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Friday, 15 March, 2002, 22:57 GMT
Slave of the Caucasus
Vladimir Yepishin after his arrival in Moscow
Yepishin tried to escape four times before giving up
A Russian man kept as a slave for the past 13 years in the mountains of the northern Caucasus is on his way home.

Vladimir Yepishin was flown to Moscow this week after being discovered in Georgia's remote Pankisi gorge.

They invited me to come to Chechnya and earn money - I was drunk and I agreed

Vladimir Yepishin
Lured to the region by a promise of employment in 1989, he had been abducted and put to work by his Ingush and Chechen captors.

Finally the war in Chechnya displaced him to Georgia where he was spotted by a Russian journalist.

"I met two Ingush or Chechen men," said the haggard-looking 50-year-old stone mason from Yaroslavl province in central Russia, his hands shaking.

"They invited me to come to Chechnya and earn money - I was drunk and I agreed."

Once on the train, the men took away Mr Yepishin's documents and shortly afterwards his freedom.

He was forced to work first in Nazran, in Ingushetia, then in Chechnya, where he was passed from owner to owner four times.

If he tried to escape, he was beaten - "often and harshly".

Fortunes of war

When Moscow sent troops back into the region in 1999, his owner fled to neighbouring Georgia and its Pankisi gorge, where ethnic ties between Chechens and local people are strong.

There he was given to a local family who forced him to work as a shepherd.
Georgian troops in the Pankisi gorge
Pankisi has harboured Chechen and other militants

In Georgia, he was treated better, never beaten and even allowed into the local town.

But after years as a slave and without any document to prove his identity to Georgian police, he stopped trying to escape.

The end came when journalist Olga Alenova from Moscow's Kommersant newspaper visited the region and Mr Yepishin approached her.

After contacting his relatives in Yaroslavl, the reporter alerted the authorities, and this week Vladimir Yepishin found himself on a plane for the first time in his life, flying to Moscow.

He was asked what he planned to do with his freedom.

"I've had to do everything - I've tried every kind of work," he said.

"Only back then my heart wasn't in it, I was a dead man. But now I'm home. Now I can look after myself."

Mr Yepishin is not the first person to fall into modern-day slavery in the Caucasus.

While the fate of many may never be known due to the war there, those freed include:

  • A builder from Sverdlovsk, 48, freed in Chechnya in March 2001 after being held since 1992
  • Six men freed in Chechnya in January 2001 after between 7 and 10 years in captivity
  • A man from Kaluga, 30, freed in Chechnya after 10 years
  • Two men, 45 and 52, freed in Chechnya in April 2000 after 11 years
See also:

26 Sep 01 | Europe
Chechen leader 'agrees to talks'
06 Sep 01 | Europe
Chechnya's decade of disaster
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