By TIMOTHY JACOBS
Associated Press Writer
RIGA, Latvia (AP) — Residents of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia on Tuesday hung black ribbons of mourning on their national flags as politicians gave speeches to mark the anniversary of the first wave of mass deportations of their countrymen by Soviet authorities in 1941.
Beginning on June 14 that year, thousands of Baltic residents, including pregnant women, children and the elderly, were rounded up, herded into cattle cars, and shipped off to the far reaches of the Soviet empire, including Siberia.
In all, the Soviets deported more than 150,000 Lithuanians, 100,000 Latvians and 35,000 Estonians during the nearly five-decade occupation of the countries.
Many of the deportees died before ever seeing their homelands again. Others were eventually allowed to return home, but often to find others living in their old houses.
In Riga, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga laid flowers at the country’s Freedom Monument and addressed a somber crowd, saying that the crimes committed by the Soviets had no statute of limitation and calling on Latvians and the world not to forget them.
“You are winners and not losers, because that system has vanished,” Vike-Freiberga said, addressing the few elderly survivors of the deportations who attended the ceremony.
In Lithuania, where June 14 is known as the Day of Mourning and Hope, lawmakers gave speeches remembering the deportations and calling on Russia to recognize its central role in the Soviet occupation of the region — something Moscow has been unwilling to do.
Estonian President Arnold Ruutel told a conference in Tallinn that nearly every Estonian had a relative who was deported and, as such, nearly every Estonian suffered.
“To those who carried Estonia in their hearts, either in prison camps in Siberia, in literal or spiritual exile, at home or abroad, we are indebted for the Singing Revolution and restoration of national independence. This is our gratitude to the whole Estonian people, who never broke,” Ruutel wrote in a joint statement with parliamentary speaker Ene Ergma and Prime Minister Andrus Ansip issued Tuesday.
Soviet forces occupied the Baltic states in June 1940 but were driven out by the Germans a year later. The Red Army retook the Baltics in 1944 and the three countries were reincorporated into the Soviet Union.
Russian-Baltic relations have been strained at times since the three countries regained their independence amid the 1991 Soviet collapse. Moscow routinely accuses Latvia and Estonia of discriminating against their large Russian minorities while the Baltics accuse Russia of bullying.