Saturday, March 07, 2015

Struggle To Pierce Wall Of Silence On Russian Casualties In Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- When Sasha entered the room, he was told to strip and bend down. “Look how nice and healthy!” said the middle-aged woman as she felt the young man’s back in a quick medical check.


Pro-Russian rebels with Russian weapons and trucks.

“We mothers bring you into this world so that you can live, not go to get shot or kill others!”

In an attempt to talk him out of signing up, 18-year-old Sasha’s mother had sent him to the Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee, a non-governmental group working on soldiers’ rights.

Workers there warned him he might be sent to fight in Ukraine.

Yet several months after Russian soldiers appeared in Ukraine’s Donbass region, president Vladimir Putin continues to deny that his country is at war.

A majority of the public believes him.

According to a poll conducted by the independent Levada Centre last month, 60 per cent of respondents think there is no war between Russia and Ukraine, and only one in four Russians believes that there are Russian soldiers in the neighbouring country.

Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician shot dead last week, had his mind set on changing these beliefs.

Four days before his death, he said he was convinced support for Putin would be undermined if more Russians, and especially soldiers, understood that the president was lying.

“I’m working on that now,” he said.

Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister turned opposition colleague of Mr Nemtsov, said the two had discussed the project just days before Mr Nemtsov’s death.

“What the authorities are afraid of most is Cargo 200,” he said, using the Russian military term for dead bodies, “and that’s what I know Boris already started to collect [information about] from the internet, from Russian and Ukrainian sources.”

“If people [in the authorities] imagined that he had some kind of special [information], that could move them closer to this murder, but I don’t think he had any specific things,” Mr Kasyanov said.

Mr Nemtsov wanted Russians to know the “real story”.

“It would be a kind of anti-propaganda report.”

Previous attempts by others to shed light on the extent of Russian casualties in Ukraine have proven dangerous.

Lev Shlosberg, a local politician in Pskov, a northern town home to a large military division, was beaten unconscious last summer after he publicised one of the first funerals of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine.

“We just don’t know [ how many died there] because the government is treating it as a state secret,” said Mr Shlosberg.

The attack didn’t deter Mr Shlosberg.

He later published testimony from two other soldiers who had been sent to fight in Ukraine.

They said conscripts were sent over the border without even being told that they were going into battle, they were deprived of any means of communication with their families and if they were wounded or killed, their families received little or no support.

Several months and some major battles later, recruits are now told in advance that they are going to Ukraine.

Partly in reaction to the Shlosberg case, Moscow has become much more sophisticated in trying to hide evidence.

The military is trying to recruit more evenly across the country to prevent gossip among soldiers’ families and discourage local self-help networks.

The authorities have also changed the way they deal with those who come back.

Wounded soldiers are sent to a small number of military hospitals and put in sealed-off wards, said Valentina Melnikova, head of the Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee.

This way, no information on casualties can leak out.

The families of those who return in body bags sign a pledge to remain silent, for which they are compensated in cash.

Those who request medical details are told that such information is a “commercial secret” of the insurance company.

Increasingly this wall of silence is being pierced by photos and videos from the battlefield, by soldiers’ anonymous accounts shared on social media, and even by the occasional Russian media report about those who return.

Elena Vasilieva, a human rights advocate, runs a searchable database called Cargo 200 which contains the names of hundreds of Russians who died fighting in Ukraine or were seen there.

As many as 5,000 Russian soldiers may have died in Ukraine since the start of the war, Ms Vasilieva said, though Mr Nemtsov believed the numbers to be much lower.

One of the more vivid testimonies of life on the front line came last week.

Dorzhi Batumkunuev, a 20-year-old soldier from Siberia, was filmed by separatist television when Iosif Kobzon, a Russian singer under western sanctions, visited him at his hospital bed in Donetsk.

Although he suffered heavy burns to his face, ears and hands, the young soldier gave Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta a detailed account of the battle of Debaltseve, the railway hub the separatists wrested from the Ukrainian military last month in a blatant violation of the ceasefire signed in Minsk earlier.

He said he regretted nothing because he fought for “the right cause”. 

His support for the war fuels doubts about whether Russians will really resist the war if they know more about it.

While many of those surveyed in the Levada poll think there is no war going on, a majority say they would support a Russian military presence in Ukraine.

“There is no sign of the fear or anger among soldiers’ families that we saw in past wars,” said Ms Melnikova, who has previously worked with Russian soldiers who were sent into the Chechen and Georgian wars.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. Such indifference.”

Still Putin’s critics remain determined to make their voices heard.

Ilya Yashin, a leading member of Mr Nemtsov’s RPR Parnas party, has said his dead friend’s report will be published.

In the little overheated office room crammed with paper files, photos, tins of tea and cookies where Ms Melnikova co-ordinates the Soldiers’ Mothers’ activities, her colleague talks to a young man who wants to join the army.

“You have to make up your mind yourself. Think hard.”

Source: ft

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