Each of us has our own secrets. Things we’ve done we later regret. Moments in our lives we’re not proud of.
I’m about to tell you one of mine.
There are two kinds of jobs. Some which you apply for. Others that come to you, seemingly out of nowhere. They just happen.
This one just happened. It came to me unexpectedly — and to this day — I have no idea exactly how or why.
My home telephone rang. The voice on the line identified himself as someone who worked for the South African Government. It was a friendly voice. Cordial even. He knew I was unemployed and looking for a job.
Being out of work sucks. I’d sent out several resumes. However, I don’t ever recall applying with the South African Government. It’s pure speculation now, but perhaps a generic advertisement was placed in the “Help Wanted” section of The Washington Post and then someone plucked my resume out from among those that responded. Who knows?
South Africa was undergoing changes that were truly revolutionary. The repressive state policy of Apartheid was taking its final deep desperate breaths, but was by no means expunged. If anything, those who benefited most from the old order were still in power. Although the government did transform itself by official decree in 1990, most of those who still worked in South Africa’s foreign service (and related intelligence agencies) were holdovers from the bad old days. No doubt, these were some real ball busters. A government doesn’t simply change all of its personnel overnight and it took many years to ultimately make South Africa and its diplomatic corps far more reflective of the actual racial and cultural makeup of the nation.
Writer’s Note: Today and tomorrow, I’ll be sharing three stories. Each shares a connection to Africa. They’re all deeply personal. And until now, I’ve never written about or told any of these stories before.
Out of Africa
Question: What’s the world’s second most-populous continent?
If you saw today’s headline, you probably guessed it. The answer is Africa.
More than one-billion people live in Africa, which is more than the entire population of Europe. There are two-and-a-half times as many Africans as North Americans. Imagine 25 Californias. That’s Africa.
Africa also happens to be the second-largest continent in the world. It has one-fifth of all the land mass on earth.
There are 54 African nations and I’ll bet most people can’t pinpoint more than a small fraction of them on a map. I had this deficiency once too (and still do), as you’re about to learn.
Indeed, of all the places on Earth, Africa is the least understood, the most misunderstood, and the littlest-known in every sense — politically, geographically, socially, culturally, and historically.
Practically no one amongst us knows anything about Africa or its people, and this includes many otherwise intelligent people who know considerably more about every other region of the world.
It seems that even among intellectuals, Africa is forgotten.
Romania was a dark place in 1989. Streetlights shut off at night. Homes were kept in darkness. The one and only state-run television station broadcast just a few hours a day. Light bulbs were limited to 25-watts. Families turned on gas stoves to stay warm at night because there wasn’t any heat. Streets were completely deserted in the evening. Bucharest — Romania’s capital city of 2 million — choked on the poison of diesel fumes and coal dust inciting the ghostly gray haze hanging over the city like an intransigent fog.
And yet for all its bleakness, this was the least of Romania’s problems.
Staring out the window of a silent and nearly empty Lufthansa Airlines flight which had taken off two hours earlier from Frankfurt and was now headed to Bucharest gave me sufficient pause to realize, for the first time, that I’d be stepping out of one world into another. I’d soon be trading an easy and familiar life for an experience sure to be far more challenging and lesser known. Leaving what was once called “the free world” to live and work behind the ominous Iron Curtain was the closest thing imaginable, I suppose, to time travel.
Indeed, flying into Bucharest that night was like going back in time.
Of all the old hard-line Communist regimes, aside from Enver Hoxha’s diabolical rule and the subsequent fallout years afterward in Albania, Romania’s situation was the most repressive and dire. Romania’s longtime ruler, Nicolae Ceausescu had been on the cover of Newsweek magazine weeks earlier, the headline fitly labeling him “The Last Stalinist.”
This dark place was to be my home for the next two years.
Romanian Army forces during the 1989 Romanian Revolution
The Romanian Revolution took place in December 1989. I lived in Romania at the time and was assigned to the American Embassy in Bucharest.
Few Americans or Westerners lived in Romania during that period. It was one of the East Bloc’s most repressive regimes. Media were not allowed into the country, and so there remains relatively little coverage of one of the most extraordinary political upheavals since World War II.
Romania was one of the final Eastern European Communist dictatorships to collapse, following a series of relatively peaceful revolutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany — which had taken place during the preceding months.
However, aside from the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s demise in the early 1990s, Romania’s “revolution” was by far the most violent. Thousands died in the bloody street battles between the dissidents aligned with the Romanian Army and dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s private military forces known as “Securitate.” In fact, a series of demonstrations and riots plagued Romania over the next six months leading into the Summer of 1990.
I’ll be writing a series of narratives about these experiences in the weeks to come. In the meantime, here’s a glimpse of some photography (most of it mine, which is why it’s of lesser quality) which has not been seen before. Most of these photos have been kept in my garage. Keep in mind these photos were taken before digital cameras. Moreover, film was very difficult to obtain in Romania at the time, which makes photographs (and especially video) of the revolution somewhat rare.
Nolan (in white) with officers in the Romanian Army