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#12 - JRL 7016
Russian Soldiers' Mothers Work Together
January 14, 2003

MOSCOW (AP) - Day after day, Valentina Melnikova huddles with runaway soldiers, draft-age young men and their worried parents, looking for any excuse - a bad back, a bum knee - to help them avoid the ``meat grinder'' of the Russian military.

``Soldiers aren't considered people,'' she said. ``They're beaten, they're starved, and more and more, they're running away.''

Melnikova is a leader of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees of Russia, a group dedicated to saving young men from cruel conditions in Russia's armed forces.

It keeps its own estimates of deaths in the military - about 3,000 non-combat deaths in shootouts, suicides and accidents annually - and helps soldiers who have deserted their units, earning the ire of Russia's top brass who have accused it of impeding military justice.

The committee was founded in 1989 to combat the hazing of young conscripts and other rights violations in the military. For years, it has instructed families on how their sons can avoid the compulsory draft - often by emphasizing medical problems.

Now, after two wars in Chechnya and more than a decade of decay in Russia's demoralized, underfunded armed forces, violence against young soldiers is on the rise, sparking a wave of mass desertions from the 1.1 million-member force.

``More and more often, officers are beating soldiers,'' said Committee member Ida Kuklina. ``The system generates violations.''

Critics often say the army treats conscripts as cannon fodder or slave labor for officers, calling it a ``meat grinder.''

In September, 54 servicemen fled their unit near the southern Russian city of Volgograd to protest beatings and abuse at the hands of senior officers, and marched nearly 35 miles to the local Soldiers' Mothers office.

The deserters were returned to military custody, but the media attention forced army officials to make some changes, transferring some of the soldiers to different posts and dismissing their commander, Kuklina said.

The Volgograd incident, along with other recent desertions near Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, have thrown a spotlight on the role of the Soldiers' Mothers and sparked an angry response from military officials.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has criticized the ``so-called'' Committee of Soldiers' Mothers for standing in the way of military justice - saying soldiers should take complaints to their superiors, not go on ``marathon'' treks in search of support.

Ivanov also questioned the funding of the Soldiers' Mothers offices.

Russia's chief military prosecutor, Alexander Savenkov, said some organizations that work with soldiers ``aren't always discerning about their choice of financing'' and ``sometimes act outside the law,'' without naming the groups or specifying their violations.

Melnikova scoffed at the criticism.

``They want soldiers to complain to their commander. But what if he was the one who beat them?'' she asked.

She said the European Union provides some aid money for office expenses, but said she and her colleagues in the Moscow Committee receive no salaries. Committee branches have also received grants from George Soros' foundation and Russian tycoon-in-exile Boris Berezovsky, and the group has won several international rights awards including the Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel.

Working in shifts of six at a time in a cramped, dingy office, the mothers meet with a steady stream of parents and sons, answering questions and helping them come up with strategies to sway army doctors.

``What is it called when a kid isn't growing fast enough?'' one mother yells across the room.

``Developmental delay,'' Melnikova yells back.

At one desk, Kirill, a bashful 21-year-old in a leather jacket, tells how he fled his Interior Ministry unit near Moscow after his commander tried to send him back to Chechnya for a second tour of duty.

After learning that Kirill has a bad back and that his hands were injured in a mine blast in Chechnya, one of the mothers tells him to get a doctor's note to support his case in court.

President Vladimir Putin has pledged to end the unpopular draft and replace the bloated, Soviet-style army with a leaner, professional force, but many Russian generals oppose the idea, and the reforms have been beset by numerous delays.

Meantime, thousands of young men avoid the twice-yearly call up by obtaining educational deferments, medical and family exemptions, paying bribes, or simply dodging military authorities.

Whatever happens, Kuklina said the Soldiers' Mothers will carry on their work.

``No one can stop us from protecting our children,'' she said.

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