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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Slave Freed After 13-Year Ordeal

APVladimir Yepishin said he fell into a trap in 1989.
TBILISI, Georgia -- The malodorous bedroom in a cheap hotel where Vladimir Yepishin slept Tuesday wasn't much, but it was a step up -- his first taste of freedom after 13 years as a slave.

Yepishin, 50, was freed Monday in a police operation in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, a region infamous for kidnappings and crime. The gorge has drawn additional concern after recent U.S. statements that fighters with al-Qaida links are there and the decision to send U.S. troops to give the Georgian military anti-terrorist training.

Yepishin's ordeal did not appear connected to terrorism but to the frequent practice of slave labor in Chechnya and Ingushetia, north and west of the Pankisi Gorge. At least seven forced laborers were reported freed in Chechnya last year.

Haggard and speaking slowly, Yepishin told a news conference that he fell into a trap when he went to the central Russian city of Yaroslavl, near his home village, to visit his brother in 1989.

"I met two Ingush or Chechen men," he said. "They invited me to come to Chechnya and earn money," promising high wages.

"I was drunk and I agreed," he said.

"Then, on the train, I began to understand that things weren't right. I wanted to leave, but they wouldn't let me. Plus, they took my documents," Yepishin said.

He was first taken to Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia, where he worked for a time and then to Itum-Kale, a Chechen town near the border with Georgia, he said. There, he was passed four times from one owner to the next.

"I tried to escape four times. They caught me and beat me," Yepishin said.

After the second war between Chechen rebels and Russian forces broke out in 1999, Yepishin and his owner at the time fled with thousands of Chechens into the Pankisi Gorge, a punishing journey over soaring, jagged mountains. In the Pankisi village of Duisi, he was passed along to a local family who forced him to work as a shepherd, but also treated him somewhat better.

"Nobody beat me. They even let me go out of the house, and I got to go to the bazaar. The food wasn't bad," he said. "In Chechnya I was beaten often and harshly."

Despite his modicum of new freedom, Yepishin didn't try to escape in Pankisi. He had no documents and Georgian police conduct rigid checks at roadblocks in the region.

His first glimmer of hope came when a journalist from Kommersant newspaper, Olga Alenova, was on a reporting trip in Pankisi. According to her account at the time, Yepishin hesitantly approached and asked for help.

The newspaper directed Alenova to go to Yaroslavl, look up Yepishin's relatives and begin the process of getting his documents reissued.

On Tuesday night, Yepishin got a visit from Russian consul Mikhail Afanasyev, aimed at working out the final details of the documents.

"We think we can get him on a plane in the morning," Afanasyev said.