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Russian mothers mobilise against Chechnya campaign
THE GUARDIAN, London,Thursday February 3, 2000
Ian Traynor in Moscow
Barely able to walk and dreading being sent to Chechnya, Vitaly M this week staggered back to his military barracks, a couple of hours from Moscow, for another year of fear and misery as a conscript. The 19-year-old was drafted into the guards regiment of the elite Kantemirovsky tank division seven months ago, and his mother, Alla, has just discovered what a chastening experience it has been.
Alla, a bakery worker who lives in Kolomna, outside Moscow, said she went to visit her son 10 days ago and was directed to the military hospital. There she found him bedridden, black-and-blue from his shoulder to his ankles from the beatings he had been regularly subjected to.
"He'd been in hospital for two weeks," she said. "They had been beating him senseless all the time. It was torture. But the officers had warned him not to say anything. It was only when I saw him like that and when he couldn't cover it up, he burst out with it."
Alla decided on drastic action. "I smuggled him out and took him home," she said. "The military police came to my flat at the weekend and took him away again. What can I do?
"They say they are only sending volunteers to Chechnya, but it's not true. They're picking on my Vitaly and he's frightened they're going to send him to Grozny."
Yesterday morning, just off the train to Moscow, Alla stood in a dingy corridor in the city centre, peering anxiously at copies of soldiers' letters pinned to a wall, and at a poster that proclaimed: "Mothers, Save Your Sons".
A dozen middle-aged women waited patiently alongside her in various stages of distress. One woman sat motionless and speechless for an hour. Others sobbed quietly or nervously paced the corridor.
"Maybe they can help me. Someone's got to help me," said Alla.
"They" are the local branch of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a feisty bunch of middle-aged women who are the most formidable opponents of Russia's warmongers, a thorn in the flesh of the Kremlin spin doctors and military spokesmen who daily claim that the Chechnya war is going famously.
Galvanised into action by the routine savagery meted out to their largely conscript sons in an army notorious for its brutality, the mothers' committee has developed into a highly effective independent grassroots organisation that stands out in a culture struggling to develop civil society projects.
Funded by western charity, and having won a clutch of international human rights prizes, the Moscow mothers are at the centre of a web of 300 regional committees and 2,500 volunteer activists. They span Russia, indefatigably campaigning for an end to the war, for military reform, and countering the propaganda from the government and the military.
Collating information from all over the country, the mothers contend that 3,000 Russian troops have been killed in five months of conflict in the north Caucasus. That is several times the official toll.
"The death rate is at least as high" as the last war in 1994-96, said Valentina Melnikova, a geologist and founding member of the 10-year old committee. "We say 8,000 Russian soldiers died last time. Already 3,000 have fallen in a much shorter period."
The telephones never stop in the two small rooms in Moscow which accommodate six committee members. Some 200 women have sought help in the last 10 days.
The government and the army general staff has rejected Ms Melnikova's call to publish the names of the fallen. The general staff's number two, General Valery Manilov, has derided the mothers' organisation by claiming that "the most aggressive committees are those whose women have lost no sons and have no sons fighting in Chechnya".
Such remarks are uncommon, as it is awkward for politicians or public figures to criticise the mothers.
In the absence of cooperation from the military, the mothers have taken to posting the names, rank and details of the soldiers killed in Chechnya on the internet, and one independent Moscow newspaper this week started to use the data to publish a daily roll-call of the dead, the "book of memory".
As the Chechen rebels beat a tactical retreat into the hills from the gutted city of Grozny to wage a protracted guerrilla war of attrition, it seems certain that the roll-call will lengthen, as will be the queue of waiting mothers like Alla M.
"During the last war it was only after about a year that we started getting real information and finding out about the dead," said Ms Melnikova. "We're better organised now and already we're getting more information."
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