About 50 gendarmes jog down Calea Victoriei. They’re in a six-row formation and their plastic shields and rubber clubs and the visors of their helmets clunk along the whomp whomp whomp of their heavy boots on the asphalt.
I’m on the sidewalk and I pull out my smartphone to start a Facebook live video. The street is almost empty now, after violent clashes between hooligans and the gendarmerie on Piata Victoriei have put an end to the massive anti-government protests of Wednesday night.
As the gendarmes, exhaling steam, reach the Palace Casino, I follow slowly and keep filming.
Two blue vans are parked in the middle of the intersection, lights flashing. One gendarme is kicking a man in the ass and another is dragging him into the van. Once he’s in the van, the gendarmes kick him out. “I wanna go home. I’m leaving”, the man yells, and walks away hesitantly as if he couldn’t believe he’s allowed to go.
“March!”, the gendarme shouts and pushes him with both hands.
The gendarme now looks at me, sees me filming, walks towards me, yells “stop filming”. I turn around to walk away and fall in the arms of another gendarme. With one hand he grabs me at the collar of my coat and with the other he tries to snatch my phone. Meanwhile I’m surrounded by at least two more gendarmes who grab me by the shoulder and shake me and hit with their clubs into the bend of my knee.
“Delete the video”, they yell.
“I won’t”, I say, “I’m a journalist and you have no right to make me delete this. And it’s too late anyway. I already posted it. Look, people already shared it. It can’t be deleted anymore.”
“You’re coming with us”, one of them says and pushes me into the van.
That was my first Facebook live video ever. With me a group of altogether 20 guys were detained that night. None of them was a hooligan. And the gendarmes knew that well.
Take Alex Nechez, for instance. When I was pushed in the van, I argued with a gendarme who forbade me to make a phone call. “It’s my right”, I said but he wouldn’t let me. “In this country you have no rights”, a thin voice answered from a seat behind me. I turned around and saw a frail guy with thick lips, thin glasses and a beard that makes him look like a kid monk. He turned 18 two months ago.
He was standing on the other side of the street, filming like me, when the gendarmes came jogging. They forced him to step from the sidewalk onto the street, punched him with a club into the stomach to snatch his camera, and erased all the pictures on the SD card. Alex still goes to highschool but he’s also an independent journalist, he wanted to put his movies and pictures on his Youtube and Facebook sites.
Photography has been his passion for a long time now. His parents bought him his camera, a Nikon D3100, when he was 12 years old. It cost 600 Euro back then, his father had to borrow money from relatives to be able to buy it.
Naturally, Alex got upset, having just lost his whole day of work, and blurted out: “This isn’t right! I did nothing wrong.”
“Look who has a big mouth now”, one gendarme replied and then put him in the van. His coat ripped and a part of his camera broke.
Although he was declared a witness after the police had questioned him for three hours and finally set him free on Thursday noon, two officers from the police station in his neighbourhood in Bucharest’s Sector 6 rang on his door on Saturday morning.
Alex: “I was still sleeping, so my mom opened. The police said that I’m a violent person and that they will ask relatives and friends of mine and even go to my highschool to find out more about me. They said they would keep an eye on me from now on and asked my mom where she works. She got really scared.” After ten minutes the police left.
“No way you’re going out on the street again!”, Alex’s mother said. When I called him on Saturday, he was doing his math homework. It’s not like his parents blame him for what’s happened, he says. They are just worried. “We don’t know what’s that about.”
The gendarmes drive us to the headquarters of DIICOT, the agency for investigating organized crime and terrorism. There are already two rows of young men lined up in front of the building, holding their ID cards in their hands. We are told to stand on the right side and take out our IDs as well.
A heavy-set guy with a woolen cap is crying bitterly. Two other very young guys who look like they’re still in the phase of their life when they think it’s super cool to go to rock bars, also cry, but just a little, wiping their cheeks with the sleeves of their pullovers.
We are left to stand in front of DIICOT for another half an hour and I use the time to call my girlfriend and share my location on the Facebook messenger with her.
Then we are ordered to go inside where we have to empty our pockets and put all our belongings on the floor. I stand around for another while, then I’m sent into a corner of the entrance hall where a short, fat guy with a moustache is waiting. He holds a small digital camera about 20 centimeters in front of my face and says in English: “Just like in the movies. Front, profile, profile.”
Then the gendarme who pushed me into the van comes towards me, holding my small black notebook in his hand. He points at an open page on which the word “Neonazi” and some names are written. “Can you explain that to me?”
“I told you I’m a journalist. These are notes of my researches. This is about something I worked on in Germany.”
The gendarme still wears his mask and stares at me for a while, eventually turns around and walks away with my notebook. After a while he comes back with a woman who is dressed like a classy teacher. She asks me for which media I work and if I have a press ID.
I tell her some names of newspapers and magazines I worked for and that I left my press ID in Germany. There is a shade of extreme tedium falling on her face as I’m explaining myself. Like in her head there is a big banner lighting up which says: Why the fuck do I have to deal with this shit? She hands me my notebook, gives the gendarme an annoyed glance and walks away.
“Man, we are not bad people, OK? We would go to the demonstration ourselves if we were allowed to”, the gendarme says. “The way they passed these emergency decrees was not OK. On the other side, we all voted for PSD because we are on minimum wage and they promised a 10 percent raise on our salaries.”
We are sitting on a big wooden table in the foyer of the anti-terror agency DIICOT. The gendarmes had played it hard on us in the beginning, not allowing us to sit or use our phones. But now they seem to have relaxed. Obviously they are just as tired as we are from the waiting and the demonstration.
It can take very long, they say. And that we’re waiting for a prosecutor to come and decide. “5 hours, 10 hours, 20 hours, I don’t know.” They say it not in the way that is meant to make you shut up and stop asking useless questions but simply in the way that tells you that they must spend their nights regularly like this: sitting around all night with a bunch of guys who tell them again and again that they haven’t done anything and that they want to know what’s happening next and when. And again.
Actually, it seems like this kind of questions don’t register with them anymore at all. Like you don’t register how many lamp posts you pass by when you ride your bicycle to town.
One gendarme, who looks a bit like Stallone in the first Rocky, squints at me for a while, long enough to make me shrug my shoulders, then he says:
“Do you go to Control sometimes?”
“Yes”, I say, “but it’s been a while since I’ve been there. Half a year at least.”
“I knew it! I recognized you!”
Then he tells about how he saw two guys kissing at the toilet of Control Club. “A really strange place in general.”
All but two gendarmes have taken off their balaclavas, some fell asleep on arm chairs that are scattered throughout the foyer. Others are seeking refuge from the boredom in gossiping with each other or staring into blank space.
The three gendarmes at our table are getting livelier, they joke around. One of them is Rocky, who is about 30, in the middle a man around 40, with grey hair, and the third is a guy with plucked eyebrows who is maybe even younger than 30. We talk about football, cars, smartphones, clubbing in Bucharest, the medical benefits of smoking weed, the prices in hypermarkets and now politics:
“But Dragnea, this guy is a thief. How can he get so rich? How come he lives in a fucking villa?”, a gendarme exclaims. Liviu, Andrei and Traian – three guys who got arrested at Bulevardul Lascăr Catargiu and now share a bench opposite of the gendarmes – shrug their shoulders like everybody kind of knows the answer to that.
“So, who did you vote for then?”, the gendarme asks across the table. “USR!”, the three guys answer at once. The other side of the table is laughing.
The whole situation reminds me of how, as kids, we would see other groups of boys always as enemies first, rivals at least, a different species with suspiciously expensive sneakers or high cheekbones or a red haired amongst them. Until we started to play together and eventually found out that we’re kind of the same.
That we sit here, at DIICOT, because the one group has caught the other one on the street and holds them captive feels extremely childish right now. Like a fictive trip into a land where giant kids in uniform play hide and seek.
“Why did you arrest us? None of us did anything. And we weren’t even close to Piata Victoriei”, we ask.
“Listen, we were ordered to make 100 arrests. So we made 100 arrests. We don’t like to do this kind of stuff, but we are military. We have to obey orders, you know?”, one of the gendarmes replies.
“But why did you grab us? Just look at us! We don’t look like hooligans at all!”
“It’s simple. Slim guys are less work. We know how hooligans look like. See those guys on the left side?”, the gendarme points to a group of about five people who wait in another corner of the foyer, “we know their faces from football matches, we have arrested them before.”
Suddenly a stench of gasoline fills the foyer. A gendarme walks past us, carefully balancing a plastic bag with four or five bottles -the molotow cocktails that were found with the hooligans on Piata Victoriei, the gendarmes say.
The next day, when I watch videos and photos of the clashes at Piața Victoriei, I recognize some of the alleged hooligans from DIICOT. But those guys didn’t belong to my group of 20. They were brought in after us and led out of DIICOT again a few hours earlier than us.
Liviu Ionescu, a 30 year-old informatician, is renovating his apartment. He has the TV running and watches streams of people heading from all directions towards Piata Victoriei, jamming the metros, blocking the traffic, waving flags and yelling “Hoții, hoții!”. A sea of people and protest signs and tricolores assembles in front of the government building, 150.000, they say on TV.
Liviu doesn’t wanna go alone, so he is waiting for his friend Andrei Baciu, an IT business analyst, to finish work. Andrei is doing some extra hours. They are childhood friends and were each other’s best man at their respective weddings. They meet with a befriended couple, drive to Piața Romană, park their car on one of the side streets and walk to Piața Victoriei where they arrive at about 22:30.
At the Piata hooligans start throwing snowballs and firecrackers at gendarmes. They answer with tear gas and bigger firecrackers and call the protesters to evacuate. Liviu and his friends feel resigned about the ending of the demonstration, but they do as they’re told and leave the square.
They walk on Bulevardul Lascar Catargiu, towards their car, as a van of the gendarmerie passes by with high speed, the blue lights flashing. Suddenly it stops. The doors open and gendarmes jump out of the van, run towards the left side of the street and immediately start beating up a group of protesters. They force them to lay down flat on the icy streets.
Liviu and his friends raise their arms intuitively and continue walking but more vans arrive and more gendarmes run onto the boulevard and now they grab also Liviu and his friends. Without saying a word they are put into a van.
Liviu and Andrei’s friend is holding his girlfriend in his arm, trying to protect her. One gendarme takes a look at the frightened girl and then tells her boyfriend to “bring the child home.” The two of them run into a side street. “Doamne ferește, they took Liviu, I can’t believe it”, the boyfriend is shouting out again and again while filming from a distance the scene they just escaped.
“It was traumatizing, I never experienced anything like this”, Liviu tells me, when I call him two days later, and ask him to describe how he felt when he got arrested. “When we saw the gendarmes, we thought they knew who they were looking for. But actually they just arrested everyone they could find on the street. We saw how they had beaten and kicked other protesters and panicked, we didn’t know what would happen to us.”
Razvan Popescu, a 29 year-old geographer and junior professor at the University of Bucharest, confirms the story. He went to the demonstration at around 8pm with two colleagues, a professor and an assistant, and got arrested at the same time as Liviu and Andrei. “The gendarmes came, jumped out of their vans and started beating up people. They hit me in the ribs while I was laying on the ground”, he tells me. “I was scared. I have never been in a situation like this before.”
17 of the 20 guys detained with me were arrested at Lascar Catargiu boulevard.
Liviu, like all of us, was declared a witness the next day. Nevertheless, police is still inquiring about him and some of the other guys like they were perpetrators. On Saturday morning they called the administrator of the building Liviu lives in. “They wanted to know from me if you are a violent person or if you are a member of a gang”, the administrator told Liviu. “Me, a hooligan? I don’t even like football!”, Liviu says.
He is working as a computer science programmer for the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson. He’s in charge of a team of 30 colleagues. “Tomorrow, my wife and I fly to the Maldives. It’s our honeymoon and of course we’re happy. But I’m a bit sorry that I will miss the protest on Sunday”, he tells me.
Out of eight guys I talked to, five have been harassed by the police since Thursday.
A 24 year-old bartender who also got arrested at Lascar Catargiu, says the police gave his parents a visit and inquired about him in the neighbourhood. “I was declared a witness, why are they investigating on me? I had a huge argument with my father because he believes that the police don’t lie. Also the neighbours are gonna think that I’m a bad guy now. I didn’t do anything, didn’t throw stuff at gendarmes, I was just walking home.”
Gendarmes hit the bartender several times on the head when they arrested him and when I talked to him four days later he said he is still in pain. “The first two days I couldn’t go to work, I couldn’t do anything.”
Traian Tatic, a 23 year-old programmer went to the hospital to get his bruises documented, he tells me on the phone. Gendarmes hit him with the club on the back and kicked him with the feet against the ribs as he was laying on the ground. He also got arrested at Lascar Catargiu and lost his backpack with his car key because of that.
The gendarme who arrested me comes to our table. He has a pen and a stack of papers in his hands. He says he wrote down our statement which he is going to read to us now, so pay attention, and then we should sign it.
He reads very fast from the handwritten paper, that we were part of a group of violent protesters who threw objects at the gendarmes at Piata Victoriei and that we were all arrested near the Piata. Further on he reads that we denied having thrown objects at the gendarmes and that no objects had been found on us.
Andrei translates the statement for me, concluding: “But we didn’t say anything like this! He just wrote this down.” In fact, until now, we hadn’t been questioned at all about the circumstances or reasons of our arrest. And if I were to carry a pack of TNT in the pocket of my coat they wouldn’t know either, because I haven’t been searched.
The boys tell the gendarme that this is not what happened. The gendarme, of course, knows that pretty well, since it was him who arrested me at Palace Casino, about a kilometer away from Piata Victoriei.
“This is nothing”, the gendarme explains, “you make a real statement later with the police. Just sign this and we can go on.”
At the bottom of the paper the gendarme left space for 20 numbered signatures. Some guys sign, but most of them refuse to do so, although the gendarme tries to convince them and furiously runs back into his writer’s retreat a couple of times to modify the statement.
“The prosecutor just said he’s not coming anymore. He doesn’t give a shit”, one of the gendarmes tells us.
We were forbidden to smoke so far, but now Rocky let’s me have a cigarette on the toilet. The urinal is sprinkled with blood. There is a vending machine for hot drinks on the corridor. For two lei I get myself an “Irish cappuccino”, the only beverage left.
A cleaning lady starts vacuuming in the foyer and wakes up the gendarmes, who look at her with disgust. No one is saying anything until the news breaks that in front of DIICOT a truck is now waiting to bring us to a police station.
It’s still dark and the truck sounds like it could fall apart any minute, the big blue and rusty metal cabin vibrating from the coughing and sputtering of the diesel engine. About five gendarmes guard us as we’re climbing one by one into the pitch-dark cabin.
There are three rows of shaky, ankle-high benches in the truck. The door opens every time we turn right and a gendarme slam-shuts it about 20 times until we reach the police station in Băneasa.
The police station looks like a shopping centre for second-hand pink cabinets. We are left to stand in the foyer for another hour. At some point a policeman in plain clothes says that we will be questioned later and that for now we shouldn’t talk anymore.
So we just stand and watch different police guys carrying pieces of paper in slow motion from one office to the other. One police man is sitting at a desk in the foyer, writing. He asks a higher ranked officer something. The boss is unlocking one of the cabinets and hands the guy at the desk a ruler. Then he locks the cabinet again.
In the foyer there is only one chair. A guy, who has trouble standing, sits down and closes his eyes. “Stand up!”, a gendarme yells at him, “at the demonstration you were standing too, right? Didn’t need a chair then.” But the guy just stays put and the gendarme doesn’t insist.
Another guy turns terribly pale now and asks for some water. The boss is called, comes creeping out of his office, unlocks another pink cabinet, opens it just wide enough to pull out one wrinkled plastic cup, locks the cabinet again and then fills the cup with tap water and hands it to the obviously dizzy detainee.
At this point I’m getting really angry. Outside, the sun is shining, the snow is melting, and I feel like the tiredness is settling on my nerves like a flock of crows on a bare tree branch.
I walk around in the foyer, occasionally kicking with my foot against the wall and telling the police guy at the desk that I think even in Congo citizens have more rights than in Romania, which I have no clue about and probably is complete bullshit, but I’m not on the rational train anymore here. The clerk doesn’t react and nobody else either. Only one guy looks at me like a potential accomplice.
This guy contacts me on Facebook two days later and wants to talk with me on the phone, knowing that I’m a journalist. “After what we went through together, we are friends now!”, he says.
He is a 35 year-old former firefighter who got arrested on Calea Victoriei. I tell him that it surprised me how calm everybody remained at the police station, that none of the guys protested against their treatment.
“Because they panicked. If you have fear and you don’t know the law and they tell you to shut up – then you shut up”, he says. He’s been in situations like this before. “I wasn’t always a good guy. But that’s a long time ago.”
The police rang at his door on Saturday morning, asking him if he’s supporter of a football club and if he got paid for going to the protests. “I was on my way home, trying to get a taxi. They put me in the van and said I’m a hooligan, just like that, i didn’t do anything. I’m not a political guy, i just want this country to be good. I don’t agree with the violence that happened that night.”
We are led into a conference room. We sit silently around a large table and get called for interrogations one by one. At about ten I’m still sitting there. Then an officer in plain clothes comes to pick me up. He walks me to an elevator. As the door closes he turns around, sighs, smiles and asks me: “So, what happened to you?” He sounds like he rehearsed this. I say I’d be glad that someone finally asks, but that I’m not going to make any kind of statement.
In his office he tells me that my status is that of a witness and that I might get questioned by the police in Germany. He brings me downstairs again where I’m told to wait so they can take my fingerprints, make another round of mugshots and test my skin for explosives.
The foyer is pretty crowded now and I collect as many phone numbers as I can from the other guys. Suddenly an officer taps me on the shoulder. “Don’t you want to have a cigarette?”, he asks and points at the entrance door. Outside he says I don’t need to make the fingerprints and mugshots anymore and that I’m free to go.
The other guys, though, had to go through the full procedure. Their questioning lasted three hours and their smartphones had been taken away from them for an hour. “In the beginning, the police officer didn’t believe me because I was very nervous”, Razvan, the geographer, recalls the interrogation. “He said, if I were innocent and had nothing to hide, I should just be relaxed.”
But, how relaxed can you possibly be, if you got arrested for nothing some ten hours ago, picked up from the street like a terrorist in front of your friends and colleagues and you didn’t sleep or eat all night, you were beaten and detained without any explanation and asked to sign a made-up statement?
How relaxed can you possibly be in that situation, given that also you have never been in a place like this?
Still full of adrenaline, Razvan called his family and friends then as soon as he got home.
He slept for two hours and then went to the demonstration again.
I-au dat drumul azi, la 11 și este considerat martor. Mulțumesc pentru susținere. Christian o să povestească cu mai multe detalii despre noaptea trecută.
The people were released as witnesses, but the next day the Ministry of Interior issued a press release claiming they were charged with assault and public disturbance, and policemen started visiting them. We asked both the Gendarmerie and the Police to explain what happened. Here are their statements:
“The incidents you were referring to have been provoked by groups of isolated persons. The majority of protesters have demonstrated peacefully and have respected the police forces’ indications, disassociating themselves from those groups who acted violently.
As a result of the Gendarmerie’s actions and interventions, 79 people were led to police stations, in order to establish their identity, as well as the level of their involvement or guilt in the incidents that happened in Bucharest.”
„When a criminal file is opened persons who are declared witnesses can be further examined. A case cannot be wrapped up in one night. It’s normal that the police make further investigations“, chief of public relations of the Bucharest Police Diana Sarca says.
„I don’t know what the police officers did in the specific cases, I can’t comment on that.“ People who had the feeling they were harassed would have the opportunity to file a complaint.
Editors: Vlad Ursulean, Luiza Vasiliu