I had left the office at 4:00 a.m. that morning because we were covering the Lithuanian-Russian Treaty that was signed between Yeltsin and Landsbergis in Moscow, solidifying economic cooperation. However, the primary reason we worked night shifts, was because we feared the Soviets would attempt to attack the Parliament building to crush Lithuania’s drive for independence and someone needed to man the phones and call everyone into work if the worst happened.
When I arrived at the InfoBureau, my co-workers were in Rita Dapkus’ office watching the television. Rita, a 29 year-old Lithuanian-American had established the Parliamentary Press Office in March 1990, when Lithuania reestablished independence. The foreign press had finally taken interest in Lithuania’s aspirations for freedom and the InfoBureau provided trustworthy information.
My co-workers were watching a Lithuanian police crime scene videotape. The images on that screen would remain forever imprinted in my mind. On the floor of a small room laid six men, face down, in pools of dark blood. I recognized at once some of the men were wearing Lithuanian customs posts uniforms. This was another customs post attack – but not like any other.
Since May 1991, the Soviet military had been engaged in almost daily attacks on Lithuanian customs posts. They’d harass, detain, beat up workers (who were always unarmed) and ransack the posts. I’d received a few calls during my nightshifts from frightened workers who’d endured attacks, but there weren’t any serious injuries.
“Medininkai,” Arvydas informed me.
I felt as though someone kicked me in the head as tears rolled down my cheeks. Rita sat at her desk, with tears forming in her eyes yet she remained stoic, shaking her head mesmerized by the TV screen. Another co-worker was crying. I didn’t want to watch this horrible video, with the blood and the dead bodies, but I knew foreign journalists would soon be calling and I had a duty to describe what was on the crime scene tape.
“Eight men were shot in the head, execution style,” Rita announced, “The two survivors are in the hospital fighting for their lives.”
As the camera panned the floor of the bloody customs post, it was obvious the men knew what was coming. They covered their heads with their hands, as if it would protect them from the bullets penetrating their skulls.
On Rita’s desk I saw a list of names:
Mindaugas Balavakas (b.1970) – 21 yrs old – killed
Juozas Janonis (b.1962) – 29 yrs old – killed
Algimintas Juozakas (b.1969) – 22 yrs old – killed
Algirdas Kazlauskas (b.1949) – 42 yrs old – killed
Antanas Musteikis (b.1958) – 33 yrs old – killed
Stanislovas Orlavicius (b.1956) – 35 yrs old – killed
Ricardas Rabavicius (b.1970) – 21 yrs old – injured
Tomas Sernas (b.1962) – 30 yrs old – injured
In the video images I recognized the desk and the teacups, and thought, Jesus Christ. I was just there last month, drinking from those very teacups.
Almost two months earlier, on June 3rd, the InfoBureau received a call from the Medininkai customs post near the Belorussian border that seven APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers) arrived and parked nearby. The strange thing about this it was the middle of the day – all the other attacks occurred in the middle of the night. I volunteered to ride out to the post with Arvydas to check it out, as I was the only one with gas in my vehicle. (The ongoing Soviet economic blockade meant constant gasoline shortages.)
Arvydas grabbed the video camera and we were off on my orange motorcycle with a sidecar (a Jawa 350). My bike was experiencing mechanical issues, and the furious ride to Medininkai stressed the engine so much, that just when we arrived, the bike died. We coasted past the Soviet APCs and soldiers, who were shocked to see a woman riding a motorcycle. We smiled and saluted the soldiers to add to their confusion and jumped off the bike, pushing it to the customs post. As Arvydas began to discreetly film the soldiers through a gym bag and ask them questions, two customs post workers stepped out of the post asking, “What’s wrong? Do you need help with your bike?”
As one guard began fixing my bike, the other took me inside the post and offered coffee. Even though there were Soviet APCs and soldiers parked outside, he went about preparing a cup of coffee as if nothing was happening. Other workers joined us, as they seemed amused to meet an American girl with a motorcycle. As we drank coffee from teacups, we joked around and flirted a little.
We returned outside to check the progress on the bike. Arvydas stated the soldiers stated they were “waiting for gas.” They didn’t seem to be causing any harm. The guard fixed the bike, though we waited about 20 minutes to let it completely cool down to give it a test run. As we waited, he asked me questions about what I was doing in Lithuania.
I described how I came to Lithuania in January and was living in Vilnius and working at the InfoBureau office. He perked up, “Do you work with Rita Dapkute? Are you one of the people who takes in calls reporting Soviet military activity?”
“Yep, I’m one of those people.”
“Ah, it’s good to put a face to the voice, that is, when we need to call in to report when the Soviets show up.”
“Hopefully you won’t have to call,” I said seriously, “But aren’t you guys scared? I mean, you’re here all alone at night and with all of the attacks…”
“Yes, a little,” he said, “But I know the Soviets are just going to rough us up a little to prove their point. I’ll be ok.”
“You guys are super brave.”
“Not brave, just doing our part.”
Lying dead in pools of blood shouldn’t be anyone’s “part.” The phones of the InfoBureau were ringing off the hook and I did my best to explain what occurred to foreign journalists, who were equally horrified as we were.
Later that morning Arvydas placed a newspaper on my desk and pointed at a photograph, “I think that’s the one.”
“That one what?”
“The one who helped fix your motorcycle when we were there last month.”
“Oh, Arvydai, don’t say that.”
“Look, I think that’s him.”
A tinge of familiarity flashed through my mind.
“I don’t know. I can’t be sure.”
Arvydas covered the forehead of the young man with his finger, “Remember? He was wearing a cap.”
Oh God no. It can’t be.
The day was making me more and more ill by the minute. Those soldiers with the seven APCs that were “waiting for gas” at the Medininkai post the month before were probably doing reconnaissance work investigating the area for the July 31 attack. Shame filled my entire essence. I tried to relive that day we were at Medininkai and searched my memory for the face of the guard who fixed my bike, for the young man who made me a cup of coffee, for the guys who flirted with me, but I couldn’t. How could I be so selfish and wrapped up with my own problems and not take a good look at someone who took the time to help me?
Another co-worker entered the office and informed us, “Reuter’s reported on the Bush-Gorbachev summit press conference in Moscow. Bush asked Gorbachev about what happened at Medininkai. Gorbachev supposedly didn’t know anything about it and was mad at his people for not informing him first.”
Two days later, Ricardas Rabavicius, the seventh victim died.
In the years since 1991, I like to pull out that old July 31, 1991 newspaper from time to time and memorize the faces of the victims of Medininkai. In those days when Lithuania was striving to achieve independence, many people “did their part.” Today, I must do my part and not forget those who did more than just “their part,” but gave their lives.
The Lithuanian government continues to do their part to bring the perpetrators of the Medininkai murders to justice, but Russia continues to do their part to thwart justice by refusing to extradite the suspects.
The main perpetrator, former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev, continues to deny any responsibility whatsoever to any blood shed in Lithuania. If Gorbachev claimed he had nothing to do with the attack at the Vilnius TV Tower on January 13, 1991 when 14 people were killed and over 700 injured, why didn’t he order the Soviet military occupying the tower for eight months to withdraw? In the following months the Soviet military seized another twenty-nine buildings, which Gorbachev did nothing to prevent. Since May of 1991, attacks on the border posts occurred almost daily, which Gorbachev permitted. Gorbachev claimed he knew nothing about the executions at Medininkai – was he too ignorant to believe that the constant attacks would not escalate to murder? I guess Gorbachev was just doing his part too.