Gallery: Work starts on exhuming 10 Saaremaa war grave sites

Exhumation and reburial work began Wednesday at World War Two-era mass grave sites on Saaremaa, with the work expected to continue for a couple of weeks, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported. The work covers 10 different sites.

The Estonian War Museum (Eesti sõjamuuseum) plans to exhume the contents of more than a hundred mass war graves nationwide, with many of these to be found on Saaremaa, Estonia's largest island.

In many cases the passage of time has led to a lack of clarity on whether sites thought to contain human remains of those killed in World War Two in fact do so.

This was the case in on Saaremaa location, on Võidu street, in the town of Orissaare, in the North of the island. While no headstones nor anything else which would indicate a grave site remain, local lore has it that the graves are there. On the other hand, official data contradicts this.

The scale of the discrepancy and the extent to which local knowledge tends to trump the records (since the latter were compiled during the Soviet occupation of Estonia) has become much clearer in the past year or so, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine prompted a redoubling of efforts to rid Estonia of relics from the Soviet era – including graves whose presence appear to glorify that side in World War Two and other conflicts.

Hellar Lill, the national war museum's director, said that: "Soviet-era data, as we saw in the course of excavations last year, cannot be trusted at all. There were cases where a grave containing supposedly only a handful of remains in reality turned out to contain hundreds of sets of remains. Conversely, some sites which were expected to contain human remains, contained none.

"It is difficult to predict what awaits us what the excavation work will ultimately reveal. In viiratsi (in Viljandi County-ed.), where according to official data six people were buried, in reality the remains of more than 600 people were found," Lill told AK.

The human remains which are found are re-interred in a dignified manner, often at another site and in separate caskets rather than jumbled together as they would have been under the Soviet occupiers' watch.

The work also requires an expert eye as sometimes it is not obvious to the lay person whether human remains are even present – these can include skull fragments, various bones or parts thereof, and even non-perished items of clothing, such as shoes.

At the Orisaare site, human remains of those killed during the war were buried several years after it had ended – in 1948, Lill said.

While the Orisaare site had no above-ground grave markers, neutral markers are put in place at such sites, to replace those glorifying the Soviet era, if these had been present.

Whether the exhumations will necessitate just one new cemetery or more than one Lill said could not be stated at this point in time, and depends on how many sets of remains are involved.

At another Saaremaa war grave site, Tehumardi, the resting places will remain as they are, save for any Soviet motifs, decorations etc. which will be sanded off the stone into which they were carved.

Saaremaa Municipal Elder (Vanavallem) Mikk Tuisk told AK that the state had consistently communicated that the remains at the site will not be exhumed and re-interred, adding that the local desire is for a single, neutral grave marker for the entire site.

The war museum has in the past year overseen the reburial of over 800 sets of human remains across over 20 sites nationwide.

Responsibility for this work lies with the state; any Soviet-era memorial or decoration which was known not to be a grave site was generally a matter for local government.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov

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