

Within minutes, eight men lay dead or dying on the street. The boy with the broom had been hit in a thigh artery. Nemes was hit in the kidney. His childhood friend was dead.

The bloodshed was just beginning. In three other parts of the city -- at the Astoria hotel, at Maresti Square and in front of the local beer factory -- other army units had opened fire.

That night and the next, shooting, confusion and panic intensified, a pattern that was repeated in several other cities.

At the military barracks in Floresti, outside of Cluj, army units shot guns, cannons and rockets at objects the next day that proved to be three weather balloons.

In Cluj, of the 26 killed, some died immediately, others after short stays in hospitals that lacked even antibiotics.

Nemes was taken to the hospital that afternoon. The next day, he said, army officers appeared at his apartment block and tried to persuade an elderly neighbor to sign papers saying Nemes was an army deserter at the time of the shootings. The neighbor refused.

At least three teams of army prosecutors have come and gone in Cluj since January. Nemes has given his statement nine times, he said, "and when the ninth reaches his conclusions, they'll bring in a 10th."

Last spring, the first army prosecutor accumulated enough evidence to order the arrest of two soldiers. They were released two hours later, according to local newspaper accounts, after the threats from the army barracks, and the prosecutor was removed from the investigation.

The present prosecutor's only comment on the case was: "I'm an honest man."

Col. Gen. Ionel Topliceanu, who then commanded the army in Timisoara, first insisted that the deaths in Cluj were caused by ricochets from warning fire. By October, he said his officers had reacted in an "abnormal" way, but he still insists Nemes is responsible for the deaths.

G. Zonc, the senior government official in Cluj, a National Salvation Front man and former Communist Party censor, also opposes a trial.

"This aggressive blaming is a mistake. Most people here understand that it's difficult at present to establish who was guilty and how guilty," Zonc said.

The publicity in the course of a trial, he said, "could distort the true record of the events," and "a chain of trials, or a trial of a whole category of people would be a mistake."

This is not the first government investigation to falter. Earlier this year, the group appointed by the front under Western pressure to investigate voter fraud and violence during the election disbanded quietly without issuing a report.

"We have to distinguish between people who served the dictator to get ahead, and those who simply wanted to get by," Zonc said. He added that he did not know why prosecutors had been replaced in Cluj -- "It's not my business" -- and, like other front officials, he closed a discussion about the incident with an analogy to the investigation of the assassination of John Kennedy.

"That took a long time, too, and in the end, people said, 'Well, maybe we shall never know,' " he said.

The anti-front demonstrations that marked the anniversary of the revolution were smaller than expected. In Bucharest, lack of information and economic worries have left a feeling of despair, and volatility.

"It's Christmas, and I feel nothing," said one Bucharest office worker who had watched.

The resignation of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze last week caused widespread unease. Ion Caramitru, an early member of the National Salvation Front, now a dissident, said he feared that with a return of hard-liners to power in the Soviet Union, the front here would revert to communism overnight.

Friday, President Iliescu told the BBC that Romania had broken irrevocably with its totalitarian past. He said the front had put Romania firmly on the road to democracy.

To the domestic press, the message was slightly different -- and more menacing. What Romania needs, Iliescu said, is not questions and demonstrations, but "unity" and "stillness."

Those who disagree, he said, repeating a phrase he had used several times on state television during the week, were being manipulated by foreign powers.