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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A hunt for invisible men

Their story sounds like a spy thriller.


Its characters are a woman passionately driven to rescue prisoners-of-war who teams up with two former Perm-35 inmates.


The scene weaves across the globe:


from a gulag in Chistopol, Siberia, where the two Russians share a cell, to New York where the woman works to gain recognition for American POWS and soldiers missing-in-action. At Harvard University, one of the Russians and the woman create a human rights organization.


In Moscow, the other Russian exits the gulag, joins his former cellmate and new-found soulmate to search for American POWs. A few months later, they discover an American defector who has languished in Russian psychiatric hospitals for 30 years.


The scenario is not the basis of a spy thriller, but a true story about an obscure nonprofit group called Ark Project that recently gained recognition when it discovered Victor Morris Hamilton, 75 - who defected from the United States in 1962 - in a psychiatric hospital outside Moscow.


Ark Project, a ruble-poor organization created by the pair, is zealously dedicated to finding American POWs and bringing them home. Susan Mesinai, 49, co-founded Ark Project in August with Mikhail Kazachkov, 47, a physicist who was confined for 15 years in the gulag for refusing to implicate a U. S. vice consul in Leningrad.


Ark operated without funding until early this year. Encouraged to find the prisoners by the postputsch window of opportunity, the organization received start-up cash from the Russian Relief Fund in Waterbury, Connecticut.


In February, Boris Yuzhin, an ex-KGB agent who was Kazachkov's cellmate, was released from prison when President Boris Yeltsin granted amnesty to political prisoners of the gulag.


When Yuzhin, 50, who was imprisoned for 5 years on charges of treason, learned about Ark's mission, he insisted on participating. As Ark's associate director, he concentrates on establishing a network of volunteers and former gulag prisoners to investigate sightings of POWs.


In March, Kazachkov and Yuzhin appeared on the Russian television program "Top Secret" to describe their hunt for POWs and seek the public's help concerning information about American prisoners.


After the show, a listener tipped them off about a patient named 'K' at the psychiatric hospital, and Yuzhin began investigating. Mesinai arrived in Moscow on May 20. The next day, she and Yuzhin and a Trans Union TV crew, which offered to document the sighting, visited the hospital.


When the team arrived at the hospital, Mesinai said, Hamilton "refused to speak to the TV crew. He said he would only talk to me because I am an American. The doctors invited me to see him because they wanted to identify him and find his family. I didn't know what to expect. He was very gentlemanly, very eager to talk".


Hamilton, who does not speak Russian, has been a patient at Hospital No. 5, about 50 kilometers from Moscow, since 1971. He has lived in psychiatric hospitals in the Moscow area since shortly after defecting in 1962.


"Technically, as a defector he's not the business of Ark, but he is an American, and he's been through a lot. Seeing him in the hospital and reading his journals - after his 30 years of confinement - the realization of his deterioration was overwhelming to me", Mesinai said.


It was, she said, a catharsis for her. "I saw in him the possible condition of these men", she said poring over an album full of photos of POWs. "This may be what we'll face when we begin trying to bring them back one by one". The men are among an estimated 20, 000 "faceless, invisible men who may be, like Hamilton, in hospitals, jails, who-knows-where, in this country", she said.


Mesinai tells their stories: They are men like Jim Grace, a pilot shot down over Savannakhet, Laos, on June 14, 1969. Photos taken after his capture. appeared in a war documentary film produced in 1969 in the Soviet Union.


And there have been sightings of others: Victor Apodaca, a Russian-speaking pilot whose plane was shot down in North Vietnam in 1967; John Fette and his navigator, Lieutenant-JG Robert Durwood Reynolds, shot down over the Baltic Sea in April 1950.


Using photographs aged by a computer, Ark disseminates its information in the news media and on T-shirts, hoping that pictures of the POWs will spark a memory of a sighting.


In August, Ark hopes to open a permanent office in Moscow and bring professional researchers here to search through recently opened government archives for information that may lead them to the discovery of more POWs.


Mesinai said that finding Hamilton underscored Ark's purpose.


"People realize now that there are men like Victor Hamilton", she said. "How many more American 'ghosts in the gulag', identified only by a letter of the alphabet or a number, are there? "


To report information on American POWs, call Ark Project at 470-3620.