- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

SHOTOVO, Russia Misha Fyodorov was sold into slavery for a fistful of dollars by his own army commander and spent the next three years of his life passed from one master to another in Russia's lawless Caucasus mountains.
A pale shadow of the optimistic youth drafted into the Russian army, Mr. Fyodorov survived the experience, which often saw him confined to a pit in the ground, and speaks haltingly, never breaking a smile.
Visibly traumatized, the 23-year-old still has his army crew cut and wears the same khaki uniform, his mind at times seemingly trained on one thing.
"All I want to do now is to find him again and to look into his eyes so that he knows who I am," Mr. Fyodorov said softly of his former army captain.
"We were slaves," said Mr. Fyodorov, with his mother, whose eyes watered as she heard for the first time in detail her son's ordeal, which included regular beatings and almost no food.
The Russian military dismissed the soldier's story, saying Mr. Fyodorov was little more than an army deserter who only escaped prosecution because he was judged to be in poor health.
A young man who has turned to religion since his hardships, Mr. Fyodorov said quietly that the army was too corrupt to be believed.
His tour of duty began rather benignly, Mr. Fyodorov recalled at his parents' home, where he returned after escaping slavery.
"I was drafted on Nov. 20, 1997, and posted in Vladikavkaz," in the southern Russian republic of Northern Ossetia, bordering breakaway Chechnya, he said.
"Everything was quiet, the first Chechen war [1994-1996] was already over," he said.
Every now and then, Mr. Fyodorov and his fellow conscripts would be sent to a factory to unload trucks, a frequent practice in Russia's cash-strapped armed forces, where conscripts are often used as cheap labor.
Mr. Fyodorov's officers were paid 50 rubles (less than $2) for each soldier they offered to the factory. Mr. Fyodorov and his friends earned nothing.
Then, one day in May 1999, Mr. Fyodorov and three friends left their barracks, thinking they were off on another factory assignment, to which they were to be driven in a civilian truck.
"As soon as we crossed the border between Northern Ossetia and Ingushetia, the men driving us forced us to lie down and turned their guns on us," Mr. Fyodorov said.
The four conscripts were then led into the mountains and herded into a pit. Mr. Fyodorov said he did not know his captors' identities or ethnicity.
Their captors wanted to exchange them for a ransom, as often happened in previously reported kidnapping cases in the Caucasus, but knowing that his parents had no money, Mr. Fyodorov refused to give their address.
After that, life turned into hell, Mr. Fyodorov said.
"Our captors beat us regularly. The only thing we had to eat was what was left from their meals, which they threw at us," he said.
The following month, Mr. Fyodorov and his friends were sold again, this time to Chechen fighters, who brought them to a rebel camp in the mountains of southern Chechnya.
Mr. Fyodorov's conditions did not improve with his new masters.
"We would dig hiding places in the mountains all day long and eat our scraps of food in the evening," Mr. Fyodorov said.
"One day one of the conscripts, whose hand was injured, refused to work. Our guards shot him dead before our eyes," he said.
Mr. Fyodorov said he also once saw the feared Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev visit the camp where he was held.
"I recognized him. I had seen a picture of him on a poster that was hung in our army barracks," he said.
In September 1999 the conscripts were sold once more, this time to watch over a flock of 5,000 sheep in the Karachayevo-Cherkesia republic. They were still slaves, but there was some improvement, Mr. Fyodorov said.
"It was much better. We were beaten only when sheep got lost," he said.
He said the Russian police were little more than accessories to the crimes committed by the country's army.
"One day policemen came to have lunch with our guards. They knew we were slaves," he said.
And the police offered little help to Mr. Fyodorov when he finally managed to escape to Northern Ossetia, seeking them out for help. Instead, the police turned him over to new slave masters, Mr. Fyodorov said.
"Ossetian policemen told me that there was an arrest warrant [charging desertion] against me. They brought me to a farm and told me 'You will work here,'" he said.
He returned home last month, after first appearing before military prosecutors, where he signed a statement officially recognizing him as an army deserter, a procedure that allowed him to escape prosecution.
No charges have been brought against the captain who sold him. And it is likely that none will ever be, as there is no evidence that any part of his story happened, said Yevgeny Zelenov, a lawmaker of the Novgorod region, where Mr. Fyodorov and his parents live.


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