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18 Jun, 2009 08:56

Enslaved soldier returns after five years

A soldier considered AWOL has returned home after five years, claiming his commanders sold him as a slave. But the local military commissariat accuses him of abandonment of post, Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper reports.

Anton Kuznetsov was recruited to the army for a regular term from the Central Russian city of Lipetsk in 2003, and sent to see duty in the southern republic of Dagestan.

His only relative – grand mother Antonina Kuznetsova – has received just two letters from him since then.

"On March 1, [2004] we were moved to Makhachkala [the Dagestani capital], and on March 13 the officers secretly took us to a brickyard outside the town. The local are like animals. The seven of us – the Russian soldiers – are beaten as they beat their own ass. We are fed poorly, prohibited from writing letters, and if they find a letter they tear it up in front of your eyes. Remember you’ve sent me money to the boot camp? It appeared very useful. When the contractors arrive, I secretly pay them 200 rubles, so they will send my letter to you. We are working from early morning, from 6 o’clock, till it gets dark. Then we go to sleep, but the next day everything repeats. I am working on reception, taking bricks from the conveyer belt. And if one of us drops a brick, we are kicked. Only bricks are important for them. If we do less than the norm (3000 units), we are denied dinner and manhandled during the night. I’ll write to you again soon, my hands are in pain, I have to wake up at five next morning,” Anton’s letter said.

The commanders of military unit 6752 have provided some of their troops to a private brickyard in eternal use – read: slavery.

Another letter came in a few days. In it Anton wrote that he and other soldiers were moved to another factory.

“Conditions are the same. We continue to be beaten and poorly fed. We are told that well be taken from our military unit after demobilization to work at the plants, and we'll be here permanently to return over debt before the Motherland. It appears; we got the debt while serving in the army. There are a lot of Russian soldiers at the plant from Volgograd, Astrakhan and Kursk. I'm starting to forget what I remembered here (because I’m constantly beaten on the head). Yesterday evening I was severely beaten. I am writing to you at night. Apparently, my rib is broken. It’s very difficult to breathe. If I have the strength, I’ll write to you again…" was written in Anton’s second and final letter.

To the rescue

The grandmother collected the money she kept for her funeral and went to Dagestan to save her grandson.

“I went to my grandson in September 2004. My passport was taken away by the military unit, so I wouldn’t be able to escape with him. For ten days I lived in a rented apartment not far from the check point – all that time my documents were stored at the commander’s office.”

Anton was allowed to see his grand mother. He arrived at her rented apartment every morning for ten days.

“He was hungry, but wearing a new uniform. They specifically gave it to him knowing that I arrived, so as not to scare me. The old one was all shabby from bricks,” Antonina Kuznetsova said.

Anton was in a very bad condition – he could hardly move – but when he saw his grandmother he started believing that his service would finally come to an end.

Antonia managed to talk to an officer from her grandson’s military unit and asked him why soldiers were sent to work at brickyards. He explained that the plant pays them in bricks for the free labor force and added that it was “the commanders’ business to decide where and who to send, and I should not interfere. Before we parted, Magomedov gave me his phone number, but no matter how often I called it was silent.”

When all her money had run out, Antonina had nothing do to but to return to her home town of Lipetsk. She calmed herself knowing that there was just one year left before her grandson’s demobilization.

Anton’s life changed for the worst after her visit. The young man was punished for his grandmother asking too many questions. He was beaten up severely and never tried to write home again.

Mysterious disappearance

In 2005, Antonina received a note saying that her son has disappeared from his military unit, was considered a deserter, and that a criminal case had been launched.

In actual fact, Anton continued working at the brickyard. The enterprise was moved to another place every time the clay ran out in a canyon, so the young man was transferred to different cities in Dagestan.

But Antonina didn’t want to give up. She wrote letters to Minister of Defense, the Commander of Internal Military Forces and to the Military Prosecutor, demanding her grandson’s return. “Even if he’s a deserter they should look for him,” she said.

She even found the family of a young man, who served together with Anton, but returned home. They told her that she wouldn’t get her grandson back; she just didn’t have “enough strength”.

“Grandma, it’s me”

Years passed and Antonina started to give up hope. That’s why she was shocked when one night her house intercom rang and she heard a voice saying: “Grandma, it’s me”.

“Once he escaped it took him 30 days to get home, travelling by foot and train. He was scared as he'd no documents. I almost didn't recognize him as he looked so tired and malnourished,” Antonina told RT.

Anton returned home on March 2, 2009. He managed to escape from the brickyard during winter and walked home for over a month. He traveled on foot to avoid military patrols and used suburban trains as a stowaway.

"Except for bricks, I saw nothing in this army,” Anton said in his only interview, given to a local paper. “And can we really call it an army? The masters kept us in a completely destroyed wooden trailer recently. They did not watch us closely and hoped that we were completely demoralized … In winter, we stamped our feet on the floor and the rotten planks failed. Everyone in the car got out and scattered in all directions. I ran home …"

The 23-year-old was white-haired and lame on his return.

In captivity again

Reunited after 6 years apart, they immediately headed for the region's army head quarters – demanding residency for Anton and freedom for the 5 soldiers he left behind.

“We went to the commandant's office next morning – so they wouldn’t think that we are trying to hide from them. He [Anton] took a bath, dressed in a suit that I bought him right after school, new sharp-toed shoes… but the old size was too big for him now, my grandson had shrunk. When we came to Lipetsk’s top military officer, to give ourselves up, and he exclaimed: "Look, what a dandy!" and ordered Anton to be taken away,” Antonina Kuznetsova said.

Nobody even looked at the proof of Anton’s innocence – the grandson’s letters with Makhachkala post stamps.

The young man was taken to a military unit in Lipetsk and has been kept there ever since.

Meanwhile, RIA-Novosti news agency is citing an unnamed, high-ranked source in the North-Caucasian military department, who said the inquiry did not prove Kuznetsov’s claims about him being forced to work at a brick yard.

In fact, Anton Kuznetsov was taken into the army illegally, Antonina says.

"I was 75 years old [in 2003]. He is an orphan, who has lost both parents. He was formalizing my guardianship when some civilians from the Military Registration and Enlistment Office came after him early in the morning – saying they had to check his health again – and he did not come back," she said.

The officers in the military commissariat promised to send Anton to a place not far away, like the cities of Voronezh or Tambov, taking into consideration his difficult family circumstances.

But things turned out the other away and, according to Anton, a large number of Russian slave-soldiers still remain at a brickyard somewhere in Dagestan.

“Drafttees in the Russian army often find themselves forcefully seconded to work in civillian factories, becoming slaves in all but name. But the media only picks up on it very occasionally. Similarly, young men who should be exempt from service – because they're orphans or a sole career – are often just rounded up on the streets to make up numbers,” lawyer Oleg Tuyrin told RT.