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Ukraine: Famine -- Survivors Recall The Horrors Of 1933 (Part 2)

The month of May this year marks the 70th anniversary of the height of a devastating famine deliberately engineered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin that claimed at least five million lives in Ukraine and around two million in the North Caucasus and elsewhere. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky speaks to survivors about their memories of that devastating time.

Prague, 8 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Seventy years ago, the month of May saw the climax of a horrific artificial famine that reduced millions of people to living skeletons in some of the world's most fertile farm land, while stocks of grain and other foods rotted by the ton, often within the sight of families dying from starvation.

Oleksa Sonipul was 10 in 1933 and lived in a village in northern Ukraine. She said by the beginning of that year, famine was so widespread people had been reduced to eating grass, tree bark, roots, berries, frogs, birds, and even earthworms.

Desperate hunger drove people to sell off all of their possessions for any food they could find. At night, an eerie silence fell over the village, where all the livestock and chickens had long since been killed for food and exhausted villagers went to bed early.

But Communist requisition brigades looking to fulfill the impossibly high grain quotas continued to search even those villages where inhabitants were already dying from starvation. They used metal poles to probe the ground and potential hiding places where they suspected grain could be hidden.

Some of the brigade members, fueled by Soviet hate campaigns against the peasants, acted without mercy, taking away the last crumbs of food from starving families knowing they were condemning even small children to death. Any peasant who resisted was shot. Rape and robbery also took place.

Sonipul described what happened when a brigade arrived at her home.

"In 1933, just before Christmas, brigades came to our village to search for bread. They took everything they could find to eat. That day they found potatoes that we had planted in our grandfather's garden, and because of that they took everything from grandfather and all the seeds that grandmother had gathered for sowing the following autumn. And the next day, the first day of Christmas, they came to us, tore out our windows and doors and took everything to the collective farm."

As food ran out in the villages, thousands of desperate people trekked to beg for food in towns and cities. Food was available in cities, although strictly controlled through ration coupons. But residents were forbidden to help the starving peasants and doctors were not allowed to aid the skeletal villagers, who were left to die on the streets.

Fedir Burtianski was a young man in 1933 when he set out by train to Ukraine's Donbas mining area in search of work. He says thousands of starving peasants, painfully thin with swollen bellies, lined the rail track begging for food. The train stopped in the city of Dnipropetrovsk and Burtianski says he was horrified by what he saw there.

"At Dnipropetrovsk we got out of the carriages. I got off the wagon and I saw very many people swollen and half-dead. And some who were lying on the ground and just shaking. Probably they were going to die within a few minutes. Then the railway NKVD [secret police] quickly herded us back into the wagons."

Grain and potatoes continued to be harvested in Ukraine, driven by the demand of Stalin's quotas. But the inefficiency of the Soviet transportation system meant that tons of food literally rotted uneaten -- sometimes in the open and within the view of those dying of starvation.

The scene Burtianski described was repeated in towns and cities all over Ukraine. In the countryside, entire villages were being wiped out. The hunger drove many people to desperation and madness. Many instances of cannibalism were recorded, with people living off the remains of other starvation victims or in some instances resorting to murder. Most peasant families had five or six children, and some mothers killed their weakest children in order to feed the others.

Burtianski said at one point, he avoided buying meat from a vendor because he suspected it was human flesh. When the authorities heard about the incident, he was forced to attend the trial of a man and his two sons who were suspected of murdering people for food. Burtianski says during the trial one of the sons admitted in chilling terms to eating the flesh of his own mother, who had died of starvation.

"He said, 'Thank you to Father Stalin for depriving us of food. Our mother died of hunger and we ate her, our own dead mother. And after our mother we did not take pity on anyone. We would not have spared Stalin himself.'"

Mykhaylo Naumenko was 11 years old in 1933. His father was executed for refusing to join a nearby collective farm. Mykhaylo was left with his mother and siblings to face the famine without a provider. He said people were shot for trying to steal grain or potatoes from the local collective farm, which was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed men. He said people were executed even for trying to pick up a few loose seeds dropped on the ground.

"A tragedy developed. People became swollen, they died by the tens each day. The collective farm authorities appointed six men to collect and bury the dead. From our village of 75 homes, by May 24 houses were empty where all the inhabitants had died."

Naumenko also witnessed instances of cannibalism. He said he first discovered that his neighbors were eating human flesh after one of them, called Tetyana, refused to share her meat with him despite the fact he had just helped bury her father.

"I saw Tetyana eating chicken meat and saw there was a lot of it. I approached her and asked her for some, but she refused to give me any. Because it was human flesh."

Hundreds were executed or killed by other villagers for cannibalism. Soviet records show that around 1,000 people were still serving sentences for cannibalism in prison camps on the White Sea at the end of the 1930s.

Olena Mukniak was 10 in 1933 and lived in a village in the Poltavschyna region with her mother, older sister, and younger brother. Her father had left for the Donbas area in search of food. In the village, Mukniak said people picked through horse manure to find grain, stewed leather boots, and toasted leaves and tree bark.

"What do you do if there's nothing to eat? We collected birch leaves and toasted them and ate them. What else could we do?"

Her sister worked at the collective farm and received a small piece of bread every day for all four of them. But it was not enough to keep them all alive.

"My brother died from starvation. He was small and there was nothing to eat. What could our mother give us to eat when there was nothing? My sister brought us a little piece of bread once a day and we gulped it down and waited until the next day. But you wanted food all the time. My brother was younger than I and he died because he needed to eat. And our mother could give nothing."

Many people met their deaths with quiet resignation, praying and comforting their starving children with fairy tales.

Not all authorities were untouched by the tragedy. Some of the Communist activists and officials supervising the grain expropriation were horrified at what they saw and protested to their superiors or tried to provide food for the starving villagers. For their efforts, they were executed.

For scores of senior Ukrainian Communists, the famine and Stalin's attack on the Ukrainian cultural revival were cause for their final disillusionment with the ideology they had served. Many of them committed suicide rather than face torture and show trials.

Until the fall of communism, most of the villager eyewitnesses who survived the famine were wary of telling their stories. Even now, many are reluctant to talk about that period because they see many Soviet-era holdovers still in positions of power.

The memories that seem to haunt them most are those of watching their loved ones die. Teodora Soroka, who lost nearly every member of her family to "dekulakization" and famine, says such memories can never be erased. Nor does she want to forget them.

"My little sister died of hunger in my arms. She was begging for a piece of bread, because to have a piece of bread in the house meant life. She pleaded for me to give her a bit of bread. I was crying and told her that we didn't have any. She told me that I wanted her to die. Believe me, it's painful even now. I was little myself then. I cried, but my heart was not torn to shreds because I couldn't understand why this was all happening. But today, and ever since I became an adult, I haven't spent a day in my life when I haven't cried. I have never gone to sleep without thinking about what happened to my family."

The last part of this series looks at why the world still knows so little about the calamitous man-made famine of 1933 that killed millions of people.

Holodomor: The Great Famine

Slide Show
Holodomor: The Great Famine

Survivors remember the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine that killed millions of their countrymen. Play