For citizens of tiny Sibiu, Romania, “watchful eyes” nestled in the city’s roofs have become a symbol of ongoing protest.
Each day at noon, in the picturesque little city of Sibiu, the red-shingled roofs and the protestors silently assembled in the streets send the same message to the corrupt government of Romania: We are watching you.
Visitors to Sibiu take note of the standard Central European attributes: the quaint, historic architecture, punctuated by the Gothic Lutheran cathedral, whose steeple looms high into the sky; the houses clinging to the bank of the river Cibin, which winds lazily down from the main waterway of Olt. But they are likely to do a double-take upon noticing the ever-watchful Sibiu eyes—narrow windows rising up from the city’s roofs, giving the impression of a perpetual half-lidded gaze. Originally designed to ventilate attics where meat, cheese, and grain were stored while keeping the harsh sunlight out, the eyes have become a potent symbol of Romania’s anti-corruption movement—specifically, a grassroots organization called V Vedem din Sibiu, or “we are watching you from Sibiu.”
V Vedem din Sibiu came about in December 2017, when the government moved to shift judiciary statutes in a way that was widely regarded as tightening state control over judges and undermining the National Anticorruption Directorate. The attempt further inflamed tensions ignited at the beginning of the year, when the ruling Social Democrat party (PSD) decriminalized a range of corruption offenses, triggering Romania’s most sizable street protest since the fall of communism in 1989. The emergency ordinance—which, among other stipulations, dropped charges of official misconduct in cases where the financial damage did not exceed 200,000 lei ($47,000)—passed at 10 p.m. local time; by midnight, more than 10,000 infuriated citizens had taken to the streets in the capital of Bucharest, and around 10,000 in other cities across Romania.
Corruption is considered a serious problem in Romania, and the country’s fragile political state is exacerbated by its status as one of the European Union’s newest and poorest members, leaving citizens concerned for their rights and constantly at the ready to mount a protest. In the years and months since the events of 2017, Romania has seen ongoing organizing against corruption and in support of judicial independence, and the government has endured criticism from the European Commission, the U.S. state department, and the centrist president and National Liberal Party leader, Klaus Iohannis, who has made strong calls for governmental transparency. In January 2018, approximately 50,000 Romanians marched towards parliament in Bucharest, waving flags, contending with riot police, and raising raucous chants of “Thieves!” And in August of that year, up to 100,000 members of the Romanian diaspora descended on Bucharest to protest the PSD—an event that took a violent turn when police deterred marchers with tear gas and water cannons.
Relative to the chaotic, overwhelming tableau of the ongoing demonstrations in Bucharest, the soundless walkouts occurring daily in Sibiu present a stark contrast. This July, the Sibiu protesters commemorated their 500th day gathering in the city center, sacrificing their lunch breaks or school recesses to stand in silence outside the headquarters of the PSD. “Those 15 minutes every day, it is like a flame that never goes out,” said Ciprian Ciocan, one of the founders of V Vedem din Sibiu, in an interview with The Guardian. “Somebody knows that there are still people in Sibiu, no matter whether it rains or snows or whatever.”
Ciocan posts live videos of the protests on V Vedem din Sibiu’s Facebook page, where they reach more than 20,000 followers. During the events of December 2017, allies from around the world sent in more than 68 versions of the Sibiu eyes—scrawled on walls and scraps of paper, carved into sand at the seashore, inscribed with branches laid on fresh snow, from Berlin to Chicago to Kuala Lumpur. Though the initial tide of eyes has slowed, the page continues to share media coverage of the protests along with its regularly scheduled live videos. The “about” section defines the sit-in as a form of protest, stating, “We are protecting the values and principles in which we strongly believe, the state of law and the independence of Justice.”
In May of this year, under pressure from the EU and overwhelming dissent from Romanian voters, the PSD abandoned some of its most controversial measures. Even more devastating for the party was their loss of seats in European Parliament elections and the departure of the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, who was jailed on May 27 and is expected to serve a three-and-a-half-year sentence for corruption.
Despite small steps in the right direction, however, citizens remain on high alert. “There are many other dangers,” Bianca Toma of the Romanian Centre for European Policies told The Guardian. “There are still things to be undone and it’s a matter of fact, not just [making] statements.” And in Sibiu, the ongoing protests have had little impact on the PSD, whose workers drew the blinds when sit-ins began and issued a statement accusing the activists of “aggressive” behavior. Still, like clockwork, citizens will keep turning out in the streets, and the watchful eyes will keep gazing from Sibiu’s rooftops, waiting for a day when Romanians at home and abroad can live without fear of corruption.
TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.