One of Romania’s most violence protests saw more than 450 people injured, writes Cristian Gherasim, reporting for Euronews from Bucharest.
The demonstration on Friday in the Romanian capital saw expatriates return home from near and far to take part, urging the left-wing government to resign and call an early election.
The returnees, who moved abroad to escape by dire living conditions at home, joined tens of thousands of their countrymen in Bucharest’s crowded Victory Square.
They hoped to push the ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD) — marred by accusations of interference in the country’s judicial system and decriminalising some corruption offences — from power.
What started out as a peaceful rally with over 100,000 people quickly turned violent.
A few instigators who stood out among the largely peaceful protesters — began throwing bottles at the police.
Officers reacted in what the majority — including Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis — called excessive by directing force towards people gathered in the square.
Getting to Victory Square proved a challenge in itself, as the underground system was diverted.
However, once I got there, everything from tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and flare guns were being used by security forces.
On the the street it felt that protesters were constantly bombarded by riot police.
Cough-inducing clouds shrouded the entire Victory Square as people crouched down and trying to dodge the flurry of tear gas canisters.
They instructed each other what to do each time tear gas was fired at them: “cover your face and don’t use water. It will only makes it worse.”
Nearby pharmacy stores were swamped by people buying surgical masks to help keep away the tear gas.
Inbetween the sounds of tear gas canisters being shot into the crowd, protesters chanted “Thieves, thieves!”; “PSD is the red plague” — a reference to the ruling party’s all-red logo) — and the now infamous “F**k PSD”, a protest trademark seen on flags and banners everywhere.
People ran back and forth from the gathering point in front of the government building where the air was proving hard to breathe.
Yet, through the thick plumes of smoke, one could spot flags of different countries marking groups of Romanian expats holding their ground.
“Lyon has been my home for the last 5 years. I work in top management as an information analyst and I can see that what’s happening here tonight is unnecessary violence from the police force,” said France-based Andrei Calarasu, who occasionally comes back to Romania for business".
“The police force acted as if they want to foment public anger. It looks as a well-coordinated plan".
Close to four million Romanians work in other countries, each year sending home to their remaining relatives over €5 billion.
“I’ve been living in the UK for the past 20 years,” Daniel Toma told Euronews. “Every month I send back home to my parents £600-£700.
“Without my help it would be impossible for them to live off the meagre state welfare.
“I hope I can serve as example to all Romanians that need to take action against this criminal ruling class.”
The weekend prior to the protest, one Romanian border crossing registered over 120,000 people entering the country, some on holiday, others looking to attend last night’s protest.
Dana Florescu, another Romania expat living in the Netherlands, said she has no plans to come back home and what happened last night strengthens her conviction that she made the right call.
Close to midnight the police were ordered to clear the square. That was when the worst of the violence occurred.
A female police officer and one of her colleagues were badly beaten up by what people in the street said were football hooligans.
Protesters jumped to shield the two police officers with their bodies. Some protesters ended up in hospital with deep wounds from tear gas cartridges, while others fainted from the gas or after being repeatedly hit by police officers.
“Why aren’t they singling out instigators that purposefully want to stir up violence? Why is the gendarmerie attacking everyone and shelling us with gas?” one of the protesters said to Euronews after being hit by tear gas.
On Saturday morning, in a press conference, Marius Militaru, spokesperson for the Romanian police stated that they were ordered to intervene in force and evacuate protesters from Victory Square by the prefect of Bucharest.
Militaru added during the press conference that “security forces reacted defensively and in accordance with the law, making moderate use of force. In the clashes, one police officer was stripped of a firearm, and we are trying to find it.”
President Klaus Iohannis has asked the country’s attorney general for an immediate investigation into last night’s events, while the opposition party is calling for the resignation of the Minister of Internal Affairs.
Amongst all the madness an elderly protester found the time to pick up litter and help clean the square.