Graves expose Soviet lie, diggers say

 

BY ROBERT MATAS

The Globe and Mail

 

VANCOUVER

Several mass graves dug up earlier this fall in the western Ukraine region of the Soviet Union have exposed a often repeated lie in Soviet history about the deaths of thousands of people killed in the early forties, Soviet archeologists have told Canadians.

 

The graves held the bodies of Ukrainians killed by Soviet soldiers before they retreated from the area in 1941, they said. Soviet history has officially maintained that the people were killed by German aggressors.

 

Taking advantage of the spirit of glasnost, people living near the city of lvano-Frankov, about 120 kilometres south of L'vov, have gone into nearby forests and dug where for many years they suspected the bodies of family members and friends had been buried.

 

Ostap Hawaleshka, a University of Manitoba professor who was at the site of a mass grave last month, said in an interview the people in the area had known for years about the shootings without knowing exactly where the bodies were.

 

Mr. Hawaleshka recounted his approach to the site, located about 1 ½ kilometres off  a main road and marked by a tall cross which had the illegal Ukrainian blue and gold flag draped over it.

 

"As I went closer, I could see what looked like piles of haystacks, made of blocks arranged into pyramids. They were spread over two or three acres. As you get closer, you realize that there are piles of bones, shoes and clothing sticking out of the earth. It was a nerve-shatteting experience," he said.

 

"It was like an archeological dig. People milling around, moving about on their knees and like that. And officials watching this, police-type people walking around."

 

Mr. Hawaleshka recalled seeing a table 13 metres long, covered with skulls. "And in some of them, you can see the bullet holes."

 

While he was there, Mr. Hawaleshka said he saw workers bring in more skulls just unearthed.

 

"I was told they were able to identify less than 10 family names of those who were actually shot there. At last count - and they were still bringing them in - they had counted 506 skulls in this one grave.

 

"I was told this, and it was confirmed by others, that this was done by the Soviet army when the Germans came in and the Soviet army was retreating."

 

Mr. Hawaleshka said he found that people he met were supportive of Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to reform the Soviet system, but they were anxious to expose the atrocities of the Stalin era.

 

A spokesman from the embassy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was not available for comment yesterday. The embassy employees were on holiday in celebration of the October Revolution.

 

Photographs taken by a Soviet archeologist were obtained by The Globe and Mail from another Canadian.

 

Progress, a Ukrainian weekly newspaper based in Winnipeg, is publishing an account of the excavations in its edition dated Nov. 12.

 

Rev. Semen Izyk, Progress's editor, said the excavations have been publicized within the Soviet Union.

 

The Red Army troops claimed the area as part of the Soviet Union on Sept. 16, 1939, and the troops began their retreat on June 22, 1941. While in control of the territory, the internal police arrested thousands of people, filling several jails. When the Soviet Union retreated, the police killed everyone in their jails, Mr. Izyk, a survivor of German concentration camps, said in an interview.

 

The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Post on July 7, 1941, reported mass graves and big funerals in the area. But Stalin insisted the Germans were responsible for the deaths, he said.

 

Now a lot of witnesses are speaking out about what happened, he said.

 

Victor Sokolov, a lecturer at the University of British Columbia Slavonic Studies and a priest with the Orthodox Church in America, said in an interview the recent discoveries have provided graphic evidence of Stalin's atrocities.

 

Every family in the Soviet Union had someone in jail under Stalin, who arrested people at random to keep everyone in a state of terror, he said.

 

In the mid-fifties, the Soviet leaders made passing references to the Stalin atrocities but did not acknowledge the extent of the massacres. Mounting evidence of the crimes has been exposed only in the past two or three years, he added.

 

People were aware of something happening without specifically knowing the details, he said. They would see trucks every night delivering people to the forests and in the morning, the roads would be covered with blood. The trucks would be driven down to the stream to be washed, Mr. Sokolov said.

 

Families received official notices stating that a relative had been tried by a special three-member tribunal and sentenced with no right to correspond with anyone for 10 years. People understood that was really a death notice, he said.

 

The Globe and Mail, November 9, 1989