We are publishing this piece in collaboration with Bilten, where it originally appeared.
Romania commemorated one year since the tragedy that took place in Club Colective. Then, a fire during a rock concert killed 64 people and injured another 180. Even today 27 people are still under treatment and 30 survivors need surgical intervention as a result of their wounds. The commemoration brought to the fore again the dramatic moments of the tragedy, the succession of events on that fatidic night and the heartbreaking tales of the survivors and their difficult journey to full recovery. Parents and relatives who lost loved ones in the fire demanded again that justice is made. Just like the wounds of many of the survivors, the social ones provoked by the tragedy are far from healed. Even when they will, deep scars will remain.
There is an uncanny feature about this tragic event that it is very difficult to fathom. On the one hand, it seems that, given its status as one of the biggest tragedy of post-communism, if not the biggest, the fire in Colective has been such a consequential event, a turning point. On the other, it seems that it was nothing more than an accident – a tragic one to be sure, but an accident nonetheless. After the initial shock the society went back to business as usual, with the survivors left to struggle with the effects and the memory of that day. Similarly, on the one hand it feels that Colective revealed some deep seated problems of the Romanian society that the event is not yet truly over; on the other it seems that it had no bearing at all (again, except for those directly affected by it), as if it never actually happened. Not surprisingly then, besides the deeply emotional and truly devastating stories of relatives and survivors, the Romanian media, and the public more generally, one year after the tragedy was dived along a single question: did anything change after Colective? Pessimists who answered ”no” and those more willing to see positives and consequently answered ”yes” were both right. And this is the major problem.
There are a number of issues to be pessimistic about one year after Colective. First, after an initial knee-jerk reaction by the authorities that temporary jailed the mayor of the respective district and the owners of the club, there is no verdict about the guilty parties. They are now free. Investigations are underway but they are slow and not entirely transparent. Initially it was suggested that two inspectors from the inspectorate for urgent situations (ISU, a governmental agency) would be put to trial since they green-lighted the place to function, albeit it lacked all legal requirements. Nothing came out of this and there is a persistent feeling that authorities might try to shift the blame elsewhere. The firm that provided and installed the fireworks that led to the fire is has not been charged either.
Things look as depressing in other areas as well. The healthcare system is still in complete disarray, still underfunded and ineffectual for the most part. As I write this text a day after the commemoration, thousands of sanitary workers (technicians, nurses, etc.) are on the streets in Bucharest and other major cities in one of their biggest strikes. They demanded a substantial increase in their salaries, which, according to one nurse, amounts to 300 euros per month after 40 years of work. More than half of the victims in Colective died in hospital, most of them after getting infected with hospital bacteria. Lack of proper facilities for burnt victims left them no chance. Those survivors lucky enough to be transported abroad managed to survive and tell horrendous stories about the number of deadly bacteria they contracted in the Romanian hospitals. In the year that passed from Colective what has changed is the fact that these revelations were only the tip of the iceberg. One of the reasons for the proliferation of the highly resistant and deadly bacteria was not only the age of the hospital buildings (way beyond their expiry date), but the fact that the disinfectants were highly diluted, a scheme that put millions of euros in doctors’ and entrepreneurs’ pockets at the expense of people lives. Moreover, in the last year, the medical system went from bad to worse. An ecoli epidemic killed almost a dozen young babies in the spring and the authorities were not even sure what was the cause of it, let alone prevent or deal with it. The Health Minister in charge of the time was replaced with what was supposed to be a young reformist, only for the autumn to bring another crisis: lack of basic medicine.
Colective showed the limits and strains of a collapsing system, underfinanced and understaffed in the past 27 years. But it was just a focal point, not an exception. On year on, things are getting worse, not better. Putting in jail corrupt doctors and their accomplices will not change the fact that there has not been a single new state hospital built in Bucharest in the past 30 years – that is, in one generation, – the age of most of the people killed in the fire.
After Colective, it was expected that at least the regulations that are now in place will be better enforced, if not new ones would be introduced. It was clear from the beginning that one of the major reasons leading to the tragedy was the criminal disrespect for regulations in the name of profit. Even with the current legislation, Colective should not have existed in the first place, lacking all amenities for a proper underground club with live music and live fire. It was an improvised space in a dilapidated shoe factory with minimum investment. Theoretically, this was a place for 80 people, but in the night of the tragedy there were inside about 300 if not more. Such a disregard for safety was well known before the tragedy and was the rule for all places in the city. As many people noted, it could have happened anywhere, anytime. That it happened in Colective it was just a matter of circumstance.
Following an initial period of stricter controls, which led to the closing of several places and a legal ban on indoor smoking, things are back to ”normal” again. Unsafe and overcrowded places continue to function unabated while the authorities keep a closed eye. From this perspective it is as if Colective never happened indeed. A few months ago, in a provincial city the leader of a popular band halted their indoor concert inside a shopping mall because the place was overcrowded and asked people to disperse in order to avoid a stampede. Colective made some people more aware of these dangers, but nothing more than this.
But these issues are not confined to places of consumption. Regular places that are unfit and a hazard to safety are still allowed to function. In Bucharest, all houses and blocks of flats marked as perilous in case of an earthquake are still inhabited. Recent studies showed that if a 7,7 Richter earthquake would hit Bucharest it would leave 10,000 people dead and 500.000 injured. Feeble and dilapidated houses is quoted to be one of the main reasons for this high number of potential victims. Bucharest was without a general mayor at the time of the tragedy in Colective. The new one, elected in June, promised to deal with the situation by forming a commission. The exact number of buildings that need to be repaired and evacuated is not even known. Given the fact that the hospitals in Bucharest were severely overloaded when the victims of Colective had to be brought in, a disaster of such scale is beyond unthinkable.
Bucharest is flirting with catastrophe even in the absence of a devastating earthquake or other natural calamity. The fact that Colective took place in Bucharest was indicative of the state of dilapidation the city has been in in the past three decades. Despite the huge concentration of capital in the city and despite its annual budget of over 1 billion euro, Bucharest is a ruin. The traffic is so bad that there are no traffic hours anymore, just a snail-like procession of cars from 7AM to 8 PM most days of the week. The public transportation is close to non-existence. For a city as spread out as Bucharest and with a population way over two million, it has about 800 buses, trolleybuses and trams in total and most of them past expiry date. This moved traffic to the underground metro, the only means of public transportation with a decent coverage of the city and bearable commute times. But this autumn the metro collapsed as well. Forced to carry more than 600,000 people daily, it became ineffective under this burden. Long delays lead to long queues and ten of thousands of people are constantly stuck in the underground at rush hours in unimaginably packed conditions. When three women collapsed last month because of the lack of air in the cabin, the whole system came to a grinding stop. A survivor from Colective, witness to the scene, had a panic attack. To compound this problem, most of the metro station lack reliable systems of evacuation in cases of fire or accidents and the metro company (which is still state owned) has no money for insurances in case of accidents. By any European standard the metro should not be allowed to function in the first place. The recent measure introduced by the administration is that traffic policemen will be deployed in the metro stations to direct the traffic of passengers. Unlike regular traffic policemen, these officers will be armed.
Pessimists, therefore, have a point and plenty to point to in order to justify their stance. And no one can blame them since, at times, it seems as if Colective never took place – the same criminal passivity runs the city. Instead of a modicum improvement, the one-year commemoration finds us in even dire circumstances.
The optimists do not necessarily deny these and other similar aspects – they are too obvious for anyone to ignore them. But they are keen to look in different directions. After Colective, the mass mobilization that followed overthrew the Prime Minister and brought to power Dacian Cilos, a technocrat that vowed to put aside political divisions and simply deal with problems. One year later his record does not match the rhetoric but at least a lot of people (usually younger) feel galvanized by his persona and his style. Moreover, because of the popular mobilization after the tragedy, a lot of the established politicians – considered responsible for the ills of the transitions, which led to the tragedy – were forced to take a step back, at least for a while. Thus, a new political party emerged, with a real chance of making it to the parliament this fall. Because the tragedy was framed as an outcome of corruption, the anti-corruption campaign gathered even more steam and it led to important politicians being charged. Meanwhile, the revelations about the sorry state of the healthcare system, further brought to light by Colective, emphasized the need for dramatic changes. For the first time after 1989 privatization does not appear to be the only envisaged solution. State reallocation of funds and proper investment in both people and infrastructure are now on the agenda as important solutions and have significant support.
From this perspective therefore, some things did change and the optimists have a point too. Colective was not in vain and the sorrow the tragedy brought unleashed energies that are difficult to contain. As one survivor put it, at least our awareness changed and this is still an important change. Colective was the moment of coming of age of a generation: the post-communist generation. That it did so under such terrible circumstances was only telling about the nature of the transition and its consequences.
But precisely because both the pessimists and the optimists have a point, this doesn’t necessarily make them right. What was so astonishing about the tragedy in Colective was the short time it took from the moment it occurred to its transformation into a political and politicized issue. The flames were still burning at the club when the Romanian president framed the issue as an outcome of corruption and demanded the resignation of the Prime Minister. Others followed suit and the protesters that took to the streets in the next days elevated the tragedy to a decisive political moment. This sudden step from a genuine tragedy to its incorporation as a political event did not allow for a proper time for grief. The victims quickly faded from view and the battle for meaning ensued. But precisely by doing this, the radicalness of what happened in Colective was quickly lost. The event became normalized in concatenated chains of meaning. For, it is equally defeating to treat Colective just as a simple, localized accident, as it is to invest it with metonymic powers – that is, to jump from the particularities of this event to a systemic interpretation. Basically, the tragedy in Colective was supposed to provide by itself the bases, means and justification for a social revolution. As such, the more politicized the event became, the more politics was evacuated and replaced with an utopian stance in which all desires should be transformed into reality all of the sudden, without intermediation.
The one-year commemoration marked the disappointment that this did not happen but also the belief that it is still possible to happen in the future. The current Prime Minister goes in this year elections making this promise: to by-pass politics and make things happen via an administrative shortcut. It is perhaps the worst legacy Colective might provide and it is not the fault of the victims and survivors there.
What is missing is exactly the intermediary level between grief and revolution and this is the level of everyday politics and change. This level was overlooked both before and after the tragedy. From this perspective, nothing changed indeed.