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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hopes Fade in Samara For News of Lost Sons

SAMARA, Central Russia -- An abiding dread has settled on this peaceful old city along the Volga River, as Samarans have begun to understand that those were mainly their sons whose bodies were left behind on the streets of Grozny.

They were from Samara's 81st Motor-Rifle Regiment, which led the disastrous assault on the Chechen capital and was cut to pieces, losing as many as 70 percent or more of its men -- dead, wounded or missing -- in three days.

That one regiment from one city could take such losses seems too much for Samara's citizens to take.

There were about 1,000 young men in the 81st, most of them 18 or 19, draftees just out of school. There has been hardly any specific information. Only three families have been notified that their sons are dead.

Nearly three weeks after the New Year's Day assault, everyone waits for the bad news.

"We know bodies came back," said Olga Anikina, head of the local Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. "We just don't know where they are."

Across Russia, the army and Interior Ministry have given out almost no information about the debacle in Chechnya. They have reported a total of 500 casualties on the Russian side, though some observers on the scene have estimated the Russian dead at between 2,000 and 4,000. Other reports have put the total of Russian dead at 1,500. The 81st Regiment may have had 500 casualties or more, according to unofficial reports from Chechnya and military headquarters in Volgograd.

Those coffins that are sent back to families have been arriving at night, so as not to cause a stir.

This has reinforced a widespread belief that Russian commanders do not care about casualties, especially among draftees.

"The mothers believe the command is turning their sons into cannon fodder," said Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Molokov, chief of a military hospital in Samara.

A military officers' organization set up a special office here to gather information from Chechnya. In its first week, 5,472 worried parents and relatives came by, and 8,016 called. But there has been little to report.

The lucky parents are those who have found their sons in the hospital here. Nearly 180 wounded soldiers are there. Mothers roam the halls with portraits, asking wounded young men if they knew their sons.

Tatyana Osina, who returned each day as 30 to 40 new patients arrived,found some soldiers who had seen her son Roman alive. She later learned that he was in the hospital.

"I felt as though I had been reborn," she said.

Roman, 18, drafted last July, is in the 81st. On New Year's Eve he and three other soldiers were assigned to an armored personnel carrier loaded with extra cases of ammunition. They joined a column moving into Grozny.

"They shot at us from every window," he said. "You never saw their faces. We had no radio communication. One APC after another caught fire. Ours was the last one left."

With two other APCs, they spent the next two days in a shoe factory, holding out against Chechen fighters.

"I thought I wouldn't get out of that place," Roman said.

On Jan. 3, they fought their way out to join another column, but their APC came under fire and stalled. They ran to another one, and other soldiers joined them until there were 17 sitting on top, under constant fire. Nine were killed. Roman was wounded in an arm and both feet.

"We had to leave the bodies," he said. "It was impossible to bury them or take them away."

"From the beginning I knew this war was a crime," his mother said. "I thought he would come out of the army a real man. He saw horrible things. He came back another person. He's not a boy any longer."

Officers are starting to blame the disaster on President Boris Yeltsin; people in Samara blame the army command for throwing raw draftees up against dedicated fighters.

"Parents didn't see the Afghan war and didn't even know their sons were there," said Anatoly Zaikov, an Afghan veteran and city official who is handling funeral arrangements. "But now parents see the war and see how their children are being killed."