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Chapter 16 - Rioting in Budapest
It was a glorious autumn morning to relish, the sort of day that makes you hum along to Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’.
Hungarian flags were everywhere, as were the police. The views down and along the Danube were superb. It was such a serenely wide and calm river, steeply banked and bathed in sunshine. Seen from over the water that defines it, Budapest is a city that opens up before you. It invites exploration.
When you have stood on one of Budapest’s many bridges, you know for sure why this city, the Queen of the Danube, is deservedly entrenched into the Champions League elite of Europe’s finest cities. The sizzling white Hungarian parliament, not too dissimilar from the House of Commons in shape, but lacking the towering presence of Big Ben, hovered serenely over the calm water. There was just an ever so small whiff of my journey moving further east and migrating closer to the Orient.
Yellow trams rattled along the banks and over the bridges. It’s an old adage isn’t it, getting run over by a tram? But you would not believe how deceptively dangerous these things really are. Wherever I walked I somehow couldn’t factor trams into featuring on my mental radar when crossing certain areas. And they do suddenly hurtle out of empty quietness from around an unseen corner. Being run over by a tram was no longer a joking matter.
On Castle Hill, a statue of a lady holding a palm leaf proclaims freedom throughout the city of Budapest. Golden views for a golden day opened up. Large barges slid effortlessly under the bridges. Having crossed the river, I climbed up to the Citadel before walking along to the ornate craftsmanship of the Fisherman’s Bastion area. Here, seven fairytale-like round towers, each symbolised the seven Magyar tribes, which brought the Hungarian nation together a millennium before, surround you.
They say you get two cities for the price of one in Budapest. Buda, on the west side of the Danube is refined, quietly respectable and slightly detached…everything that Pest on the other side of the Danube was not. Buda’s narrow, coloured houses and cobbled streets had an air of calm and detached wealth. While Pest’s crumbling facades and scarred old buildings had a livelier, more lived in feel.
Hungary was a country that we have perhaps always thought of being on the fringes of our continent, but it is also embedded at the very centre of it. The Hungarian people are a people whose distant origins are far flung. The history of this shrunken rump of a country is long and deep and encompasses Romans, Huns and Magyars. As a nation, Hungary is just over one thousand years old. Considerable and great powers were once wielded from this settlement on the Danube.
The remarkably intimidating Hungarian language stands out for its unique eccentricity. Its nearest neighbour is Finnish, and some of the sounds are slightly similar to Turkish, but a few German words also managed to creep in. I nearly picked up a rather tatty old phrase book for a few forints, but quickly discarded it when I realised it contained phrases like: ‘Megnézed a bélyeggyûjteményem?’
For those of you not fluent in Hungarian, that snappy, easy-to-pronounce phrase translated as ‘Would you like to see my stamp collection?’, with a pointer in English underneath in brackets, [to hint at getting her to your room!] Clearly, there was nothing like an extensive stamp collection to seduce a girl in Hungary.
Budapest was commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 uprisings in the capital against Soviet occupation. Stretching for the best part of a mile, maybe longer, all along the pedestrian walkways next to the river, was an endless succession of giant Hungarian flags. Each red, white and green flag had its own unique, artistic design. Haunting music and radio voices from that tumultuous period in Hungary’s history echoed out from tinny speakers.
Spin the clock back precisely fifty years, and the events of 1956 Budapest had huge ramifications for Europe as a whole. Soviet tanks rolled in and crushed the uprising, killing some 25,000 people in the process. Ten times that number also fled Hungary. In effect, the manner in which the Soviets put down the attempted revolution cemented the Iron Curtain division between East and West Europe for years and decades afterwards.
I was to be in exalted company, having the pleasure of being joined in the city by many heads of state from around the world to mark the fiftieth anniversary. Not quite the way I had planned it, but if they could keep away from me, I could manage to keep away from them. Everywhere central was teeming with police. Helicopters zipped back and forth ferrying various dignitaries. Evening clouds gathered over the calm serenity of the river, the parliament and the city. They were suggestive of an impending storm.
What’s it like to be caught up in the middle of a riot? You might have thought that Budapest was too beautiful a place for bloody conflict and attempted revolution, but it was not. Worrying things have quietly been happening in Hungary in recent years.
I was having a quiet day in Budapest, too quiet almost. After having negotiated some train ticket information at the central station, I sauntered towards the main area of the city. I could hear some faint noises in the distance, and they became gradually louder. As I looked round, I noticed lots of people walking in the road. They were stopping traffic and waving Hungarian flags.
Something was building. Curiosity compelled me to follow them, and walk with them even. A crowd of at least a few hundred were behind. They were chanting and heading towards the Hungarian parliament building. Eventually, having filtered out a little, they slowed to gather strength and condense together. I was with the ones at the front. As we turned a corner, suddenly there in front of us were tens of riot police rooted to the spot.
However steadfast the lines of police, their numbers would be no match for the hundreds of marching demonstrators, so they backtracked. The marching army was emboldened by this, and buoyed itself forwards. However, another denser line of police appeared further on, and a predictable standoff ensued.
As I came to an abrupt halt with the lead demonstrators, I could properly smell the tension for the first time. It was grazing me. The time for courtesies had long expired. There was something about so many armed police standing together in a line, a standoffish and intimidating coolness. And it occurred to me that I had ended up in an undesirably compromising position that I didn’t really want to be in. Bodies from either side stretched right across the entirety of a comparatively narrow street. I was sandwiched between two implacable, sizeable and colliding forces.
There was the briefest of polite impasses, a pause for breath perhaps. I watched the eyes of the policemen behind their helmets as they steeled themselves. I surveyed the charged emotions on the faces of the demonstrators, many of them racked with indecision over what to do next - should they stand firm and continue their verbal protest, or should they become more forceful in their quest to reach the parliament, which was still a few hundred metres away.
It was enthralling to observe at close quarters this game of chicken, waiting to see who might blink first. Then, as so often happens, a couple of people pushing and shoving from behind the front line of bodies triggered a reaction as the police readjusted their positions. The protestors surged forwards more aggressively, but I don’t think they quite bargained for the reaction and escalation which was ultimately provoked. The riot police didn’t mess around. They began to charge.
Loud shots were fired. People turned in fright and backed off. Their shouts and screams were more in panic now than forceful faith in their protesting agenda. I was still in my claustrophobic cul-de-sac, but I wasn’t the only one. The most expedient way out of the police’s path that I could find, was right at the side of the road, so they went past me waving their batons at anyone who dared to remain in their way.
And so it went on. I ended up behind police lines. I watched intimately as the police used their momentum to gather tighter and heavier in more numbers with reinforcements. Hundreds of them kept appearing. They really meant business and didn’t seem to care who got in their way. The protesters would quite simply have to be driven back.
But then, just as the protesters had underestimated the force of the police, the police must have been surprised to see so many protesters now in front of them. A crowd of several thousands had now swelled. It made a bigger target for the rubber bullets and tear gas.
Some nasty looking mini tanks rolled up. These would be used to fire water canons. In the melee of mayhem, I eventually managed to secure refuge in the doorway of an apartment block. I tried hard to absorb as much of it all as I could, but it was a struggle to keep a cool head about where I should go next or what I should do. I have to confess that being on the frontline was totally compelling and addictive. Adrenaline pumps you up and energises you.
Out of nowhere, I could suddenly feel a nasty taste searing into and souring my throat. My eyes started to sting with tremendous pain and water uncontrollably. The tear gas had got me. It tasted absolutely disgusting. But I was by no means the only sufferer. Men and women, old and young, all around me were clutching their faces in the same way. No one kept hold of their composure.
A middle aged women was shedding tears of desperation. A young man was down, lying on the floor after being hit by a rubber bullet and was being tended to. This had gone beyond a protest. For some strange reason, I felt a strong sense of attachment to how far these people were prepared to go for a cause they believed in. Temporarily, I was one of them. An outpouring of anger had transformed into a battle for survival.
One by one, we realised we had better back track out of where we had been sheltering since the police were marching relentlessly forwards and were unlikely to discriminate about who got in their path. Ten minutes or so later, I regained some of my proper senses and tried to take stock of the strategic situation.
Again I was drawn to the shifting front line to take photos wherever I could. But this time I was more secure, since I was well to the side of the police rather than in front of them in their line of fire. Once more, I had a good close up look at them. They all wore long face shields and heavily plated body armour. They carried long truncheons in one hand and what looked like tear gas weapons in the other. Everything about them was faceless and uniform apart from their eyes.
I decided to go back and across a couple of streets. This enabled me to survey the nature of the battle from a better vantage point. The crowd of protestors had again ballooned to way more than I had imagined it to be. They were sprawled around a corner and on in to another main square and beyond, possibly tens of thousands massed deep by now. The police had made some swift territorial gains down one of Budapest’s main streets but life was being made difficult for them.
One man stood proudly alone, defiantly waving a giant Hungarian flag as the police approached. His sacrificial pride was admirable. He might have been stood by himself but he wasn’t alone. I looked around and realised I was surrounded by a handful of international press photographers in luminous bibs. They were as relentless in their shooting of film as they were in running the gauntlet across the line of fire. They were pushing things to the limits just to get that one all important shot which might make tomorrow’s front pages.
I followed the photographers into certain positions. They sometimes followed where I went. We all happened to be in the same boat, wanting to get as close as possible to the action without getting directly in the way of it. Many of the women and older protesters had disappeared, to be replaced by more militant young men, many of whom had scarves over their faces to avoid being identified. They hurled rocks, stones and generally anything that they could lay their hands on towards the police a hundred metres away. It was all extremely chaotic and opportunist.
I could hear the scraping noise of large objects being dragged along the road. I turned around to find men working in teams pulling giant man-sized white plastic letters, which had been part of a nearby 1956 exhibition. These people had initiative. Before too long I realised what they were attempting to do - create a word in giant white letters to face the onslaught from the police, which spelt out,
It meant FREEDOM. This was a really effective rallying point. In front of these large letters, metal railings were put up, and further fortification of this unlikely position was soon helped with things like bricks, broken benches, signs and general rubble.
This appeared to enrage the police even more. They upped their bombardments of bullets, tear gas and water cannons. The letters were broken up, and once more the people were forced further back. I got choked with tear gas again and was forced to take up a more neutral position out of the line of fire.
When I regained my composure I did so just in time to witness one of the most audacious acts I can ever recall witnessing in my life. The protesters were backtracking, but then a fierce revving noise made everyone pause for breath. It was a roar of defiance.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a hijacked tank came storming in the opposite direction head first towards the massed ranks of the police. The tank had previously been on display at the same exhibition the giant letters had been looted from. It must have been over 50 years old, but someone had started it up and was now hurtling boldly and directly into the police lines.
It was absolutely staggering, and quite stirring, to catch sight of something so daring and bold. Thousands of people cottoned on to what was happening, and an almighty roar of approval erupted. The streets of Budapest were rocking and the hairs on my neck jolted upright. This felt like it was turning into an attempted revolution.
Unfortunately, from my side angle position, I couldn’t quite see the consequences of the tank’s impact into the police positions. Later, I learnt the police somehow stopped the tank and captured the driver. But it was a defiant symbol to all the other protesters, who wanted a change of government, of what they might achieve.
Nonetheless, in spite of this lonely, spirited act of outrageous audacity, the momentum was firmly with the police. The protesters were continuously on the back foot. The police were better armed and organised, so they were able to pick them off one by one. A rumour came through to me that someone had been killed. It would not have surprised me at all. The dividing line between peaceful protest and violent conflict had long ago been transgressed by aggressors on both sides.
Away from the main action were smaller, more isolated battles. The police did a very effective job of separating out some of the more confrontational protesters. I watched as one man was unceremoniously knocked off his feet. Five policemen leapt on him, grinded his face into the concrete, snapped his arms behind his back, before dragging him away. His main crime, so far as I could tell, was to resist their attempted arrest. As he was carried off, his shouts and wriggles of defiance punctuated the tear gas soaked air.
It was peculiar to see bystanders, and even tourists, inconvenienced by what the police wanted to do. Packaged goods in a warehouse factory would have received better care and attention than some of the protesters, including women and old people. Everyone in Budapest had become entangled in this, one way or another. Even Burger King had to be shut down, as did most of the city’s transport.
Slowly but surely, I could see that the police were starting to assert territorial control on their foes. Everyone was now a good couple of kilometres away from the parliament, which had been the original target for the protesters. For the most part the police marched orderly forwards and firmly set their formations. Yet the protests and defiance were not about to peter out. Far from it.
As the afternoon descended well into the evening, the battle had decisively shifted further and further away from the parliament towards a symbolic bridge further down the Danube. The police had closed down several roads. Several thousand protesters remained, but it had passed its peak now and quite a few had had enough for the day and headed home.
I could hear the noises of confrontation and reaction, but didn’t quite know how I should reach them. This was when I met my two Hungarian friends, who spoke good English. As we all paused for breath, they were able to shed some light on what was happening and why it was happening.
‘First of all, you have to understand the history of our country.’ Robert told me.
‘Our prime minister Gyurcsany’s wife comes from a family who were very powerful under the communist system. They lived a life of luxury and were hated by many, many people in Hungary. Recently he has bought a very expensive, upmarket hotel on Lake Balaton, but he pays very little money to buy it because of who he is. Then he rents it out and sells it for lots of money. This is wrong. These people, we call them the New Russians.’ Laslo lamented.
The communist legacy was still incredibly powerful in Hungary. Their own prime minister was behaving no better than a disgraced Russian oligarch, it seemed. The country had had the misfortune of combining the worst of the last throes of communism and the messy formative years of capitalism.
The politicians and institutions in Eastern Europe are still relatively weak and evolving. Several important figures from the old communist regimes simply relabelled themselves, their money and their power. Decades of totalitarian power have left people easily intimidated.
The silences were eerie and uncomfortable. Every now and again our conversation would be disrupted by distant shouts, a sudden volley of shots or the rumbling of government vehicles. The more I thought about it, the more privileged I felt, to have the opportunity to witness such a struggle and simmering of intense passions. It was incredibly stirring, and to a degree slightly shaming in relation to my own country, to see people caring passionately about the way their country is run to the point of genuinely believing their actions would make a difference. You could not accuse many people of apathy here.
The irony of the timing of another attempted revolution, exactly 50 years on to the day, was definitely not lost on my Hungarian friends who looked more in awe than even I was.
‘In 1956 my grandfather has told me shops were looted, but people left money in lieu for food they took. Today it is different.’
It was a day that no one who was there would easily forget for another 50 years.
As the standoff continued into the early hours, the protesters fortified their position on the edge of the Bridge of Liberty. A very uneasy truce just about held out. The crowd piled up all sorts of debris from buildings sites - wooden planks, frames and skips - into a giant barricade. Meshes of elaborate trip wires were even set up. Every now and again rumbles of gunshots punctured the air. This felt like the final denouement of the cat and mouse game of provocation. The mouse had now, to all intents and purposes, been hemmed into a late night, tight corner by the patient cat waiting to pick it off.
Men in ski masks, and some wearing helmets, looked like ring leaders. There was an air of ongoing suspense over when and how strong the backlash reaction from the police would be. Uneasily, everyone waited for them to move in for the kill. Pretty much only a hard core of a few hundred protesters remained to resist.
Robert’s mobile phone rang. It was his mum, who was watching some of the riot scenes on television. She was worried about where he was. My legs were wilting, and my mind was drained by trying to keep up with the strategic guessing, the false triggers and alarms. The bravery, the fear and the uncertainty all endured right to the end just as much as they had some twelve hours before.
The three of us deliberated on the Bridge of Liberty as the Danube, lit up in the darkness, and always the constant of serenity for the city during every passage of turbulent history, seemed even more fiery and grandiose than it had during the day. The Citadel at the top of the hill in Buda was still brightly illuminated. It had originally been constructed to deter the masses from further attempts against Hapsburg rule back in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Although in the event, the cannons pointing out threateningly over Budapest were never used in anger. Changing political circumstances for the Hapsburgs dictated that they reached a fairer accommodation with the Hungarians, and I wondered if history might be forced to repeat itself with the current regime.
A short while after I left, there was a booming rumble of aggressive anguish. The police steamed in and demolished the barricades. Lots of people were injured and arrested. More scars for the people, the city and the country. It was hard to say whether Budapest or Hungary would be the same again afterwards, or a better or worse place….just as it had perhaps been in 1956.
How true that old saying was:
‘In Budapest you have two cities for the price of one!’