Mothers brave battlefield to find sons

January 12, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Russian mothers, fearing for the lives of their sons fighting in Chechnya, have begun flying to the battlefield to find their boys, take them out of the army and bring them home.

Their mission is extraordinary, even for a nation of mothers accustomed to lavishing love and protection on their children well into adulthood.

But their perilous journeys provoke more sympathy than astonishment here. The Russian army has become so notorious for its ill treatment of young men, there is only honor for a mother who resists it, and no shame for her son.

"People hate the army," said Yuri I. Deryugin, a retired army colonel and now a military sociologist. "They know how badly young soldiers are treated."

No one knows exactly how many mothers have made the trip to the war zone or whether any have managed to rescue their sons. But women who have visited Chechnya or who plan to go have been drifting in and out of the cramped Moscow office of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers to tell each other their stories and offer each other courage.

In this war they have precious little else, especially news. Parents of young recruits have learned that their boys are in Chechnya only after phone call after phone call went unanswered.

"You know quite well how difficult it is to bring up children in Russia," said Anna I. Pyasetskaya, whose son, Nikolai, had fought in Chechnya. "We have a lot invested in our children. And it is a bond that lasts until we are old."

Tatyana Skorbilevya returned to Moscow the other day after two weeks in Chechnya, looking for her 19-year-old son, Anatoly. He was supposed to finish his two years of military service at the beginning of December. Instead hewas sent to Chechnya.

Six months ago, Anatoly wrote Mrs. Skorbilevya a desperate letter from his barracks, after a beating at the hands of other soldiers left him with a broken arm.

"My dear beloved mother," he wrote, "I miss you so much and I love you so much. It's so bad here, come here and take me from here for God's sake."

Those words haunted Mrs. Skorbilevya. When she learned that her son had been sent to war, she decided to find him. Tanks, bombs, snipers were nothing to her if they stood between her and her only child.

She wandered across Chechnya, through mud and snow, in front of and behind the Russian lines, looking for Anatoly.

She saw other Russian soldiers eating cold food, sleeping on the cold, muddy ground without tents. And she saw Chechens mourning their boys. "We were told the Chechen people were fierce, cruel people, but they were so kind to me," Mrs. Skorbilevya said. Chechen villagers took her in and helped her in her travels. They told her they hated the war and could feel her pain as their own.

But they told her that if her son came to their village as a soldier, they would kill him.

In the end, she returned to Moscow without her son. She meanwhile is planning to return to Chechnya.

"Let God save you from seeing what I saw," she told the other women at the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers.

"I came here because I can't find anything out," said Raisa P. Astashkini. "I want to go to Chechnya and find my son."

She didn't know what she would do if she found him. "I'll decide on the spot," she said. "I just fear for his life, and I know I have to find him."

Mrs. Pyasetskaya carried a picture of Nikolai, her son -- 20 years old, proudly wearing his uniform, standing tall in front of the bright red, blue and white of a Russian flag.

"I heard on Dec. 12 that troops were being sent to Chechnya," she said. She didn't think he would go because since July he had spent much of his service digging potatoes.

"We called his unit," she said. "There was no answer. We called his

headquarters. They said they had no information. We called and called. No one told us anything."

Finally, she was told his unit was on a "business trip."

"There was nothing for me to expect but bad news," Mrs. Pyasetskaya said. On Dec. 28 she saw a television report about a hot line set up to report casualties. She called it every day.

When she called last Saturday, her son's name was read from the list. He was dead.

She doesn't know how he died or where. She doesn't know where his body is. And this brings tears: "In the Russian Orthodox Church a body must be buried after three days. There is a commemoration after nine days. Soon it will be nine days, and I won't even have buried my son."

Mrs. Pyasetskaya wants to go to Chechnya to find and bury her son. She thinks of it as a logical action and mourns that she had not taken it earlier, when she might have brought him back alive.

"I would have taken my son out of it personally," she said.

Russian psychologists say the typical Russian mother makes her child the center of her life, embodying her hopes and dreams and making him far too dependent for far too long. It is no surprise, the psychologists say, that a son would gladly await his mother's rescue from war.

Vladimir N. Druzhin, deputy head of the Institute of Psychology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, blames the phenomenon on 70 years of communism.

"For many years, most activities and interests were restricted," he said. "Many families concentrated everything on their children."

Mothers became the conscience of the army in 1988, with the creation of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. They united to seek compensation for the loss of their sons in the Soviet Union's misadventures in Afghanistan, and to try to prevent violence against new recruits.

About 1,500 soldiers a year are killed by hazing or because of suicide, according to Mr. Deryugin, the military sociologist.

Other sources say that during the last years of the Soviet army, the number of recruits disabled, killed or driven to suicide was 8,000 a year.

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