Baltic states honour Soviets' victims 70 years on

14th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia Tuesday honoured the memory of tens of thousands of their citizens deported by Soviet forces exactly 70 years ago during World War II.

In nationwide commemorations that only became possible after Soviet rule ended in 1991, leaders said the 43,000 victims of June 14, 1941 must never be forgotten.

"This tragedy struck almost every family in Lithuania," President Dalia Grybauskaite said a ceremony in her country's capital Vilnius, outside the former headquarters of the Soviet KGB secret police.

In Latvia, her counterpart Valdis Zatlers said the passing of decades did not end the pain.

"The wounds of the older generation are perhaps still not healed, because wounds caused by evil heal very slowly," Zatlers said at a memorial event.

In Estonia President Toomas Hendrik Ilves issued a statement underlining that "unmitigated violence was brought to bear by a totalitarian regime on the citizens of a subjugated nation in occupied territory."

Overnight, some 18,000 Lithuanians, 15,000 Latvians and 10,000 Estonians were herded into cattle trains and sent deep into the Soviet Union.

"I wasn't even nine when I was deported with my whole family," Ona Zukauskiene told AFP in Vilnius.

In the summer of 1939, Moscow had cut a deal with Nazi Germany to take over the Baltics and carve up Poland.

Ten months after joining the Nazi attack on Poland, the Soviets seized the three republics. The following year they moved to crack down on opposition -- real and imagined.

The deportations were halted when the Nazis turned on their erstwhile allies on June 22, 1941, pushing the Red Army out as they invaded Soviet territory.

The Germans were hailed by some Balts as liberators -- a stance that remains controversial to this day.

The Nazis brought their own terror, killing most of the region's Jews, aided by local collaborators.

"I'm the only survivor from my entire family," Tobijas Jaafetas, a member of Lithuania's Jewish community, told a memorial session of parliament.

Jews were also targeted by the Soviets, albeit to a far lesser degree. In Estonia a monument was unveiled Tuesday to the 400 Jews -- a tenth of its pre-war Jewish population -- deported in 1941.

In 1944-45 the Soviets drove out the Nazis, and began new deportations running into the early 1950s that swept up 182,000 people.

Survivors were barred from their homelands until a thaw after the 1953 death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin -- or even later -- and were oppressed even if they did return.

Zukauskiene married a fellow deportee in Siberia and raised a family there.

"We wanted to come home to Lithuania, but we didn't have the right," she said. They only returned in 1974.

Since independence relations have often been strained between Moscow and the Baltics -- combined population 6.5 million -- who joined the EU and NATO in 2004.

Disputes are stoked by conflicts over the past, notably Moscow's refusal to recognise its five-decade rule as occupation or the deportations as a crime.

© 2011 AFP

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