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The BBC's Orla Guerin:
"He speaks Hungarian of a kind not used since the war."
 real 28k

Saturday, 5 August, 2000, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Going home 50 years too late
Andras Tamas
Andras Tamas: Half a century with no one to talk to
By Orla Guerin in Moscow

It was Vasily who drove us to the station - a slight figure, wiry and energetic, who speaks English slowly, and with great care.

He has been driver, organiser, protector and friend to generations of BBC correspondents in Moscow stretching back to 1972.

When I told him where we were going and why, he fell silent for a moment.
Mr Tamas
Confined for 55 years

"My father also went to war," he said.

"He sent us one last letter saying things were nearly over. But we never saw him again. There were many like him who did not come home."

According to official figures here there were 8 million who never returned - Soviet soldiers, and airmen - killed, or taken prisoner or missing in action.

And there were 18 million civilian dead.

For many of Vasily's generation the war shaped and twisted their lives.

For them the horror and the suffering have not been filed away behind the closed doors of the past.

Soulless

Nobody has got around to removing the hammer and sickle from the entrance to Moscow's Yaroslavsky station.

Vasily bribed us onto the train heading east, for a journey of 13 and a half hours. We had missed the fast train - which makes it in 11.

Our destination was the town of Kotelnich, remote and buried deep in the forests.

The psychiatric hospital here dates from before the 1917 Revolution. It is a soulless rundown place.

Here we met Andras - an old soldier for whom the war has never really ended. For the past 53 years he has not been free.

He is an old man now, with few teeth. One leg was amputated three years ago.
Andras Tamas
The shock of going home will be considerable for Andras Tamas

After a lifetime of empty days he is shy with visitors. But he seemed happy to shake my hand, and after a few minutes he broke into smiles.

The hospital's youthful-looking chief doctor, Yuri Petukhov, patted his arm and tried to speak to him.

But Andras has only a few words of russian, including the odd curse.

He speaks Hungarian of a kind not used since the war.

For most of his life he has had no one to talk to, no one to console him, or joke with him.

I sat on the narrow iron-bed opposite this quiet gentle man wondering if he understood what had been stolen from him - the chance to be a husband or father, to have grandchildren running around his feet ?

No number

A flimsy yellowing scrap of paper dated 1947 records his arrival at the hospital.

Andras Tamas, it says, prisoner of war, transferred from a military hospital.

He was dumped here, without any other documents. At that moment his identity was lost, his nationality and his family stripped away.

The hospital notes say he was emaciated and deeply disturbed.

But by the 1970s he was well enough to be released.

So why did he spend the next 30 years hidden from the world, wandering only from his ward to the hospital's small workshop and back?

Dr Petukhov winced when I asked him the question.

We tried to find out who he was, he said, but the military wouldn't tell us anything, and we could get nothing from the Red Cross.

But there was another reason - the fear and the paralysis of Soviet times.

The chief doctor told me he had never called the Hungarian embassy because he didnt have enough evidence.

But later he said: "I was a Russian doctor in a state hospital. I wouldn't even have been able to get the number."

Homecoming

So Andras was left in limbo until hospital funds started to run low a few years back, and there was pressure to get patients out.

It is thanks to this that finally he looks set to leave.

But Dr Petukhov is clearly worried.

We followed Andras as he made his way around the hospital yard on his crutches.

He kept looking back at the doctor for reassurance.

"I'll travel with him when he goes to Hungary," the doctor said, " to try to help him adjust. But after all this time it will be hard for him to go."

His homecoming will be half a century too late.

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See also:

31 Jul 00 | Europe
World War II prisoner emerges
02 Aug 00 | Media reports
Hungarian POW to go home after 55 years
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