Lithuanians recount tales of army brutality at Vilnius crackdown

January 14, 1991|By Los Angeles Times Diana Jean Schemo of The Sun's Paris Bureau contributed to this article.

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Soviet soldiers laughed before they fired automatic weapons at Lithuanian nationalists. Without warning, they shot people in the back. They grabbed axes and bludgeoned 20 people on the head.

Survivors of the Soviet army's overnight assault on the Vilnius television tower and broadcast center spoke of such acts of brutality by soldiers sent in tanks and armored personnel carriers to capture the installations.

"Their eyes were like glass, they were in a trance," said Vaclovas Bernotas, 21, a physics student, who was shot from behind in the left arm.

Mindaugas Cernius, 17, was trying to get away from the television tower when, he said, a squad of 20 soldiers, one with a machine gun, opened fire on him from 30 feet away. A bullet tore through his left ankle, crumpling him to the ground.

Both men were taken to the First Clinical Hospital, where an emergency center to treat victims of the army assault was hastily set up in the first-floor gynecological ward.

Dr. Vytautas Kamarauskas, assistant to the hospital's chief doctor, said yesterday afternoon that all but one of the 14 people known dead at that time had died of gunshot wounds. The sole exception was a man who was crushed by a tank.

Dr. Kamarauskas said that in his hospital alone, he had seen 20 patients badly gashed on the head by axes, which Stafe Stankavicius, 57, who witnessed the army attack on the television tower said the soldiers had grabbed from inside the broadcast center.

"Tell all America that this is what the good Russians are doing to us," Mrs. Stankavicius said.

In the melee, in which her husband was badly wounded on the foot by a grenade or another type of explosive charge, Mrs. Stankavicius said she saw soldiers hit a man on the head with an ax and then shoot him from about 15 feet away when he rose from the first blow.

The troops sent to seize the downtown television studios on Konarskio Street screamed at the Lithuanians that they were about to be "taught a lesson," Mr. Bernotas said.

"A soldier told me to get back, and I turned around," he said. "I then felt something in my upper arm as though something had pushed it, and blood came spurting out."

He had been shot.

Mr. Bernotas was having his wound dressed in a bus when he saw Soviet soldiers drag a man down the street by his heels.

The soldiers stopped at the bus and smashed the windows of the bus as they came upon it. "Get out! Get out!" they shouted to the people inside, Mr. Bernotas said.

"As we came out, soldiers beat us with iron rods," Bernotas said. "They only flailed harder at people who covered their heads with their hands to protect themselves."

Regina Liukineviciute, 30, a pharmacist from Kaunas, Lithuania's second city, said soldiers "were laughing" as they attacked citizens. "They were very happy and had smiles on their faces. They were pushing people back with tanks, their guns, their hands. . . . Then an older soldier gave the order, and the troops began firing their Kalashnikovs [assault rifles] at us."

Ms. Liukineviciute was hit in the right calf as she tried to escape.

She was near tears as she lay on her hospital bed and told her story. "Only people who didn't know Gorbachev would give him the Nobel Peace Prize," she said.

"One soldier told us he was specifically carrying out the orders of the leader of the Soviet Union."

[Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis told French television that the Soviet army's actions constituted "a war, a real war."

["The Soviet Union invaded Lithuania," he said. "You cannot imagine what's going on. They are firing on our people. They have occupied the main buildings. There are also, here, an immense crowd of Lithuanians, who give themselves to die for freedom."

[But, he said, "we cannot really resist. We have only 20 guns is all. They have 100 tanks, and they have parachutists who specialize in killing people.]

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