Construction workers at a monastery in Ukraine's western town of Zhovkva have unearthed about 225 skeletons that they believe were victims of a secret Soviet massacre shortly after World War II. (Peter Baker - The Post)
Soviet-Era Atrocity Unearthed in Ukraine|
Remains of 225 Apparently Killed by Secret Police Are Found at Monastery
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 23, 2002; Page A01
ZHOVKVA, Ukraine — For two years, the Rev. Volodymyr Dolganyuk lived in the small, spartan room at a monastery here studying the word of God. For two years, he had no idea that just beneath his feet lay the work of unspeakable evil.
Then one day someone decided to unseal the basement of the 17th-century building and came across a few bones. And then some more. And still more. By the time all the rubble and sand had been cleared out of the catacombs, the remains of 225 people had been unearthed — not those of ancient ancestors, but of fathers and mothers and siblings of today's Ukrainians, probably victims of a wave of killing by Soviet secret police after World War II.
The discovery of the mass grave, announced last week in this small town just 30 miles from the border with Poland, sickened people in this corner of the old Soviet empire, but did not entirely surprise them. While Ukraine and other countries once dominated by Moscow struggle to build new societies, events periodically intervene to remind them they have yet to fully catalogue the horrors of the former era.
"We must confront the past for the sake of the future," said Yevgen Gryniv, a local human rights activist who has been sifting through the residue at the monastery. "Right now it's fashionable to talk about terrorism. That's what it was — terrorism against the people. Here almost every place is connected to tragedy, to death."
The tomb of the unknown victims beneath the floorboards at Vasilyansky Monastery is hardly the only mass grave found since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago, but it is especially grisly. Of the 225 bodies dug out, about 80 belonged to children; workers discovered a few bones so small that specialists believe they belonged to a fetus just four months after conception.
Some of the skulls have single, small bullet holes in the back, a few still ringed with black from the gunshot. Others have cracks down the front, apparently from an ax, or have been crushed on top, possibly by a hammer.
The bodies were not found laid to rest, but rather crumpled as if thrown in. No buttons or belt buckles or combs or shoe soles — the parts of clothing that typically survive the longest — were found, suggesting the people were buried naked.
Who they were or precisely how they got here remains a mystery. No one has come forward with information about what happened. But older people in this town of 11,000 near the city of Lviv said that after World War II the monastery was occupied by the NKVD, which in 1954 became the KGB. And the crypt has yielded a few clues about the timing of the killings — kopeck coins minted in 1946 and 1949 and torn pictures of a May Day-style parade featuring posters of a postwar local Communist leader.
In all likelihood, according to people investigating the discovery, the bodies are those of Ukrainians executed by Soviet authorities in a campaign to pacify the region following the defeat of Nazi Germany.
This part of western Ukraine was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1939 when Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler carved up Poland. During World War II, the Nazis captured it. After the war, Ukrainian partisans who had battled the fascists refused to lay down their arms and fought the Soviets into the 1950s. [...]
For his part, Gryniv did not fight with a gun. But he has scoured the hidden graves in the Lviv region for years. Since 1990, he and his group have found 16 mass graves in western Ukraine, some with hundreds of bodies, and have identified nine other sites to examine. [...]
For all the work done already, the discovery at Vasilyansky Monastery stood out. Never before had such a large mass grave been found by accident.
The bodies at Vasilyansky were found only because some Moldovan monks came to the Greek Catholic monastery seeking the crypt of a favorite saint. While searching the basement, they found a sealed passage and began chipping away. The first bones were found in late March . As more turned up, the monks realized they needed to call in the authorities. [...]
"We were trembling a little," said Miron Ivanyuk, 42, one of the workers who dug through the sand and concrete. His brother, Ivan, 47, saw the small bones and thought of his children. "I want them to find out who did this. I want them to take care of this. There must be somebody who knew. They must still be here."
Few were more shocked than Dolganyuk, the 33-year-old priest who lived right above the secret tomb. "I don't understand the cruelty that people had, the hate people had. They didn't love children, they didn't love Ukraine. They didn't have any kindness." But he added, "We don't have the right to have hate against the people who did this because Jesus said in the Bible to forgive and forgive again." [...]
Peter Baker, Soviet-Era Atrocity Unearthed in Ukraine: Remains of 225 Apparently Killed by Secret Police Are Found at Monastery, Washington Post, 23-Jul-2002, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A47017-2002Jul22.html