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Bernard Asper

The Roma are an ethnic people who have migrated across Europe for a thousand years. The Roma culture has a rich oral tradition, with an emphasis on family. Often portrayed as exotic and strange, the Roma have faced discrimination and persecution for centuries.
Today, they are one of the largest ethnic minorities in Europe — about 12 million to 15 million people, according to UNICEF, with 70 percent of them living in Eastern Europe. About a million Roma live in the United States, according to Time.
Roma is the word that many Roma use to describe themselves. They are also known as Rom or Romany.
The Roma are also sometimes called Gypsies. However, some people consider that a derogatory term, a holdover from when it was thought these people came from Egypt. It is now thought that the Roma people migrated to Europe from India about 1,500 years ago.
They originated in northern India and by the second half of the 20th century they had spread to every inhabited continent.
Because of their migratory nature, their absence in official census returns, and their popular classification with other nomadic groups, estimates of the total world Roma population range from two million to five million. No significant statistical picture can be gained from the sporadic reporting in different countries. Most Roma were still in Europe in the early 21st century, especially in the Slavic-speaking lands of central Europe and the Balkans. Large numbers live in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, the Czech and Slovak republics, and Hungary.
All nomadic Roma migrate at least seasonally along patterned routes that ignore national boundaries. They also follow along a chain, as it were, of kin or tribal links. The Roma’s own supposed disposition to wander has been forcibly furthered by exile or deportation. Only 80 years after their first appearance in western Europe in the 15th century, they fell under the penalty of banishment in almost all the nations of western Europe. Despite their systematic exile, or transportation abroad, however, they continued to reappear in one guise or another back in the countries they had left.
All unsettled confederations who live among settled peoples seem to become convenient scapegoats. So it is with the Roma, who have regularly been accused by the local populace of many evils as a prelude to later official and legal persecution. Their relations with the authorities in the host country have been marked by consistent contradiction. Official decrees were often aimed at settling or assimilating them, yet local authorities systematically refused them the bare hospitality of a campsite. During the Holocaust the Nazis murdered an estimated 400,000 Roma. French laws in modern times forbade them campsites and subjected them to police supervision, yet they were taxed and drafted for military service like ordinary citizens. Spain and Wales are two countries often cited as examples where Roma have become settled, if not wholly assimilated. In modern times the socialist countries of eastern Europe attempted programs of enforced settlement to end Roma migration.
Traditionally the Roma have pursued occupations that allowed them to maintain an itinerant life on the perimeters of settled society. The men were livestock traders, animal trainers and exhibitors, tinkers (metalsmiths and utensil repairmen), and musicians; the women told fortunes, sold potions, begged, and worked as entertainers. Before the advent of veterinary medicine, many farmers looked to Roma livestock dealers for advice on herd health and husbandry.
The archetypal Roma family consists of a married couple, their unmarried children, and at least one married son, his wife, and their children. Upon marriage, a young couple typically lives with the husband’s parents while the young wife learns the ways of her husband’s group. Ideally, by the time an older son is ready to move away with his family, a younger son will have married and joined the household with his new wife. Although the practice had declined significantly by the late 20th century, marriages traditionally were arranged by the elders in the family or band (vitsa) to strengthen political and kinship ties to other families, bands, or, occasionally, confederations. A central feature of Roma marriages was the payment of a bride-price to the parents of the bride by the parents of the groom.
Gypsy chieftains (voivodes) are elected for life from among outstanding families of the group, and the office is not heritable. Their power and authority vary according to the size of the band, its traditions, and its relationships with other bands within a confederation.
It was the voivode who acted as treasurer for the whole band, decided the pattern of its migration, and became its spokesman to local municipal authorities. He governed through a council of elders that also consulted with the phuri dai, a senior woman in the band. The phuri dai’s influence was strong, particularly in regard to the fate of the women and children, and seemed to rest much on the evident earning power and organization of the women as a group within the band.
Strongest among Roma institutions of social control was the kris, connoting both the body of customary law and values of justice as well as the ritual and formation of the tribunal of the band. Basic to the Roma code were the all-embracing concepts of fidelity, cohesiveness, and reciprocity within the recognized political unit. The ultimate negative sanction of the kris tribunal, which dealt with all disputes and breaches of the code, was excommunication from the band. A sentence of ostracism, however, might exclude the individual from participation in certain band activities and punish him with menial tasks. In some cases rehabilitation was granted by the elders and followed by a feast of reconciliation.
Bands are made up of vitsas, which are name groups of extended families with common descent either patrilineal or matrilineal, as many as 200 strong.
Spiritual beliefs
The Roma do not follow a single faith; rather, they often adopt the predominant religion of the country where they are living, according to Open Society, and describe themselves as "many stars scattered in the sight of God." Some Roma groups are Catholic, Muslim, Pentecostal, Protestant, Anglican or Baptist.
The Roma live by a complex set of rules that govern things such as cleanliness, purity, respect, honor and justice. These rules are referred to as what is "Rromano." Rromano means to behave with dignity and respect as a Roma person, according to Open Society. "Rromanipé" is what the Roma refer to as their worldview.
Though the groups of Roma are varied, they all do speak one language, called Rromanës. Rromanës has roots in Sanskritic languages, and is related to Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and Bengali. Some Romani words have been borrowed by English speakers, including "pal" (brother) and "lollipop" (from lolo-phabai-cosh, red apple on a stick).
The Roma today
While there are still traveling bands, most use cars and RVs to move from place to place rather than the horses and wagons of the past.
Today, most Roma have settled into houses and apartments and are not readily distinguishable. Because of continued discrimination, many do not publicly acknowledge their roots and only reveal themselves to other Roma.
While there is not a physical country affiliated with the Romani people, the International Romani Union was officially established in 1977. In 2000, The 5th World Romany Congress in 2000 officially declared Romani a non-territorial nation.
During the Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015), 12 European countries made a commitment to eliminate discrimination against the Roma. The effort focused on education, employment, health and housing, as well as core issues of poverty, discrimination, and gender mainstreaming. However, according to the RSG, despite the initiative, Roma continue to face widespread discrimination.
According to a report by the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, "there is a shameful lack of implementation concerning the human rights of Roma … In many countries hate speech, harassment and violence against Roma are commonplace."
Edited from the Encyclopedia Brittanica Roma article online as well as from https://amp.livescience.com/44512-gypsy-culture.html

Votes1 DateJul 24, 2018

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Bernard Asper
The autonomous community of Catalonia occupies a triangular area in the northeastern corner of Spain. It is bordered by France and Andorra to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the east, the autonomous community of Valencia to the south, and the autonomous community of Aragon to the west. The autonomous community of Catalonia was established by the statute of autonomy of December 18, 1979. The government consists of a Generalitat (an executive council headed by a president) and a unicameral parliament. The capital is Barcelona. The principal rivers in Catalonia are the Ter, Llobregat, and Ebro, all of which flow into the Mediterranean. A Mediterranean climate prevails throughout most of Catalonia, with hot, dry summers and mild, relatively rainy winters.
The towns of the Catalan coast have dominated the development of the region, with the result that the population is heavily concentrated along the Mediterranean, increasingly depopulating the hinterland. In the 20th century there was additional concentration of population in the city of Barcelona and its satellite towns.
Catalonia’s traditional agriculture was centered on the production of wine, almonds, and olive oil for export, as well as rice, potatoes, and corn (maize) as staples. Slightly more than one-third of Catalonia remains under cultivation, and the traditional crops of olives and grapes are being supplanted by fruits and vegetables for consumption in the cities. The raising of pigs and cows is the dominant agricultural activity. Agriculture accounts for only a tiny fraction of Catalonia’s domestic product, however.
The autonomous community of Catalonia is the richest and most highly industrialized part of Spain. The Catalan textile industry first achieved prominence between 1283 and 1313 and long remained the region’s premier industry. The manufacturing sector underwent rapid expansion and diversification since the 1950s, however, and metalworking, food-processing, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries had overtaken textiles in importance by the 21st century. Textile, paper making and graphic arts, chemicals, and metalworking industries are concentrated in Barcelona; Sabadell and Terrassa are also textile centers. One of Barcelona’s plants produces electric automobiles for Nissan. Catalonia’s growing demand for petroleum products led to the expansion of Tarragona’s petroleum refineries. Services, particularly those of tourism and transportation, are highly developed.
Catalonia was one of the first Roman possessions in Spain. Occupied during the 5th century by the Goths, it was taken by the Moors in 712 and at the end of the 8th century by Charlemagne, who incorporated it into his realm as the Spanish March, ruled by a count.
Frankish suzerainty over Catalonia was merely nominal, however, and was completely rejected during the reign of Count Borrell (died 991).
From 1137, when Count Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona was betrothed to Petronila, queen of Aragon, Catalonia and Aragon were united under the same ruler. Catalonia monopolized trade in the western Mediterranean in the 13th and 14th centuries, and Catalan interests dominated the union with Aragon until 1410, when the male line of the counts of Barcelona became extinct.
Dissatisfaction in Catalonia with the new Trastámara dynasty of Aragon increased after 1412, and during the reign of John II it developed into a full-scale but unsuccessful rebellion (1462–72).
After the marriage of John II’s son Ferdinand with Isabella of Castile (1469) had brought about the unification of Spain, Catalonia became of secondary importance in Spanish affairs. Though it retained its autonomy and Generalitat (assembly), by the 17th century its conflict of interest with Castile, along with the decline of the Spanish monarchy’s prestige, led to the first of a series of Catalan separatist movements. In 1640 Catalonia revolted against Spain and placed itself under the protection of Louis XIII of France, but the revolt was quelled in the 1650s. In the War of the Spanish Succession, Catalonia declared its support for the archduke Charles and resisted the accession of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain, but in 1714 it was completely subjugated by the forces of the Bourbon Philip V, who abolished the Catalan constitution and autonomy.
The Catalonians' language Catalan developed from its inhabitants bordering with various language areas. In the 1850s serious efforts were made to revive Catalan as a living language with its own press and theater—a movement known as the Renaixença (“Rebirth”). Catalan nationalism became a serious force after 1876, when the defeat of the Carlists led the church to transfer its support to the movement for autonomy.
Catalan nationalism had two major strands: a conservative, Roman Catholic one and a more liberal, secular one. The former was initially predominant, particularly in the first decades of the 20th century. By 1913 Catalonia had won a slight degree of autonomy, but the legislation conferring it was repealed in 1925 by Miguel Primo de Rivera, who attacked all manifestations of Catalan nationalism.
Primo de Rivera’s policy led to the formation of a left-wing coalition party in Catalonia, the Esquerra Republicana. The Esquerra won a sweeping victory in the municipal elections of 1931, and two days later its leader proclaimed a Catalan Republic. A compromise was worked out with the central government, and in September 1932 the statute of autonomy for Catalonia became law. Catalonia played a prominent role in the history of Republican Spain and in the Civil War (1936–39). The Nationalists’ victory in 1939 meant the loss of autonomy, however, and Gen. Francisco Franco’s government adopted a repressive policy toward Catalan nationalism.
The establishment of democratic rule in Spain after Franco’s death did not lessen Catalonia’s desire for autonomy, and in September 1977 limited autonomy was granted to the region. The pro-autonomy Convergence and Union party was founded the following year, and it served as the dominant political force in Catalonia over subsequent decades. Full autonomy was granted in 1979 with the establishment of the autonomous community of Catalonia. In 2006 Catalonia was granted “nation” status and given the same level of taxation responsibility as the Spanish central government. Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down portions of this autonomy statute in 2010, ruling that Catalans constituted a “nationality” but that Catalonia was not, itself, a “nation.”
Many Catalans, frustrated at the management of the Spanish economy throughout the euro-zone debt crisis, continued to push for increased fiscal independence from the central government. In 2013 the Catalonian regional parliament passed a measure calling for a referendum on independence from Spain to be held in 2014. Scotland’s referendum on independence from the United Kingdom in September 2014, although ultimately unsuccessful, galvanized the independence movement in Catalonia. Convergence and Union leader Artur Mas called for the long-promised, albeit nonbinding, independence referendum to be held on November 9, 2014. The move was immediately challenged by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and the independence campaign was suspended while the Constitutional Court considered the legality of the vote. Ultimately, Mas proceeded with the referendum but framed it as an informal poll of Catalan opinion. With more than one-third of registered voters participating in the balloting, over 80 percent expressed a desire for independence.
The push for Independence and the push against continues and has not let up on either side of the debate. Whatever happens there is no doubt that the Catalans have a unique culture and their language is the official language of the small principality of Andorra that lies between France and Spain.
Edited and compiled mostly from https://www.britannica.com/place/Catalonia

Votes1 DateSep 23, 2016

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Votes4 DateJul 7, 2016

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(HEMA) Historical European Martial Arts: A Living History

Nathaniel Pantalone
Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) are martial arts that were practiced in Europe that have been lost or that have evolved into other practices. These arts include sword fighting (and other weapons forms), grappling, and wrestling.
HEMA organizations are like karate clubs in that members join together under a teacher to learn lost martial arts through historical texts, practice, and physical effort. This sort of living history keeps old martial art styles alive in a way that text cannot. Many HEMA teachers and instructors use historical text (source material) to teach new techniques, but they emphasize that immediately trying to practice a technique after reading about it is very difficult. This demonstrates the importance of practice and the necessity of the sport. Practitioners are eager to practice their art against non-cooperative combatants, which makes competitions athletic and competitive.
HEMA organizations are growing in popularity, and teachers are quick to emphasize that they do everything to ensure that their students will be safe--modern equipment with modern technology is used.
Learn more in this HEMA documentary:

Votes2 DateNov 5, 2015

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Elderly Man in Sarajevo, Bosnia

elderly man in Sarajevo, Bosnia

Votes1 DateJul 13, 2015

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Daily Life, Istanbul, Turkey

daily life, Istanbul, Turkey

Votes1 DateJul 7, 2015

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Woman Selling Trinkets in Belgrade, Serbia

woman selling trinkets in Belgrade, Serbia

Votes1 DateJul 2, 2015

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Chess in the Park

Chess in the Park ... Belgrade, Serbia

Votes1 DateJun 23, 2015

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Russia's Volunteer Body Hunters

Samuel Posin
Of the estimated 70 million people killed in World War Two, 26 million died on the Eastern front - and up to four million of them are still officially considered missing in action. But volunteers are now searching the former battlefields for the soldiers' remains, determined to give them a proper burial - and a name.
Olga Ivshina walks slowly and carefully through the pine trees, the beeps of her metal detector punctuating the quiet of the forest. "They are not buried very deep," she says.
"Sometimes we find them just beneath the moss and a few layers of fallen leaves. They are still lying where they fell. The soldiers are waiting for us - waiting for the chance to finally go home."
Nearby, Marina Koutchinskaya is on her knees searching in the mud. For the past 12 years she has spent most of her holidays like this, far away from home, her maternity clothes business, and her young son.
"Every spring, summer and autumn I get this strange sort of yearning inside me to go and look for the soldiers," she says. "My heart pulls me to do this work."
They are part of a group called Exploration who have travelled for 24 hours in a cramped army truck to get to this forest near St Petersburg. Conditions are basic - they camp in the woods - and some days they have to wade waist-deep through mud to find the bodies of the fallen. The work can be dangerous, too. Soldiers are regularly discovered with their grenades still in their backpacks and artillery shells can be seen sticking out of the trees. Diggers from other groups elsewhere in Russia have lost their lives.
Marina holds up an object she has found, it looks like a bar of soap, but it is actually TNT. "Near a naked flame it's still dangerous, even though it has been lying in the ground for 70 years," she says.
Many countries were scarred by World War Two, but none suffered as many losses as the Soviet Union.
On 22 June 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest and bloodiest campaign in military history, aimed at annexing vast areas of the USSR to the Third Reich. St Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, was one of his main targets. In less than three months, the advancing German army had encircled the city and started pounding it from the air.
'They were killing us like flies'
Mikhail Zorin cried when he first saw the gun he was expected to use to repel the German invasion. "It was so big and heavy," he says. "I was scared, how was I supposed to shoot?"
It was an antiquated model from the Tsarist days - and shortages meant they were only given one between two.
The 18-year-old Zorin endured nine hellish days fighting in Nevsky Pyatachok - the tiny strip of land by the Neva River where 260,000 Soviet soldiers died trying to break the siege of Leningrad.
"They were killing us like flies," says the 90-year-old. "There were corpses lying all over the place. The ground was mashed up by bombs and shells and we simply weren't equipped to fight back."
But attempts to take the city by storm fell through, so Hitler decided to starve it into surrender. For more than two years, the Red Army fought desperately to cut through German lines.
Olga and Marina are working near the town of Lyuban, 80km (50 miles) south of St Petersburg. Here, in an area of just 10 sq km, an estimated 19,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in just a few days in 1942. So far the diggers have found 2,000 bodies.
Ilya Prokoviev, the most experienced of the Exploration team, is carefully poking the ground with a long metal spike. A former army officer with a droopy blonde moustache, he found his first soldier 30 years ago while walking in the countryside.
"I was crossing a swamp when suddenly I saw some boots sticking out of the mud," he says.
"A bit further away, I found a Soviet helmet. Then I scraped away some moss and saw a soldier. I was shocked. It was 1983, I was 40km from Leningrad and there lay the remains of a soldier who hadn't been buried. After that there were more and more and more, and we realised these bodies were to be found everywhere - and on a massive scale."
There was little time in the heat of battle to bury the dead, says Valery Kudinsky, the defence ministry official responsible for war graves.
"In just three months the German death machine covered more than 2,000km (1,250 miles) of our land. So many Red Army units were killed, wiped out or surrounded - how could anyone think about burials, let alone records of burials, in such conditions?"
Immediately after the war, the priority was to rebuild a shattered country, he says. But that does not explain why later the battlefields weren't cleared and the fallen soldiers not identified and buried.
The diggers now believe that some were deliberately concealed. The governing council of the USSR issued decrees in 1963 about destroying any traces of war, says Ilya.
"If you take a map showing where battles took place, then see where all the new forest plantations and building projects were located, you'll find they coincide with the front line. Nobody will convince me they planted trees for ecological reasons."
If you crouch down in the woods near Lyuban, a series of grooves in the earth can be clearly made out.
"They actively planted new trees on the battlefield - they ploughed furrows and put the trees exactly in the places where the unburied soldiers were lying," Marina says.
She recently unearthed a helmet and in order to find its owner, the team had to uproot two nearby trees.
'He promised he would come back'
I will never forget the story of 21-year-old Khasan Batyrshin, writes Olga Ivshina.
Khasan went missing in 1943. His family contacted the government every year asking for information about him, but the answer was always the same. "No data found. Soldier missing in action." But the Batyrshins never gave up. Even at the age of 105 his mother repeated: "He will come back. He promised me. He will even move mountains."
We found Khasan last year near Nevskaya Dubrovka. The bodies of those killed there were just put into pits made by falling shells. It was one of the last days at the dig. Everyone was tired, but Khasan inspired us. We found his ID tag. It is always a miracle, because many soldiers didn't have them at all. And even those who did often didn't fill them in.
The piece of paper in his tag was neatly pencilled in. It was not easy to decipher, but after four hours, Khasan got his name back.
When his family got the news, the first thing they did was visit the tomb of Khasan's mother to tell her. She had died a year earlier.
"When we cleaned away some clumps of earth from the roots we saw two hands tangled up in them. Then we found a pelvis and some ribs between the roots. So we think the whole soldier was underneath the roots and the trees were growing on top of him."
But how could anyone - farmers or workmen - get on a tractor and plough over land littered with human remains?
"If they refused to plough a field because there were corpses or bones in it, they'd just be sacked," says Ilya. "If you lost your job in those days you were a non-person - you didn't exist. That's what life was like in the Soviet Union." Plus, it was less than two decades after the war. The workers had endured far worse horrors, he says.
There are horrors for the diggers, too.
Nevskaya Dubrovka, on the banks of the River Neva, was the scene of one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Leningrad siege. The Red Army fought tooth and nail to secure a narrow stretch of river bank in an attempt to break the blockade. Hundreds of thousands of troops, used as little more than cannon fodder, were slaughtered.
Diggers discovered a mass grave in the area last summer. The soldiers may have been thrown into the pit by their comrades or local villagers as a hasty form of burial, or even by the German Army, anxious to prevent an epidemic among its troops.
"There must have been 30 or 40 soldiers in there. Four layers of people one on top of the other," says Olga, as she sits by the campfire. "But the skeletons were all mixed up and smashed. Here you have a head - there a leg…" She pauses and stares into the fire. "Once you've seen that, you'll never forget it. You are no longer the same person you were before."
Going back to city life and her job with the BBC Russian Service is sometimes hard after a few weeks in the forest. When her friends in Moscow complain about not being able to afford a good enough car or designer clothes, she feels alienated.
"Everything seems so pointless - even my job as a journalist - and sometimes I think, 'What am I doing?' But here, on the dig, I feel we are doing something which is needed."
For Olga - who sang hymns to Communism in her primary school, then learnt about profit and loss at secondary school - volunteering as a digger also provides a moral compass in confusing times.
"Sometimes you need to know that you are doing something which is important, that you are not just a piece of dust in this universe. This work connects us to our past. It's like an anchor which helps us to stay in place even during a storm."
Finding the dead is only one part of their mission. Rescuing them from anonymity is the other.
In Moscow an eternal flame burns at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the shadow of the Kremlin Wall, but for the diggers, the best way to honour those who lost their lives is to give them back their identities.
"The soldier had a family, he had children, he fell in love," says Ilya. "Being unknown is nothing to be proud of. We are the ones who made him unknown."
But discovering who they were is not always easy, especially after so much time has passed.
"The more data we can collect from the spot, the better the chance we have to identify a soldier," says Alexander Konoplov, the leader of the Exploration group. Sometimes they find old coins with the soldiers, given to them by their families. The belief was that if the family lent him a few coins, he would come home to repay the loan.
But while personal items can build up a picture of the person, they can't help find his name, or place of birth. Initials scratched into spoons and bowls are good. But the key is usually an ID tag.
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Media caption There are around 300 volunteer groups in Russia searching for similar grave sites
During World War Two, Soviet soldiers' ID tags were not made of metal - they were small ebony capsules containing a small piece of paper for their personal details. Sadly, the papers are often illegible. Others were left blank because many soldiers were superstitious - they believed filling in the forms would lead to certain death.
Alexander, who ran his own business selling food products before becoming a full-time digger, is holding a bullet case plugged with a small piece of wood. He hopes that it is an improvised ID tag. But when he turns it upside down in his hand, what comes out of it is not a roll of paper, but a trickle of brown liquid.
"Sometimes we find messages with the soldier's name," says Alexander. "Some wrote, 'If I am killed, please pass this on to my girlfriend or my mum.' You can't help feeling touched by it."
Exploration is one of 600 groups of diggers from all over Russia who have found and reburied a total of 500,000 soldiers so far.
These teams are known as the "white diggers", but there are also those dubbed "black diggers" who search for medals, guns, coins or even gold teeth which they sell online or to specialist dealers. They are not interested in identifying the soldiers - they just leave the bones in the ground.
Alexander has a strict set of guidelines about how the remains should be excavated, labelled and stored. Each soldier is photographed and their location is recorded and entered into a digital database.
Ebony ID tags; a volunteer tries to decipher their contents; a grenade found in the forest Diggers Marina, Ilya and Olga
If a decades-old ID tag cannot be deciphered by the team on the ground, it is carefully packed and sent to the team's headquarters in the Volga city of Kazan.
The team's technician, Rafik Salakhiev, uses ultraviolet light and digital imaging to reveal the faded pencil marks. "Let's try to enhance purple colours on this yellow paper," he says. "We can reduce the saturation and yes! We start to see some letters…"
Once a name emerges, the diggers use old army lists, classified documents and contacts in the military or police to identify the soldier precisely and to locate surviving members of his family.
"Every new search gets to me as if it was the first one," says Rafik. Many of the relatives are now elderly and may not be in good health. "When you call the relatives, before telling them the news, you try to prepare them. Even if they have been waiting for a long time."
But tracing a soldier's family can take years - on occasions more than a decade - especially if the family moved after the war.
When, in 1942, people in First Lt Kustov's home village heard he was missing, they suspected him of deserting and collaborating with the Germans. They branded his young son and daughter traitor's children and the family were forced to leave. It took Ilya Prokoviev months to track them down.
"When we told them that we had found their father's remains, for them the feeling was just indescribable. They knew that he hadn't just deserted, that he couldn't have behaved like that, but there was never any proof until 60 years later."
From the archives, the diggers worked out that Kustov had been the commander of one of Stalin's notorious shtrafbats, a battalion made up of prisoners and deserters. Only a trusted officer and staunch communist would have been appointed to such a post.
"They had managed to restore historical truth and honour their father's memory," says Ilya. "It was the main event of their lives, I think." Kustov's children took his remains and buried them next to their mother, who had waited her whole life for her husband to return.
Near the banks of the River Neva, close to the mass grave found by diggers, a Russian Orthodox priest chants prayers as he walks around the rows of bright red coffins laid out on the grass.
The children, grand-children and great-grand-children of the soldiers they unearthed look on, some quietly sobbing.
Valentina Aliyeva is here to bury the father she has not seen since she was four years old. For seven decades, the only link she had with him was a black and white photo of their former family home.
"My mother remarried some years later and everyone told me to call my stepfather Daddy. But I refused - I knew who my real dad was," she says, her eyes filling with tears. "What those diggers have achieved means so much to me. I can't tell you how grateful I am."
Tatiana Uzarevich and Lyudmila Marinkina, twin sisters in their early 50s, have travelled from the remote region of Kamchatka - nine hours away by plane. The diggers found their grandfather's ID tag in the mass grave. When they were unable to trace his family, the group put out an appeal on the evening news.
The twins' elderly mother was stunned when she heard his name - Alexander Golik - the family had searched in vain for years. His disappearance had left his wife and children destitute. "The fact that he was missing in action meant that my grandmother was not entitled to any of the financial support given to other relatives after the Great Patriotic War. She didn't get a penny and she had four children to raise," says Lyudmila.
"My mum was so hungry all the time, she begged the other kids for pieces of bread at school.
"She only remembers the shape of her fathers' hands - but she had memories of a kind, good man," says Tatiana. "We just had to come to this reburial service to visit the place where he died and accompany him to his final resting place."
The walls of the large, newly dug grave are draped with red cloth - an act of respect normally accorded only to army generals. Young men dressed in Soviet-style army uniforms form a guard of honour. Visibly moved, as coffin after coffin is carried past to be buried, some of them look up to the sky. There is a belief that birds flying overhead transport the souls of the dead.
There are more than 100 coffins - each contains the bones of 12 to 15 men. The diggers would like each soldier to have his own, but they can't afford the extra 1,500 they would need for today's service.
This is the culmination of months of work by the volunteers. It's what it's all for - bringing a semblance of order to the moral chaos of the past, and paying tribute to those who gave their lives.
In the spring they will resume their searches in the forests and fields where so many were slaughtered. They are determined to continue until the last man is found. But it could be a life's work - or more.
"There are so many unburied soldiers, it will take decades to find them. There will definitely be work for our grandchildren," says Marina. "But nature is working against us. The remains are decomposing and it is getting harder to find the bones, ID tags and army kit." The more years that go by. The less information there is.
"We need to continue to do this for ourselves, so our souls can be at peace," says Ilya. "It has become the meaning of our lives."

Votes1 DateJun 2, 2015

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