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Tuesday, 17 September, 2002, 21:54 GMT 22:54 UK
Brutality sparks flood of Russian desertions
Soldiers being kicked
Around 40,000 conscripts have fled Russian regiments

In the centre of Moscow, hidden away in a backstreet behind the Kremlin, is the Committee for Soldiers Mothers.

The office is tiny, but each day it's packed with young men - conscripts who have run away from the Russian army. They complain of being bullied, abused and beaten.

"The older soldiers made the young conscripts fight each other, like animals," says Sergei, a conscript who's deserted from his base in Siberia.

"If we refused - they knocked us about...one of them always kept watch outside the barracks."

This year more than 1,300 servicemen have turned to the Committee for Soldiers' Mothers for help.

In another corner of the room, a social worker is helping another deserter, Anton. He has fled after just three months military service, fearing for his life.

"Six soldiers cornered me in the toilet," Anton told me.

"They started punching and kicking. Then they tried to strangle me. I ended up in hospital. But they even came to visit me there - they threatened to kill me if I filed a complaint."

Flood of desertions

There are many more stories like these. So far this year more than 1,300 servicemen have turned to the Committee for Soldiers' Mothers for help.

The committee, a non-governmental organisation, investigates each case and offers support to those who've gone awol.

"Every day more and more soldiers are leaving the army," believes Vadim Solovyov, editor of Russia's Independent Military Journal. "It looks like a flood".

Official view

Bullying is common in Russia's increasingly undisciplined conscript army.

The Russian Military admits it is the problem.

But it's appealing to conscripts to stay on base.

Teenage victim
Teenagers flee the abuse of older men
"The Russian Ministry of Defence recognises the problem of bullying and we're very concerned about the number of soldiers leaving their units," ," army spokesman Colonel Vyacheslav Sedov told me.

"But they should know that going out of the camp is no way out. They will be caught and what will happen then? They will be court martialled."

Maxim's story

In an apartment on the edge of Moscow, 18-year-old Maxim sits watching the news on TV. The top story - a mass desertion in southern Russia.

Fifty-four soldiers have fled their base in Volgograd, complaining of bullying.

It's the same division from which Maxim has run away.

He was helped to escape by his mother. When she found out her son was being bullied, she climbed over the fence into his camp and smuggled him out.

"No-one denies that you need to serve in the army," says Maxim's mother Valya, "but not in this kind of army. The situation there is completely out of control. Our sons come back to us like invalids."

Suddenly the telephone rings - it's the call mother and son have been dreading - the camp commander searching for Maxim.

If he is found Maxim faces up to a year in a military jail. Valya says she hasn't seen him.

Back outside the Committee for Soldiers' Mothers, soldier Sergei is helped into an ambulance - he is off to hospital now to recover from his ordeal.

From army private to patient - one more symbol of Russia's ailing military.

See also:

15 Sep 02 | Europe
01 Sep 02 | Europe
10 Jul 98 | Europe
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