Home city of regiment mowed down in Grozny awaits news of boys WAR IN CHECHNYA

January 17, 1995|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

SAMARA, Russia -- An abiding dread has settled on this peaceful old city along the Volga River, as Samarans have begun to understand that those were mainly their sons whose bodies were left behind on the streets of Grozny, to be torn apart by hungry dogs and bursts of shrapnel.

They were from Samara's own 81st Motorized Infantry Regiment, which led the assault on the Chechen capital and lost as many as 70 percent or more of its men -- dead, wounded or missing -- in three horrible days.

That one regiment from one city could take such losses seems too much to take in. Yesterday, as a deadening snow was drifting down, on tramcars, on buses, on street corners and in churches -- in all the places where people were huddled together -- they were quietly asking each other, when will we know who is coming back?

There were about 1,000 young men in the 81st, most of them 18 or 19, draftees just out of school. Only three families have been notified that their sons are dead.

Two weeks after the New Year's Day assault, everyone else is still waiting for the bad news.

"We know that bodies came back," said Olga Anikina, head of the local Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. "We just don't know where they are."

Across Russia, the army and Interior Ministry have given out almost no information about the debacle in Chechnya. They have reported a total of 500 casualties on the Russian side, though observers on the scene have estimated the dead alone at 2,000 to 4,000. The 81st Regiment by itself may have had 500 casualties or more, according to unofficial reports from Chechnya and military headquarters in Volgograd.

Those coffins that are sent back to families have been arriving at night, when they won't cause a stir in the neighborhood.

All this has reinforced a widespread belief that Russian commanders really don't care about casualties, especially among draftees.

"The mothers believe the command is turning their sons into cannon fodder," said Lt. Col. Vladimir Molokov, chief of a military hospital in Samara.

A military officers' organization set up a special office here to gather information from Chechnya. In its first week, 5,472 worried parents and relatives stopped in. Another 8,016 called. But there has been little to report.

0$ People here feed rumors back and

forth, and the subject of the war never goes away. Except for parents of soldiers, most residents are keeping the disaster at arm's length.

"There isn't that much of a sense of grief," said Mrs. Anikina,

"because in the kind of life we have here now people are only worried about their own problems."

Lyuba and Igor Tipunkov learned last week that their son Andrei, a corporal, had been wounded and later died. Mrs. Tipunkova bitterly said there wouldn't be any big protests even when the magnitude of the losses became clear.

"There won't be anything," she said. "They will talk and talk."

"But nobody ever listens to the people anyway," said her husband.

"Who needs this war? Tell me," said Andrei's grandmother, Maria Tipunkova. "They're struggling for power, and we pay with our children. It's a sin by those who unleashed this war. Let God punish them. Let lightning strike them."

The Tipunkovs are still waiting to get Andrei's body back.

The few lucky parents are those who have found their sons in the 358th Regional Red Army Hospital here, one of Russia's largest. Nearly

180 wounded soldiers, from various units, are there. Mothers roam the halls, asking wounded young men if they know what might have happened to their sons, clutching school portraits in their hands.

One such mother was Tatyana Osina, who came back day after day, as 30 to 40 new patients were arriving at a time, and finally found some privates who said they had seen her son Roman Osin alive. On Thursday she got a call, and learned that Roman himself was in the hospital.

"I felt as though I had been reborn," she said.

Roman, 18, drafted last July, is in the 81st. On New Year's Eve he and three other soldiers were assigned to an armored personnel carrier loaded with extra cases of ammunition. They joined a column moving in to Grozny.

"They were shooting at us from every window," he said. "You never saw their faces. We had no radio communication. One personnel carrier after another caught fire. Ours was the last one left."

They reached some railroad tracks and went along them to a shoe factory. Two other personnel carriers joined them there, and they

spent the next two days in their impromptu fort, holding out against Chechen fighters.

"I thought I wouldn't get out of this place," Roman said.

On Jan. 3 they fought their way out to join up with another column, but the personnel carrier came under fire and stalled. They leaped out and ran to another one, and other soldiers joined them until there were 17 sitting on top. They were under constant fire. Nine of those with Roman were killed. He took shrapnel and bullet wounds in his left arm

and both feet.

"We had to leave the bodies," he said. "It was impossible to bury them or take them away."

Alexei Valuiskikh, another patient, managed to escape from a burning personnel carrier. With three other soldiers he spent two days trying to find his way out of Grozny on foot, scrambling, hiding, terrified.

Roman Gerasimov saw his best friend killed in a misdirected Russian air attack. Lt. Yevgeny Abramov saw the front of his column hit by Russian artillery fire. Wounded in four places when a grenade exploded, he eventually reached a Red Cross truck, which dodged sniper fire all the way to the Grozny airport.

They all said they saw bodies everywhere.

Officers are starting to blame the disaster on President Boris N. Yeltsin, for ordering the army to stop the aerial and artillery bombardment of Grozny, thus leaving the motorized columns unprotected.

People here in Samara blame the army command, for throwing raw draftees into a battle against dedicated fighters protecting their homeland.

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