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Documentary : Sunday, Bloody Sunday in Lithuania : A witness to history describes the danger and defiance in the Baltic republic's capital as Soviet troops sweep in.

January 15, 1991|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VILNIUS, Soviet Union — "We are under attack! We are under attack!"

That's the way Bloody Sunday in Vilnius began for me--with the panicky alarm relayed over the telephone by someone at Lithuania's broadcast center. It was about 1:40 a.m. local time (which is 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles time).

Two British correspondents and I left our hotel on the run. A Russian taxi driver, handed $20, agreed to take us to where we could hear gunfire and see the flash of explosions about three miles away.

Arriving on the Karolinskes Heights, we ran through thick mud to see Lithuanians by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, surround Soviet army tanks and armored personnel carriers, screaming their rage against the "occupiers."

Clambering up a slippery hill, I arrived on top of the knoll where the television tower and broadcast center stand. The complex had been encircled by Soviet armor, engines roaring and belching clouds of smoke.

Searchlights played across the skies. Red tracer bullets shot into the air. There was the staccato pop-pop-pop of automatic weapons fire, the din of smashing glass. With a peel of thunder, a Soviet tank shot off a blank round, apparently just to terrify the Lithuanians.

Despite the clear danger, throngs of people stood atop the hill in the mud, jeering and whistling. Periodically, they chanted, "Shame! Shame!"--not in their native Lithuanian, but in Russian, because they wanted the soldiers to understand.

They also wanted the world to know what was happening. "Why doesn't America recognize our independence? Why is there such Gorbymania?" they demanded when I told them I was an American reporter.

A doctor fetched his car from an underground garage to drive me back into town so I could urgently telephone The Times' Moscow bureau about the bloodshed in which at least 14 people had been killed and 163 wounded.

"We are counting on help from America," the doctor explained.

A small crowd formed around me in the Lietuva Hotel as I got through to The Times' Moscow office and dictated my story, composing it one sentence at a time because our deadline left no time to write at my portable computer.

I caught one and a half hours of sleep, then went back on the streets after dawn.

Something calling itself the Committee for National Salvation was claiming power, and Lithuanians, fearful of a military-backed putsch, were fortifying their Parliament building, the instrument and symbol of their drive for independence from the Soviet Union.

The night before, before the army attack on Lithuanian government broadcast facilities, the mood at Independence Square had been cautious but also optimistic.

On the steps of the republic's library next door, pop stars had crooned the local Top 20 song hits. "It is like Tian An Men Square and Woodstock in one," I recall thinking.

That kind of gaiety now was gone, but not the stiff-upper-lip determination and stolidness that this Baltic people seems to share with the English.

The Soviet military commander, throwing his backing to the Salvation Committee, decreed a curfew, but Lithuanians thronged to the plaza anyway with the shared certainty that Soviet soldiers would soon arrive with their tanks.

Behind barricades of earth-toned armchairs, members of Lithuania's Territorial Guard, dressed in black, and volunteers, some armed with hunting rifles and shotguns, kept a vigil inside the building.

In the Information Bureau, Rita Dapkus, a Lithuanian-American, dutifully continued to answer the constantly ringing telephones. She had refused to leave despite the fears of an army attempt to seize the building. "If there is an attack, I want the news of it to get out," she said.

After nightfall Sunday, Fen Montaigne of the Philadelphia Inquirer and I moved out of our hotel into a maternity clinic across the Neringa River from the Supreme Council building. We did not want to be cut off if the army assaulted the Parliament or swooped down on the hotel to keep Western reporters confined inside.

I devoured two open-faced ham sandwiches I brought in a plastic bag from the hotel--my first food of the day. I walked over a bridge to the Parliament building as the 10 p.m. curfew approached. It had become bitterly cold. A half dozen men in construction helmets, armed with clubs, let me in a side entrance of the building after they scrutinized my Soviet Foreign Ministry press pass.

I walked into the Parliament as Vytautas Landsbergis, the musicologist who was elected Lithuania's president last year, was announcing that an 11th-hour deal had been struck with the military. There would be no Soviet army attacks for at least a day, he said, if the Lithuanian leadership requested an end to the vigil in front of Parliament.

The Lithuanians agreed, and so for one night at least there were no tanks.

Twenty-four hours after the army assault on the television towers, I walked among the crowd that was slowly dispersing from the square. People were silent and reflective. There was a sense that the Lithuanian people, whose homeland was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 in a deal with Nazi Germnay, had just experienced a momentous day in its history.

"If I were not here now," a middle-aged woman told me, "how could I ever look my children in the face?"

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