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Ukraine Reburies Famine Victims Shot In Soviet Era

A forensic specialist examines the remains of victims excavated near Lviv before their reburial.
LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) - The remains of 602 people caught fleeing famine in Ukraine 60 years ago and shot by the Soviet secret police have been reburied, closing a dark chapter in the country's history.

Ukraine's Holodomor, or death by starvation, was denied by the Soviet Union for decades.

It is seen by many Ukrainians as a national tragedy. Allegations, made by President Viktor Yushchenko among others, that it was a deliberate genocide by the Soviet leadership under dictator Josef Stalin have angered many Russians.

In the capital Kyiv, Ukrainians including political leaders on November 28 commemorated the anniversary of a famine in 1932-1933 that killed between 7 million and 10 million people and which historians say was avoidable at best, and a genocide engineered by the Soviet authorities at worst.

In the western city of Lviv, residents marked a lesser-known later chapter of the Holodomor, the famine of 1946-47, which historians say killed between 100,000 and 1 million people.

The remains of the 602 victims, including skulls with bullet wounds, were found four years ago. After establishing exactly when and how the victims died, they were laid to rest in the Lychakyvsky cemetery.

In rainy weather, dozens of Lviv residents stood by the wooden coffins placed in neat rows by soldiers outside the cemetery's church. A priest blessed them before they were placed in a crypt beneath the monument to victims of Soviet rule.

In the aftermath of World War Two, Soviet authorities seized grain from Ukraine, "the breadbasket of Europe," to supply to other parts of Eastern Europe. Starving Ukrainians fled west to areas where harvests were not yet being requisitioned.

Those caught by the NKVD secret police were taken to railway stations. The healthy ones were sent back to central Ukraine and the old and ill were shot on the spot.

"They were mostly children and women," said Petro Franko, who as a teenager with his friends once saw some of those escaping the famine being rounded up at the Lviv station to be deported east.

He said he was shocked by the appearance of those suffering from starvation. "I was horrified when I saw a woman lying on the ground -- there was foam coming out of her mouth and her face was already green," he said.

The Lviv region had alternated between Polish, Austrian-Hungarian, and Ukrainian rule for centuries and was restored to Ukraine shortly after the war, but had not yet been collectivized.

Grain from central and eastern Ukraine was shipped to Eastern Bloc countries such as East Germany and Poland to help Moscow strengthen its grip on its newly acquired satellites.

Ukrainians, who have been independent for 18 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union, are still coming to terms with tragic episodes in their history from before, during and after World War Two.

Where in Russia the "Great Patriotic War" unites, in Ukraine it reminds of the deep divisions between a Russian-speaking east and south and the nationalist west, where many fought against the Red Army, and some briefly with the Nazis.

For some Ukrainians such as Yushchenko, the Holodomor is a tragedy that defines Ukrainian history. The president and some historians say the famine was a deliberate attempt to kill millions of Ukrainians who resisted Soviet rule.

Yushchenko, swept to power in the 2004 pro-Western "Orange Revolution," has angered Moscow with his view of history, his insistence on developing a distinct Ukrainian identity and emphasis on making the Ukrainian language a national tongue.

Some Russians say, however, the famine killed many nationalities and was not aimed at a specific ethnic group, but was rather the result of Soviet mismanagement and economic experimentation.