LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 57, No.4 - Winter 2011
Editor of this issue: Patrick Chura
Sunday the 13th
Auridas Jocas grew up in Šiauliai, Lithuania. He graduated from Vilnius Pedagogical University and received a master’s degree from the University of Akron in 1995. He has taught ESL for ten years in Canton, Ohio, and has trained teachers in Nantong University in China.
Though my first child, a daughter, had been born in Šiauliai just three weeks earlier on December 20, I was stuck in Vilnius—a sophomore at Vilnius Pedagogical University, away from home, studying for semester exams. The Political Science class was the most vexing, with many new forms and bodies of government, regimes, and names of different politicians to confuse me. All I had known before was Socialism. The Party secretary was king and decisions were going to be made no matter what citizens thought. It had all been rather easy. Now I had to know about senators, representatives, parliamentarians, governors, dukes, kings, dictators, presidents and prime ministers, all of which seemed to make little sense. I had no idea, however, that I was about to get a real-life lesson—in my own country—about governmental change.
When the “Poli Sci” exam was postponed because of real political unrest, I was relieved. Unrest was quite welcome after years of monotony in the foul, stagnant water that passed for life in the good old SSR of L. The dam was leaking, the pressure building behind it, the river of change about to flow again, and a sense of adventure stirred the spirits of the students in Vilnius and the rest of the nation. We didn’t know that the barely creeping current would soon become whitewater rapids and some of us would be crushed by its power before it emptied into an ocean of freedom. We just didn’t know.
Lithuania had announced the intent of leaving the Soviet Union and reclaiming the independence lost to the Soviets in the early 1940s. Understandably, the Communist party leaders in Moscow were nervous. We were the first of the fourteen republics to attempt this. So they devised a plan to stop our secession. But we didn’t know this either.
The Soviet Army flew in Special Forces from the neighboring republics to “maintain order.” Really they just took control of the media networks and the police academy, basically paralyzing the nation. And not without violence. We were enraged and humiliated. But those feelings lasted only a few hours, at least within our hedonistic student body. We kids didn’t know a thing about politics and just followed the crowd.
We solemnly, yet jubilantly, hung around bonfires burning all around the Supreme Council (later known as the Parliament Building), enjoying the patriotic solidarity of Lithuanian fellowship, getting freebies of coffee and hotdogs from local cafés, sharing smokes and folk songs with other picketers, and feeling rather elated.
By the time the protest reached its fourth or fifth day, the novelty of controlled chaos was wearing thin. Some of us retreated back into the modest comfort of our dorms to while away the time playing cards, watching soap operas, and of course drinking.
Every day, calls from the loudspeakers urged us to gather at a particular spot in the capital where the next strike from the Soviet Special Forces would supposedly land. This was really just a guessing game on our part. People went to those spots, waited, and nothing happened. One day, it was the Radio Building. The Soviets would return there and start shooting, so we have to meet them, show our presence. Nothing. Then, it was the TV Building. Nothing. When the call came for everyone to go to the TV Tower, people were skeptical. The weather was getting cold, the temperature below freezing at night. Saturday was approaching, and many of us had carousing on our minds. No classes, no government—do whatever you want! Why go to the TV Tower and waste another perfectly good Saturday night? We didn’t know.
I had nothing to do that night. The following Monday, the Political Science exam was probably going to be administered after all. I took a free trolley (they were running all night free of charge) to the TV Tower. Again, bonfires, songs, hotdogs, coffee, and solidarity. Beautiful. The organizers arranged our bodies in a ring around the circular base of the tower, about five people deep, elbows interlocked, chanting, “Lietuva! Lietuva!” Just in case they show up. I remember standing there realizing that my feet were getting cold and wondering how long exactly we’d be there. We didn’t know.
Shortly after midnight, in the early hours of Sunday, reports started to come in of tanks and armored transports moving in the direction of the tower. The mood of the crowd changed perceptibly, becoming more subdued and somber. I began to shiver a little, unsure whether it was the dropping temperature or my fear that was making me shudder. Soon we saw them—far off, crawling like giant beetles down the grassy median of the street, driving along and then right over the dividing chain-link fence, flattening it and crushing an occasional parked car. They looked like they meant business.
When they reached the bottom of the hill at the TV Tower base, we could no longer see them. There were noises, screams, and the firing of cannons that shattered the windows of the nearby nine- and twelve-story apartment buildings. All we saw was a flash, followed by a boom milliseconds later. The boom caused pain to our eardrums. I had read somewhere, that if one screams with the mouth wide open, the sound pressure from the inside of the skull will counteract the incoming pressure of decibels from the outside, thus easing this suffering. I screamed a lot that night, sometimes it was “BASTARDS!” or “Lietuva!” or just a prolonged “AAAAAAHHHH!”
The thunderous shots continued. The crowd wasn’t sure what was happening down there, so we just waited until someone yelled, “They’re coming here!”
I continued shaking and yelling, immediately following the flashes, to reduce the eardrum pressure.
What went through my mind? I remember thinking that I needed my ears to hear my daughter say “tėtė” for the first time. I also needed my life—to finish school and become a philologist in the new Lithuania. The hopes of what was possible if we escaped the Soviets were too great and incredible to comprehend. We could travel abroad (not just to Poland), read books banned by the government, read anything, buy albums by The Doors and Bob Dylan without hiding in an alley. Or buy any music! Speak our minds, vote and voice dissent. I was studying English and reading the occasional U.S. and British magazines that made their way into our hands by ways unknown to me. I was aware of the world out there that I was dying to know. I felt the window crack open—and the fresh breeze was intoxicating. Now we wanted to open the door—on the other side of which stood Soviet tanks.
What stopped my dreaming was the sight of tanks cresting the hill forty feet away, barrels pointing at us.
The crowd was nervous. The sounds of “Lietuva! Lietuva!” now acquired hysterical desperation. Then it was quiet for a moment. Surely, this is where they will stop. We were standing between the tanks and the glass walls of the tower, where the apprehensive news anchors inside were trying to relay events to the world. The noises emanating from the crowd sounded like “They can’t touch us. We’re unarmed. Nobody move! Stand your ground! They’re shooting blanks.” And then it happened.
Much has been written about that night, even in English, and I cannot guarantee everything was as I believe it was, since adrenaline tends to cloud the mind and twenty years have passed. All I know is that I got lucky.
I believe I scurried about ten feet to my left and stood where the organizers moved a few of us to fill in a thin spot in our human “ring.” We moved reluctantly to the new spot not knowing whether it would be safe there—or to our detriment. But we did it nonetheless. When the tanks appeared, time slowed to a crawl and everything was in slow motion.
When loud orders, given in Russian, opened the hatches of the tanks, wild-eyed zombies emerged armed with AK47s, bayonets fixed. “Lietuva, Lietuva” had been reduced to a few whimpers. The bayonets and rifle butts crashed on the people to my right, where I had been standing just minutes ago. Then we heard shots. Those “blanks” they had mentioned earlier were felling people like trees in a hurricane. A feeling of helplessness overtook me. When someone is breaking the law, you call the police. But when unarmed people are attacked by military forces, whom do you call? There was no help from anywhere. There was no law, and this idea terrified me. For now, we were on our own. Perhaps in a year a court somewhere in The Hague or the UN could bring someone to justice or an international panel could one day sort it all out. Right now, there was nothing we could do but run.
So we ran. I heard the glass of the tower walls shatter, saw soldiers enter the tower, saw people falling, and I abandoned all the lofty notions of bravery I had read about in the novels of Hemingway and Remarque. We had failed utterly to protect the tower—there was no reason to show bravado or the façade of patriotism. I didn’t think of those things then; only now can I make such excuses for my rapid descent down a steep hill.
Running down a hill seems easy, but with fear adding velocity and gravity pulling you, you have to work extra hard not to stumble. Factor in limited visibility and grassy terrain, and getting down in one piece becomes a difficult task. If the tracer bullets don’t get you, you might just stumble and break your neck.
Nonetheless, I ducked the tracers while people continued to fall around me, some hit by the “blanks,” some tumbling on the grassy knolls, some deciding it was a good moment to drop to their knees and pray. I put my trust in my legs.
Once I had made it to the bottom of the hill, I hitched a ride to the Supreme Council Building, the supposed next target. Now my brain was shooting “blanks.” Later, I heard the accounts of people who stayed up there. I saw the horrible photos of tanks crushing grandmothers, girls stabbed with bayonets, men lying on the ground bleeding.
Processing it all in my mind took some time. To this day, I’m not sure I have worked through it all. All I have are the facts. This night did, however, get the attention of the world. A Swedish station had picked up the press corps signal from an alternative broadcasting spot in Kaunas. The next day, tanks did come to the Supreme Council building, but they did not dare repeat the script of the night before. The atrocities stopped, albeit at a high human price, and Gorbachev, the star of perestroika, was pleading ignorance. The event was supposed to go unnoticed, with all of the world’s attention focused on the Gulf War. The Soviets promised us a St. Bartholomew’s Night and delivered. Our Bloody Sunday remains etched in collective memory.
Any tragedy has effects perverse and grotesque, yet sometimes positive. No one wishes for them, but once they are present, one cannot avoid them; and once embraced, they do serve a purpose. January 13, much like 9/11 in the U.S., united people, strengthened their resolve, made them one. It was engineered to break our hope and resolve, but it only fueled our struggle. The casualties were on our side, but we emerged the victor. Twenty years later, I’d be hard pressed to find a soul that would argue otherwise or regret the actions taken on that dark and cold and cruel night.