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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Families Get Hot Line for News on Casualties

Larisa Yaroshevskaya picked up the phone and could barely hear the frightened voice at the end of the line.

"Yes, we'll try to find your son. Can you spell your last name for me?" she spoke into the receiver of Obshchaya Gazeta's new hot line -- a service for the families of soldiers in Chechnya.

But the mother of Private Chernov, who received a letter from her son written Dec. 26 to say that his division was being sent to Chechnya, could not stop crying long enough to spell her name. That was when the telephone operator piped in -- repeating each letter with perfect clarity until Yaroshevskaya could confirm that he was not among their list of dead or captured.

"Don't worry -- everything will be all right," Yaroshevskaya said, trying to calm the woman at the other end of the line.

But Yaroshevskaya knows that everything is far from all right. "Born in 1976 , inducted in June. What could he possibly know about driving a tank?" she said.

Ever since the weekly newspaper set up the hot line Jan. 9 for the families of soldiers serving in Chechnya, the phone has been ringing nonstop with calls such as these.

For the most part, the callers -- mothers, fathers and wives of servicemen -- receive good news. Only three times have the names of the soldiers corresponded to the names on the list. But the newspaper's list -- compiled from information collected by correspondents, Chechen sources, and organizations such as the human rights group Memorial -- is far from comprehensive.

"Today we heard from the Ministry of Defense that the death toll for Russian soldiers is up to 340," said journalist Alexander Trushin, who started the hot line the day he returned from Grozny.

The paper's list, which is updated daily, has the names of about 100 dead soldiers and 120 wounded, "but we know the figure is much higher than that," said Trushin. "It is much higher than the official figure."

According to Trushin, who talked to Russian prisoners being held in Grozny, the hot line came to be almost accidentally. As he was returning to Moscow through Nazran, he asked a colleague to publish the phone number of Obshchaya Gazeta so worried relatives could call for information. The phone started to ring even before he landed in Moscow.

The original list of dead came from Chechen sources, who had also collected some personal possessions from the bodies of Russian soldiers. But as Trushin and his colleagues try to update the list daily, they hit a wall of silence at the Ministry of Defense.

According to Trushin, the Ministry set up its own hot line the day after Obshchaya Gazeta started manning the phones, but it offers little or no information to worried relatives who want to know where their sons are. In fact, defense officials have even referred calls to the newspaper hot line, Trushin said.

The regional draft boards, wondering about the whereabouts of their own inductees, are calling Trushin as well. They, like everyone else, are getting nowhere with the Defense Ministry.

So they keep calling -- from Sakhalin, Murmansk, Kaliningrad. "You can't find a region from which they haven't called," said Trushin.

Holding up a thick stack of letters, Trushin was happy to tell of one soldier who, though at first presumed dead, was still alive.

The letters were all addressed to a private Solomen, a soldier from the Urals whose bride had written him weekly for the two years he had been serving in the army. Just 20 days before his service was up, Solomen was sent to Grozny, where he was seriously wounded. The letters were trusted to the care of a friend who was killed soon afterward.

"The Chechens took the letters from the corpse and gave them to me," said Trushin. "They thought Solomen was dead. I thought he was dead, but it turns out he was evacuated and is still alive. Love saved him."