Mothers and Sons

Article excerpt

Desperate to find their soldier sons who are missing in the Chechen war, the women of Khankala wait, and search, and hope, and Cry

THE BASE LIES ABOUT 10 DUSTY from the shattered city of Grozny, down a choppy dirt road at a place called Khankala in the benighted Russian region of Cheehnya. It is, as military facilities go, entirely unremarkable, except that it is the last place Nadezhda Nesterenko ever wanted to find herself, as well as the only place she thought of going, once the news arrived last March.

She was home in her village of Brodki in Lipetsk province that day, 550 miles from Moscow, where she works as a hired hand on a dairy farm. When a message for her arrived from Russian military authorities, she says, she nearly died. Her 20-year-old son, a senior sergeant named Vladimir, had been in Chechnya since November 1995, and she knew all too well what a charnel house for Russian soldiers the war there had become. She read the message, fearing the worst.

It wasn't; not quite. It said that on March 8, 1996, Vladimir had been taken prisoner in Chechnya by rebel soldiers. The military believed he was alive, but did not know where. Within two weeks Vladimir's mother had packed her bags and left for Chechnya, moving into barracks No. 10 at the Russian military base at Khankala, alongside the young soldiers of the third platoon, determined to find her son.

She is not alone. There are more than 60 mothers there now, searching for their sons. Their children are either in Chechen prison camps, have deserted and are on the nm, or are dead. The Russian military, including the brass at Khankala, who sheepishly face the mothers every day, usually don't tell them which--because in an extraordinary number of cases, they don't know.

After 21 months of ferocious fighting, there is, for the moment, peace in Chechnya. The mothers at Khankala are relieved that the fighting may be over, but for them the war most certainly is not. For many, it may never be. The precise number of Russian sons unaccounted for in Chechnya is a matter of fierce dispute: nearly 1,000, say some members of the Moscow-based Committee of the Mothers of Russian Soldiers; not even close to that, the Defense Ministry replies: NEWSWEEK learned last week that at a makeshift morgue near the train station in Rostoy, where corpses from Chechnya are held in refrigerated train ears, the military has not yet been able to identify 401 of the more than 700 bodies it is now holding.

For the mothers at Khankala-some of whom have been there for more than a year--the frustration mounts daily. Many accuse the generals of hiding what they know. When a soldier is confirmed to have been killed in action, his family qualifies for a special military pension. "They don t have the money to pay, so that's why they don't tell us anything," whispered one woman standing outside the Khankala gate recently. But that is probably not the problem. For one thing, even with the ceasefire, it is still not easy for Russians to comb the Chechen countryside looking for POWs and dead soldiers. But the lack of information also reflects the breakdown in morale, order and discipline that now plagues the Russian Army in the wake of the disastrous Chechen conflict. Nothing is more basic to command than knowing who has or has not come back from battle.

To mothers like Nadezhda Nesterenko, there is only one choice: to go to Chechnya and do it themselves. They tromp through villages asking questions; they have tea with rebel leaders--"we know them all by name, and they know us now," says Nadezhda. "Some are bastards, others aren't." The few fathers who show up in Chechnya rarely go to the mountains, because it is more than likely they will never return alive.

Some of the mothers, like 47year-old Lidia Vykovanets, have been able to locate men: sons m Chechen prison camps through their own detective work, relieved at least to see them alive, if net free. …