Chechen bandits with empty souls

Dimitri Petrov quickly realized that the men who shot out the tires on his humanitarian-aid truck weren't fighting for the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya.

The situation was worse than that. The gunmen were bandits. They weren't interested in politics or religion or debates about freedom and international law. They didn't care if the food and medicine was destined for Moslems or Christians or anyone else in the village of Aki-Yurt, on the border of Ingushetia and Chechnya, back on Sept. 20, 1997.

"The bandits have no nationality. They have absolutely nothing in their souls," said Petrov, a Russian national who was working for the Baltimore-based International Orthodox Christian Charities when he was kidnapped.

After moving Petrov and his colleague Dmitri Penkovsky five times, the raiders consigned them to a cold, dark, unventilated cement pit hidden under a metal plate and a parked car. A previous prisoner, probably from the Russian military, had carved marks in the wall trying to chart the days of his ordeal.

Once a day, or less, the relief workers were fed potato soup and bread. Penkovsky was released after six months. Petrov, who believes he suffered a heart attack while in captivity, was set free after 11 months. Leaders of their relief agency -- citing security concerns -- declined to answer questions about the terms of their release.

There are parts of this world too dangerous and too remote to be featured in the tiny video universe of the evening news. It didn't make news when these humanitarian workers were kidnapped, and it wasn't news when they were released. But it was news in the churches in which people prayed for them, day after day, rite after rite. It's a strange day when church bulletins contain about as much life-and-death international news as many newspapers.

The remote mountains of Chechnya, located between the Black and Caspian seas, may look like heaven, but they've a slice of hell right now. Humanitarian workers and missionaries vanish and die on a regular basis. More than 40,000 people have died in a savage, but largely unnoticed, war since Chechen nationalists declared their independence from the Russian Federation in 1991. Petrov said that, at the most, the secessionist government controls a mere third of the state. The rest is up for grabs.

"It is an area of the world that is just as violent and unstable as the Balkans, if not more so," said Alexis Troubetzkoy, the International Orthodox Christian Charities representative for Russia. "It is an area of incredible beauty, but also of incredible hatreds. ^?The conflict there is so complex and so desperate that it is almost impossible to describe."

The situation has degenerated to the point that "it is the bandits who have the real power. It is just evil. They will do anything. Thieves are stealing from thieves," said Petrov, speaking through a translator during a prayer service with supporters in the Baltimore area.

The result was a chaotic game of hide-and-seek in a land in which the economy is in ruins and civic order is a cruel joke. At one point, another cell of bandits attempted to kidnap them away from their original captors, said Penkovsky. This is what the bandits do for a living, he explained. "They steal people."

They also kill. During their captivity, they heard their captives discuss the status of other prisoners. A pair of Baptist captives did not fare as well. One is still missing. The other was killed and his head left in a garbage bin, said Penkovsky.

While their captors did attempt to browbeat them into converting to Islam, Petrov and Penkovsky both said they are convinced that their kidnappers were inspired by greed, not political, cultural or spiritual convictions. This wasn't about religion -- it was about money. It wasn't about politics -- it was about raw power.

But pray for Chechnya, the men said. Prayer may be the only option left.

"People keep telling us that our release was a miracle," said Penkovsky. "The longer we are free and the more we learn, the more we believe this is true. This was a miracle. It takes a miracle to survive in Chechnya."