Last week, inspired by the recent Euromaidan events in Ukraine, I shared my experiences of the unarmed human shields in Lithuania who stood up against Soviet forces, bravely defending freedom during the historical events of 1991.
In the end I asked, “How many people would be willing to do this today?”
Now, we have that answer. According to Kyivpost reports, five protesters were killed by Ukrainian President Yanukunovich’s forces.
In Lithuania, on January 13, 1991, the massacre at the Vilnius TV Tower proved a turning point in Lithuania’s struggle for freedom. Once blood was shed, the rules had changed, and the stakes raised.
I stood twenty-three years ago at a funeral for a martyr of the great cause of Lithuanian freedom. I left Los Angeles on Janaury 14th, a day after the Soviet attack at the TV Tower and arrived in Lithuania through Riga, Latvia on the 15th.
On the 16th, I attended the funeral procession for one of the victims: Titus Masiulis.
This is what the face of a human shield, a martyr looks like:
Victim of January 13, 1991 attack
at Vilnius TV Tower (pic taken from wikipedia, unknown author)
Just a regular nice guy who enjoyed hiking—a 28 year old tried to make his way through the world with an ordinary job, who probably thought about starting a family some day. He actively attended Sajudis demonstrations, because it was the right thing to do—to want freedom.
On January 13th he died from multiple gunshots to the chest.
Soviet President Gorbachev blamed the violence on “radicals,” such as Titas, who provoked and fired upon the Soviet forces. There would not have been any violence if the Soviet forces didn’t show up on tanks to break up a peaceful protest by unarmed civilians with the intention to seize and occupy the TV Tower.
Fourteen people had been killed at the TV Tower, and the victims received state funerals in Vilnius. Titus was a Kaunas native and was to be buried in the local cemetery. In the days before the funeral, the bodies of the victims were laid in the Vilnius sports arena in open caskets. Over one million people (out of a population of 3.5 million) lined up to pay their respects, to see the faces of the martyrs with their own eyes. Lithuanian history had been rewritten by the Soviets; therefore, it was important for Lithuanians to witness this history personally, so if need be, they could tell the next generation the truth.
On January 13th he died from multiple gunshots to the chest.
In Kaunas I made my way through the crowd of hundreds of thousands to a building with a set of wide steps. People made room as I squeezed in to the top. I swayed back and forth as others pressed their way onto the sidewalk and stairs. A teenager behind me placed his hand on my shoulder to ensure I wasn’t pushed off the edge. I placed my hand on the shoulder in front of me. An ancient wrinkled face under a wool scarf turned to me and smiled.
Packed in tight among thousands of bodies, the vibrations of those breathing and speaking around me permeated my skin. I caught shadows of the whispered conversations of those around me. The details of that fateful night were still coming in. There were unconfirmed rumors and we were scared of what would happen next. I listened as people speculated and conversed:
“50 people were killed, not 14.”
“I heard that others were carried off by the soldiers.”
“People are still missing.”
“Poor Titas, only 28, shot in the chest, his whole life taken away.”
“Yes, and the youngest ones were only 17.”
“Did you hear that Loreta is being buried in a wedding dress?”
“I went to the casket viewing and saw her in the wedding dress. Poor girl. Dead at 23. Run over by a tank.”
“I heard when she was brought to the hospital she was still conscious and asked the doctor, ‘Will I still be able to marry.’
That’s why her family is burying her in a wedding dress.”
I just about lost it. 23? I was going to be 25 in March. I didn’t want to listen anymore. My head throbbed. My toes were frozen in my cowboy boots.
As I glanced around, I wondered how many of these same people attended another such funeral on this very street, for another martyr, 19 years prior—for Romas Kalanta. In 1972, Kalanta set himself on fire, by pouring several gallons of gasoline over himself in a public Kaunas park, to protest the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. He left a simple note: “blame the regime for my death.” Attending Kalanta’s funeral turned into an act of civil dissobediance, as Soviet authorities tried to prevent people from attending it. Thousands, mostly youth, marched in protest—many were arrested and sent to prison.
I looked around, wondering if the Soviet authorities would prevent people from attending Titas Masiulis’ funeral. Lithuanian government leaders and dignitaries, along with a million citizens were at the funeral in Vilnius. But, here in Kaunas, the more intimate event could be a good target for Soviet forces. But all I saw were thousands of civilians waiting for the funeral procession make their way on the street.
The procession was led by clerics carrying religious symbols, flanked by Lithuanian women dressed in traditional ethnic costumes, carrying flowers and candles. Two men in suits followed holding a framed portrait of Titas. He was handsome. A group of a dozen people clutching Lithuanian flags followed.
Titas Masiulis Funeral procession in Kaunas – the casket – January 16, 1991 (photo D.Venckus)
As the dark wooden casket draped with a Lithuanian flag appeared on the shoulders of several burly men, a tsunami of sobs reached me as it traveled through the assembled mass of bodies. His remains were treated like a government leader, not an ordinary citizen. My tears shifted back and forth from sadness to anger, as I grinded my teeth from the cold. Once again, I thought, we can blame the regime for this death. As the procession passed by, people filled the street shadowing the casket, proceeding to the cemetery.
At the cemetery, the flag-covered casket floated above the heads of the crowd. Thousands crushed in around the burial site. I was swept up in the slow moving crowd and propelled up the hill toward the burial spot. With my petite stature, all I could see were the backs of coats and knitted caps.
A telephone pole stuck out like a buoy from the sea of people. Two young men hovered over the crowd, clinging to its side. Next thing I knew I was floating upward to one of the men positioned on a rung above. One reached down and grabbed my arm and pulled me so I could stand on a metal rung. I wrapped my arms tightly around the icy pole.
I had a clear view of the casket, about a hundred feet away, and the family wailing beside it. I wondered if Romas Kalanta was buried nearby. The crowd fell silent. A voice rose up and echoed. A priest talked and gestured. I couldn’t make out the man’s words. The coffin was carefully lowered into the grave. A song of mourning swept through the wave of the tearful multitude. The singing lasted for a while, as did the cause for freedom.
What will happen during the funerals of the martyrs of Euromaidan is yet to be seen. Will we see another government crackdown and further repression or will this finally be the turning point toward restoring human dignity in the Ukraine? Although there are multiple Yakunovich opposition groups united toward a single cause, to break from Moscow’s
continued control, the fundamental reason people are in the streets as willing human shields is simply to live in a state where human dignity prevails.
My tears shifted back and forth from sadness to anger, as I grinded my teeth from the cold.
As we saw in 1991 Lithuania, after the January funerals of the victims, people returned to serve as human shields at the barricades in Vilnius and in other parts of the country. That would not be the last funeral of martyrs I attended. Seven months later, on July 31st, Soviet forces attacked the Medininkai customs post, killing seven Lithuanian volunteers. Less than a month later, the USSR finally collapsed, and Lithuanian human dignity was finally restored.
Unfortunately, history seems to repeat itself; although, I pray the hopes and dreams of Euromaidan quickly prevail without further bloodshed. The world was had enough martyrs for the same cause.
I once asked my boss, Rita Dapkute, several years after we both worked at the Lithuanian Parliament in the Press Office (Information Bureau) during the period when Lithuania was trying to break away from the Soviet Union, “What event was more scary? January 13, 1991 or the 1991 August Coup?” Both events saw Soviet tanks approach the Vilnius Parliament in the attempt to seize it—and Rita experienced both while barricaded in the Parliament building.
Twenty-three years ago tonight, I got a call at 1 a.m., ET. It was my older sister giving me the first, terrible news of the Soviet massacre of unarmed Lithuanian civilians at the Vilnius TV Tower—the single bloodiest event of the non-violent “Singing Revolution” through which Lithuania regained its independence. Below are memories of that fateful night from Lithuanian immigrant and Beardstown resident Irena S., who was not at the Tower, but at another building that Soviet forces took that winter night, attacking and overrunning thousands of patriotic citizens who had left the warmth and safety of their homes to stand in defense of their country and their human rights.