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The Observer (UK)
January 5, 2003
Russia turns blind eye to disappeared
Grisly murders highlight the dangers faced by the country's shocking number of missing people
Nick Paton Walsh

They found the arms and legs in a plastic bag. As heavy snow gathered around a block of flats on General Belov Street in northern Moscow, the garbage collectors unearthed, among New Year's Eve's discarded vodka bottles, two human legs and two arms. The hands had been removed, presumably to deprive the police of fingerprints.

Across town in Bolshaya Serpukhovskaya Street, a canvas bag was found in a rubbish bin containing the head and left hand of a woman in her twenties.

The bodies to which the parts once belonged will probably never be identified. Each will become a new file in the Ministry of Interior's Department 15, responsible for finding the tens of thousands of Russians who go missing every year. Their bodies never turn up, or are found abandoned in the city's alleys or surrounding woods.

Such gruesome discoveries are not unusual in a country where 88,000 people are currently missing, according to last year's figures. In the first six months of 2002, police managed to identify 15,000 of the 57,000 corpses handed to Department 15; 13,000, they found, had died that year.

The statistics are shocking. For a country with a population of 145 million, by July last year 41,292 unidentified bodies had been amassed over 15 years - one for every 3,500 Russians.

Colonel Lydia Ivanovna, the deputy head of Department 15, said: 'Small children, teenagers from broken homes, the mentally ill, the elderly, drug-users, alcoholics, the homeless and vagrants are the usual victims.' Social decay has meant that many people die or vanish without a police force or benefits system in place to notice.

Yet Russia's criminal elements are responsible for many more. Ivanovna's department has identified a number of 'risk groups', often targeted by organised gangs. Their figures show that the owners of expensive cars often disappear, as do elderly people with valuable flats. In one common scam, a businessman will offer a pensioner, in exchange for the deeds to their flat, $200 a month to complement their meagre pension until they die. Many of these pensioners then simply disappear.

Journalists are also considered at risk. Ivanovna points to one case in which a TV cameraman from the Tula region vanished last year. His colleagues said he had footage of an organised crime gang consorting with local businessmen.

In the first six months of last year, 1,847 people were reported missing by relatives but had not been found by July. Ivanovna says the police's job is made harder as relatives wait a few days before reporting someone missing. 'The police have developed devices to find corpses deep in soil, woods, water, buildings and concrete,' she said.

Such disappearances often go unnoticed in the economic and social turmoil of Russia, where police corruption means some cases are simply not investigated. But one case gripped the nation, exposing how, in one town alone, so many gruesome fates could have awaited Russia's disappeared.

On 29 June 2000, Yulia Tikhtyekova, 17, went to register for exams at Altai State Technical University, in the Siberian town of Barnaul. She never returned from the university campus.

Exactly a month later, Lila Voznuk, 17, went missing in the same campus. On 1 August, Ola Shmakova, 17, vanished while trying to get her exam results at the university. On 8 August, Angela Burdakova, 17, vanished. Kseniya Kirgizova, 17, disappeared there a week later.

The disappearances captured the attention of the national press. The authorities were forced to send a team of investigators from the general prosecutor's office in Moscow.

In October the body of Burdakova was found, followed a week later by that of Kirgizova. Soon all the bodies were found, bar that of Lila Voznuk. Alexander Anisi mov, 25, was arrested and became the police's only suspect. He had been seen hanging around the university, but a lack of evidence meant he was detained for possessing a shotgun instead.

On 3 November, he admitted kidnapping the girls, but detectives were unable to verify his story. He took them to a local flat, promising to show them evidence. Once the team of investigators reached the eighth floor where the flat was, Anisimov threw himself out of a window. His version of events was never proven.

Yet the investigation - an unusually rigorous probe into an unruly Siberian town - unearthed a staggeringly gruesome series of events. The authorities uncovered four murders and rapes committed by a local policeman. They came across a gang who kidnapped young girls from Barnaul. They were drugged, and forced to have sex with several men. The act was videoed and the girls were told that unless they worked as prostitutes, the video would be given to their families. Some of the girls disappeared. Their fates remain unknown.

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