Romania: #Colectiv, 13 Days after
It rains and it’s windy in London. Dozens of flower bouquets lean on the walls of the Romanian Cultural Centre in Belgrave Square. National flags, a poster with the lyrics to “The Day We Die” in English and Romanian and one with the pictures of the 32 victims wilt under the rain. It’s Saturday, November 7, almost 8 days since a fire broke out inside the Colectiv Club in central Bucharest during the rock band Goodbye to Gravity’s album launch concert. Fireworks lit 30 minutes into the concert set non-fireproofed insulation foam ablaze. There were 400 people inside. And one exit only. That evening the authorities said 27 died and about 180 were hospitalized with burns and intoxication. More than 90 badly injured.
I’m waiting for friends to arrive at the commemoration initiated online by a Romanian for whom “the terrible tragedy on the night of October 30th in Club #Colectiv cannot be overlooked”. I hardly know anyone who managed to overlook it since it happened. I hardly know any Romanians who don’t have a friend, a relative, an acquaintance or a friend of a friend who hasn’t been directly affected by this tragedy.
Just over 100 people gathered in front of the Romanian Embassy in London on Tuesday too. That was 3 days after the fire, while in Bucharest about 30 000 were marching in anger.
Maria, a native of Bucharest who now lives in London, started the “Solidarity with the Romanian protesters #colectiv” Facebook event. She managed to mobilize friends in less than 6 hours. “I wish I were in Romania now. I just can’t see what’s happening home and do nothing”. We’re feeding on articles, comments, pictures, opinions, accounts from friends and family in the streets of Bucharest.
The protesters, crammed into a side street between an off-licence shop and a posh cafe, are young, in their 20s and 30s. They are holding improvised banners with “Corruption kills”, “Solidarity with Romania”, “Reset Romania” and a bunch of printed leaflets for #colectiv (In English it means “collective”). A guy in his early 20s hands me one. A girl in a ponytail put on paper some of the most popular slogans back home. She holds them to the photo cameras in turns.
We shout generally about corruption and solidarity and how we will not forget what happened in #colectiv. Someone suggests we shout one of the Ponta slogans, but the rest of the people agree to leave names of politicians for some other time. We’re still mourning. We didn’t have time to march silently and lit candles, that’s why this gathering is a confused half protest, half commemoration. After a couple of hours, some of us leave, but there is consensus that we should meet again. A group of about 20 decide to lit candles in front of the embassy. A bearded slim man has friends in hospital. Chain smokes and talks. Others gather around and listen. It’s mainly horrid stories from the club. People whisper, hug and then silence settles in. Faces glitter with tears. And then we quietly leave, alone or in small groups.
Immediately after the fire, a solidarity race began and mobilization to help those in hospitals. Donors queued at blood centres like never before. People were bringing food to hospitals, young old, irrespective of social status or religious believes. A deluge of emotion engulfed many. On Sunday, the 1st of November, 12.000 marched silently through Bucharest in the memory of those lost. But on Tuesday, after three national days of mourning, the shock and the pain turned into anger. The chief of news of the national television resigned after broadcasting about the tragedy only 9 hours later. The head of the consumer protection agency for failed oversight over Colectiv was fired. The government passed additional legislation to allow Romania’s emergency response authority to immediately shut venues that do not have permits, take adequate safety measures or observe entry limits. But that was not enough. On November 3rd, 30 0000 took to the streets of Bucharest, to rid of the apparatchiks, the local dormant authorities, the bribe takers… On the 4th, protests spread across the whole country. PM Ponta resigned demanding the resignations of government ministers. The district mayor where the fire took place followed shortly.
My British housemates saw on the news what happened in Bucharest. I try to explain the protests and the resignations that ensued. “Because of that fire?”. They are confused. It’s difficult, but not impossible to explain. Ignorance, indifference and corruption kill.
Investigations are under way, civil society is invited to discussions with the president of the country, more resignations, new parties are registered, discussions, talk shows, opinion articles, and above all, beautiful humans helping, donating, taking control of their lives. The faces and stories of heroes who risked their lives to save others trapped in the club, stories of those who died or struggle for their lives on hospital beds are shared along account numbers where donations can be made. And then silence. Another dear friend, brother, sister, mother or father, wife or husband, daughter or son died. The 26 dead became 32… 41… 42… 48.
There’s a police van and a couple of Met officers pacing up and down the street telling us not to obstruct the traffic. There a couple of hundreds in front of ICR this Saturday. People listen and join the queue to sign in the book of condolence. There are low-tone conversations. Many came with their toddlers who play around. A friend arrives. His usual smiley exuberant self has disappeared under a pale face. We hug. I know some of his friends were caught in the tragedy. Some died, others are now in hospital. He enumerates their names. They’re more than I imagined. “Claudiu too…” he adds. Looks down. There isn’t much left to say.
Less than two weeks after the fire, 29 wounded are now treated in other European countries. 10 are in UK. Information keeps flowing. Debates, discussions, planning street action, online action, trying to write over a stale political system that has for too long served anything else but the citizens.
“The day we give in is the day we die” are lyrics from Goodbye to Gravity’s song “The Day We Die”. It’s about corruption and how free people should take control of their destiny. Doing nothing has never been an option. “A quarter-century of silence. #colectiv” reads a banner in the streets. From far, the only palpable change is that the new generations seem to discover the power of protest and citizen activism. The new government patched up in Bucharest is more than 2000 km away from us. Here, in London, we’re still mourning. 53.
Anca Rusu is a Romanian journalist living and working in London. For a factual article about the political and social situation written by somebody on the streets of Bucharest, click here.