A Sentry's Tale

Federal troops take pity on a Russian woman searching desperately for her missing fiance

A Sentry's Tale

Federal troops take pity on a Russian woman searching desperately for her missing fiance

Friday, 11 February, 2000

The sentry gaped in astonishment. A young woman was making her way towards the bunker, weaving deftly between the trip wires which criss-crossed the road. In the half-light of the early morning, her movements seemed practised and deliberate.

The paratrooper had every reason to be jittery. Several days before, his unit had approached a group of Chechens near the town of Gudermes. The men had raised their hands in surrender, waited for the soldiers to come near. Then, on a prearranged signal, they pulled hand grenades out of their pockets and bowled them towards the enemy.

To his growing discomfort, the sentry noticed that the woman was clutching her hands to her chest, as if carrying a heavy object. He turned to his comrades in alarm, yelling that a Chechen kamikaze was launching a surprise attack. The snipers rushed to the gun emplacements and trained their weapons on the intruder.

"Halt, who goes there?" The woman stopped in her tracks, gripping her coat with a fierce intensity. "Hands up!" The paratrooper's voice cracked with tension. The woman raised her hands and smiled - apparently, there was nothing concealed inside her coat.

The soldiers looked at each other in bewilderment, then the sergeant asked for a volunteer to search her. A corporal ventured out and walked up to the woman. The snipers stared fiercely through their telescopic sights. She didn't flinch as the man searched her pockets.

"She's clean!" he called out with barely concealed relief. The woman kept smiling.

After the tension had subsided, the soldiers warmed to their unexpected guest. They gave her a cup of tea, asked her how she came to be there. The woman told them that she was a Russian and her fiancé, a federal soldier, had gone missing in action during the first Chechen war. She had been searching for him for nearly four years, clinging to the hope that he might somehow have survived.

In the beginning, she had pursued one clue after another, eagerly seizing at rumours that he was a prisoner, a hostage or a fugitive from the military authorities. She took charity, lived like a vagrant. Once she fell into the hands of Chechen guerrillas. They held her in a cellar for nearly a week and treated her like a slave. Then they sold her on to another gang and the woman gradually lost her grip on reality.

Now she smiles too much and wanders through the Russian military positions, in search of a ghost.

The paratroopers kept her in their bunker for a while, said she was one of "their own" because her fiancé had been soldier. Then they handed her on to the military police, who said she was insane and sent her to Mozdok. The paratroopers quickly forgot about the woman - she was a tiny speck in a vast river of human suffering which swept past them every day.

Erik Batuev is a journalist with Svet newspaper in Nazran

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