January 20, 2006

Latvians on Friday marked the 15th anniversary of a 1991 Soviet crackdown that left five people dead but failed to crush the Baltic country’s independence movement. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga visited the graves of some of those killed in the attack and later laid flowers at the Freedom Monument in downtown Riga.

“We still remember everyone who took to the streets and Madam President wants to pay tribute to them,” said Vike-Freiberga’s spokeswoman, Aiva Rozenberga. “I think that night strengthened the will of the people to stay together and to fight for freedom by singing and by nonviolence.”

People braved subfreezing temperatures in Riga’s Dome Square to stand near a bonfire like the ones that warmed the independence demonstrators 15 years ago. Lawmakers were to commemorate the anniversary at the parliament later Friday and to attend a memorial service at the Dome Cathedral.

With the Soviet Union threatening to crumble, Soviet troops stormed Latvia’s Interior Ministry on the night of Jan. 20, 1991. When word came that the ministry was under attack, a team of Latvian filmmakers rushed to a park across the street. Minutes after the shooting began, a small boy and two Latvian policemen were fatally wounded. Then the guns were turned on the cameramen.

Andris Slapins, a well-known documentary filmmaker, was hit first. As he lay dying on the ground, coughing blood, he pleaded with partner Juris Podnieks to record the moment. “Film me, film me. They got me right in the heart.” Filmmaker Gvido Zvaigzne also was hit. He died two weeks later in a hospital.

The footage of the dying Slapins helped make “Homeland” an award-winning documentary about the Baltic independence movement.

The troops never fired on those at parliament, and the attack only bolstered Latvia’s drive for independence. After a failed Kremlin coup in August 1991, the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia the only one of the three to escape the violence regained the independence they lost in 1940 when Soviet forces annexed them.

For the past week, Latvians have laid flowers and lit candles at a series of modest stone markers placed in the park to mark the spots where those who were shot fell, reports the AP.