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Russians fight red tape to find Chechen war MIAs

A Russian military lab works to identify bodies from the war with Chechnya   

Hundreds of soldiers unaccounted for long after war's end

February 19, 1998
Web posted at: 3:10 p.m. EST (2010 GMT)

In this story:

From Correspondent Betsy Aaron

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (CNN) -- Raisa and Vladimir Denisenko want to bury their son, a Russian soldier, but there are no remains to claim. Russia's war in Chechnya is long over, but not for the Denisenkos and many like them, including parents who hold out hope their sons are still alive.

An estimated 1,300 Russians are still missing from the 1994-96 war against Chechen independence, and it's possible as many as 10 percent of them remain prisoners of the Chechens.

Even when a death is confirmed, parents may be left wondering where their sons' remains are located.

In a nondescript building in the southern Russia city of Rostov-on-Don, there is a military laboratory where the painstaking work of identifying bodies and parts of bodies is carried out.

In some cases, identification is made through pictures of corpses. (Note: Some viewers may find this image disturbing.)

'There is no way to find the truth'

Russian soldiers still missing from the war   

But, for now, the Denisenkos have no body to claim and blame the Russian bureaucracy.

"There is no way to find the truth," Vladimir told CNN. "You go to a local draft center, they send you to some other unit. You go there, they send you further on. There are no benefits, no respect, nothing."

The Denisenkos are far from alone in their frustration -- or their sorrow.

Stories told by other parents are achingly similar. "He was so kind," says one mother about her missing boy. "He liked sports. He didn't have a girlfriend yet." In every case the missing loved ones are called boys, never men.

A suggestion that a mass burial be held for all unidentified remains brought immediate opposition from the Soldier's Mothers Committee -- Russian women whose sons went to war in Chechnya. Some of the sons came home, some didn't.

"How dare you bury the hope of hundreds of people, their last and only hope to find their boy's body?" asks committee member Valentina Melnikova. "Nobody has that right. Every family has the right to bury their son the way they want to."

Battling bureaucracy

The mothers and their organized group -- representing families who have no means or ability to fight the Russian red tape -- are a constant thorn in the side of the country's military establishment.

Natalya Pankova says her son, Sasha, told her he enlisted because it was his duty. "And now, nobody has any idea where he is. Isn't it scary?"


In Pankova's case, though, the Soldier's Mothers Committee is able to cut through the red tape. It has determined that Sasha is alive in Chechnya, information that supposedly is "classified," the group says.

Still, parents who find out that their sons are alive in Chechnya are asked to pay a ransom to whomever is holding them. The sum may range anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 (U.S.), an impossible amount for most Russians.

For these parents seeking a son, wives who long for their husbands and children without a father, it's as if time stopped. Until they get their missing men back, or know for certain they are not coming back, life cannot begin again.


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