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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Homecoming Brings Heartbreak

It wasn't exactly the homecoming Lyubov Tumayeva wanted. But more than six years after her son Sergei left for war, it was the best homecoming she could hope for.

"At least now he will be close by," she said Monday, when she laid Sergei's remains to rest in his hometown of Nizhny Novgorod. "Now I will be able to visit his grave and there will be a place where I can have a cry."

Like hundreds of young soldiers who died between 1994 and 1996 in Russia's first war against Chechnya, Sergei's body went missing. His mother, convinced that his remains had been misidentified and buried in another soldier's grave, launched a war of her own against military officials and investigators to uncover the truth.

Her search, and her battle with the family of the other soldier, Yevgeny Ventsel, were chronicled in a 1998 story in the Los Angeles Times. And her hard-won victory, if it can be called that, robs another family of its peace.

"The question about my son's remains will always worry me," said Valentina Ventsel, who for the last six years believed that it was her son in the grave she tended in their Siberian village. "Even now I don't have a firm belief that it's not my son."

Stories such as this illustrate the pain that has been caused by Russia's primitive forensic practices and what critics have called a callous attitude toward soldiers' lives and their families' grief.

The large number of missing or misidentified corpses from the first Chechen war caused outrage among soldiers' families and the public.

Last fall, Moscow launched a new campaign against the rebel republic. Apparently fearful of a similar backlash, Moscow stopped updating the death toll in October, when it stood at 2,700. By now, more than 3,000 soldiers are believed to have lost their lives in the second campaign.

In the first war, Ventsel's son served and died side by side with Tumayeva's son. Both were young paratroopers, ages 18 and 19, and both died with their lieutenant when they became trapped by enemy fire during the siege of Chechnya's presidential palace in Grozny, the capital. A damaged armored personnel carrier was leaking fuel nearby, and when a shell burst near the men, a fireball killed all three. Only one corpse was recoverable.

Soldiers in the unit identified the corpse as that of Tumayev, based on a chipped tooth and a scrap of clothing. But a medic who mistakenly believed that Tumayev had been wounded and sent to a hospital identified the body as that of Ventsel, and it was shipped in a sealed zinc coffin to his family in Uryupino, a village in the Altai territory.

The surviving soldiers, convinced that an error had been made, encouraged Lyubov Tumayeva to demand that the remains be exhumed and properly identified. But for six years, authorities refused.

"I think this case was unsolved for so long only because the military command of Sergei's regiment and officials from the Prosecutor General's Office simply didn't want to know the truth," Tumayeva said by telephone.

That changed in the fall when a new investigator was assigned to the case. He persuaded the Ventsels to permit exhumation and DNA testing. In December, the tests identified the remains as those of Sergei Tumayev. With their son's body unaccounted for, the Ventsels were provided with a new coffin containing the ground on which he died.

The Ventsels, interviewed by telephone from their home in Uryupino, said they still aren't convinced it wasn't Yevgeny in the original coffin. They simply grew tired, they said, of resisting the pressure from investigators.

Colonel Vladimir Shcherbakov, head of the forensic laboratory in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don that handles most of the war dead, said he doesn't consider the story over.

"One way or another, Mrs. Tumayeva's problem is solved now, but the Ventsels' problem is just beginning," he said in a telephone interview. "Simply as a person, not only as a serviceman, I feel unsatisfied because we don't have any clear or reliable foothold on establishing Ventsel's fate."

Shcherbakov's laboratory did not have any DNA testing equipment until 1998 and didn't get other, more up-to-date equipment until last summer. It was the newer equipment that was used to identify Sergei Tumayev.

The incident also had ramifications for the family of Andrei Zelenkovsky, the lieutenant who died with Tumayev and Ventsel. In the course of the investigation, his coffin also was exhumed and, instead of the partial remains they expected, investigators found only bricks and straw. However, they reviewed their files and were able to match previously unidentified partial remains in a military morgue as Zelenkovsky's.

Lyubov Tumayeva's joy is tempered by the knowledge that it has come at the cost of Valentina Ventsel's pain. "We both feel bitter, because we are both victims of that damn war," Tumayeva said.