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Mass Grave Mystery Resolved in Time for 60th Anniversary of Famous Post-WWII Battle

Source: Photo: Postimees/Scanpix

Detective work and DNA testing have identified the remains of ten people found in a secret burial ground near Võru in 2011 as forest brothers - the anti-Soviet resistance - killed in an Alamo-like last stand in Puutlipalu on March 29, 1953.

The burial ground was found thanks to a tip from a Võru County road construction man Arvo Leinus who, in the 1970s, had heard a rumor of a possible burial site from a local ranger, reported ETV.

Estonia's foremost military archeologist Arnold Unt pursued the tip in 2009 and initially thought the rumored area to be a burial site for just one person. Due to a busy schedule, the archeologist and his team started the excavation work in 2011. Much to everyone’s surprise, ten bodies were dug out.

Heated moments amid the Cold War

The so-called forest brothers held out longest in the Võru region - the last member in fact was killed only at the end of the 1970s on the Põlva and Võru county line. They remained a credible tactical threat through the late 1940s and early 1950s, until they were hunted down and killed. The Soviet Union enforced a directive in 1946, whereby all killed forest brothers had to be buried in a remote and well-hidden location.

Kaitsepolitsei (national security agency)  official Martin Arpo said the mass grave made investigation easier, as the victims were killed in a short time period and no other incidents in the area had been reported. Historians soon determined the corpses originated from the most active and battle-heavy period of the southern Estonian resistance, starting in 1949 when a couple of thousand Estonians escaped into the woods in order to avoid a second major wave of deportation and forced exile.

Among the deceased was a Seto man, Richard Vähi, who in 1951 was declared as one of the most wanted persons by the Soviet forces. Soviet Union's secret political police initiated ruthless manhunts in southern Estonia, going through tens of farms and arresting many families.

“The year 1953 was the last great push. The year stands out as the Soviet Union gave stricter orders to seek out the forest brothers with more intense or ruthless methods,” said Arpo. The Puutlipalu battle was a four-hour assault on a bunker where forest brothers were hiding. There were no survivors. The ten were killed and their bodies were hidden around this time 60 years ago.

DNA analysis ordered by the Security Police determined the identities of the deceased this January.

“The story is important to Estonia, and without a doubt, to the relatives [of the deceased forest brothers]. On the other hand, it's important for the entire world, since in 1953 - when the Cold War had started - the battles were not only held with words on wooden floors, but with the lives of perfectly normal and good-willed ordinary people,” said Arpo.

The names of the 10:

Richard Vähi (1918-1953)

Elsa Vähi (1924-1953)

Rafael Vähi (1920-1953)

Leida Grünthal (1924-1953)

Karl Kaur (1920-1953)

August Kurra (1912-1953)

August Kuus (1918-1953)

Endel Leiman (1914-1953)

Lehte-Kai Ojamäe (1929-1953)

Väino Härm (1936-1953)

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