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Last Updated: Friday, 24 November 2006, 14:15 GMT
Legacy of famine divides Ukraine
By Helen Fawkes
BBC News, Kiev

A row of emaciated Ukrainian children stare out of a photograph. Their gaunt faces are full of despair and their bodies are little more than skeletons.

Ivan Leschenko
Ivan Leschenko says some resorted to cannibalism in the famine

It is one of many images being shown on Ukrainian television in the run-up to Memorial Day, which is being held this weekend to mark the Soviet-era famine.

It was one of the bleakest moments in Ukraine's history. The famine which happened between 1932 and 1933 killed up to 10 million people.

It is widely believed to have been caused by the actions of the communist regime. The harvest was confiscated and people starved to death.

It was part of a brutal campaign by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to force Ukrainian peasants to join collective farms.

Ukraine is now trying to get this mass starvation recognised by the United Nations as an act of genocide.

But the issue is highly controversial and Russia is strongly against the move.

'Scared'

Now in his eighties, Ivan Leschenko was a child during the famine. He remembers how some people resorted to cannibalism.

Ukrainian peasants
A quarter of Ukraine's population was wiped out in just two years

"Such things really did happen. I know that one of my relatives ate human flesh. Just imagine how bad the situation was that people were forced to do that."

On the eve of Memorial Day, Ivan visited the capital's monument to the victims of the man-made famine to pay his respects.

"I remember walking the streets and seeing dead, bloated bodies of children and adults all over the place. I went up to one boy, he was saying something and suddenly he started shaking and then passed away," Ivan says.

"I was so scared; it was the most frightening experience of my life."

'Dancing on graves'

The famine had a devastating impact on villages across Ukraine. It is thought that around a quarter of the population was wiped out.

GREAT FAMINE
Called Holodomor in Ukrainian - meaning murder by hunger
About a quarter of Ukraine's population wiped out
Seven to 10 million people thought to have died
Children disappeared; cannibalism became widespread

At the KGB archive in Kiev, recently released files are piled up on an old-fashioned desk. These are said to demonstrate how the famine was artificially engineered.

One document is an order from Moscow to shoot people who steal food. It is signed by Stalin in red ink.

Now Ukraine's president wants what happened to be recognised as an act of genocide.

Russia admits this was an awful tragedy but is angry at claims that it was an attempt to destroy the Ukrainian nation. It says that other parts of the former USSR were affected.

This issue has also divided Ukraine's parliament. Last week MPs refused to vote on a law proposed by the president.

He wanted parliament to declare that the famine was an act of genocide.

KGB files
Old KGB files allegedly show the famine was engineered

The ruling coalition which includes the Communist Party is pro-Russian.

It is led by the president's rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych - the man who was defeated by mass protests in the 2004 "Orange Revolution".

"This is like dancing on the graves of the dead. Before it's been proved this was an act of genocide, the Orange authorities are doing their best to persuade everyone that it was," says Sergei Gmyrya, a historian for the Communist party.

"I am furious that this is being used by the politicians in their games," he says.

Fragile relations

For Ukraine's pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko this is personal. "In my family we remember my grandfather Ivan, a strong and hard-working man who died. In my local village alone 600 people died," he says.

"It is important to realise that politics were behind the genocide. It's terrifying to know that the only aim of that experiment was to exterminate Ukrainian people."

Last year the president initiated the first ever Memorial Day to honour the victims. This Saturday, Ukraine will once again pause to remember the tragedy.

Kiev is determined to push for a UN resolution on the issue. But this could put the president on a collision course with his pro-Russian opponents.

It also threatens to damage the country's fragile relations with Moscow.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
A survivor recalls the Ukraine famine



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