August 2001. Here he sits before me, a fugitive from slavery without legs. He is in an invalid in a wheelchair under a high tree in one of the shelters in Khmelnytsky, a miserable middle-aged cripple. I got to know him thanks to my old friend who works in the shelter and who made me promise at once that neither the invalid, nor she, nor her shelter would be mentioned in the publication: “They have long arms. We hid Sasha from them for a month. They pester us every day, playing on our nerves, demanding invalids, not healthy residents.”
Sasha also agreed to tell the very sad story of his slavery on condition that “nothing will be said about my humble person.” The case, however, is not in naming one’s sources, the case is that until now nothing has been said about this tragic problem. The then administrative nurse of the shelter acquainted Sasha with two strangers who called themselves owners of a private company in sunlit Moldova, saying they are developing new types of prosthetic devices and they need invalids like Sasha to test them. They lavished promises on Sasha, saying he would not even feel his artificial limbs, have full board, and even a little sex, something Sasha might have already forgotten about.
The two grim years Sasha spent in the shelter was a nightmare and his broken soul wanted any change whatever. And here was this lucrative offer. Although he had some bad premonitions, he accepted, feeling he had nothing to lose. He wrote an application to the shelter director telling him he rejects any assistance from the state.
It turned out unfortunately that a free man became a slave. He was whisked at once to the only rich home in a poor Moldovan village, and he had everything that he had been promised, but the hosts told him at once that developing artificial limbs is not their business. He understood everything when, escorted by the same con artists who had tempted him with promises of a life in paradise, he found himself on a railroad car on the way to Moscow. Some instinct of self preservation led Sasha to invent a story about his brother, a police colonel in a town near Moscow who had great influence and would never allow his relative to be treated badly. He also gave them garbage about a friend in the Khmelnytsky shelter who if they did not hear from Sasha would go to the colonel and the Ukrainian police. He gave the story to his captors on the way to Moscow which, as the old saying goes, does not believe in tears.
As soon as they came to an apartment in Moscow, he was told that, as of the following day, he would go to beg in the streets. Sasha protested violently, saying he would not. In reply, he heard that fellows like him are found dead in the Moskva River every day and that too much money had been spent on him and he had to work to repay it. Mentioning his police colonel brother seemed to have some effect on the his slaveholders. They promised that in a month, as soon as he repaid their expenses, they would let him go. Sasha thought it best to accept such terms.
The begging scenario was given by his captors: a soldier who lost his both legs in Afghanistan begs for money to pay for artificial limbs, a man reduced to begging due to misery. He had an appropriate image: a gentleman beggar, perfectly shaven, perfumed, and dressed. His jacket, with his service striped T-shirt visible, had a special pocket for banknotes and coins had to be kept in a small bag. His workday began at seven at a subway station where he was escorted to in a taxi by Angela or Ivan, who took shifts with him, Sasha recalls. He was still sick from the deafening noise of the station, with trains roaring past him and endless rivers of passersby. “My head thumped and swam often. Taking a leak was a problem, where and how? I was closely watched by Angela or Ivan and creeping anywhere was followed with swearing, threats, and kicks. I had to take it. Later on I began to use a jar.”
In Moscow there are many affluent people who do not pass up beggars. The supposed Afghan veteran tale made a due impression on responsive Muscovites and tourists. “My work was evaluated by the weight of my jacket. If it was heavy, I was praised. If lighter, cussed. On my calculation, my day’s take could buy a Zhiguli car. The old man, who begged next to me wearing shabby clothes and showing his sore hands and legs, had it the hard way — he was often beaten up for not begging enough. The old man, myself, and two more beggars were kept in the same apartment.
He never dreamt of escape: “We all knew that to contact Moscow police is the last thing one would want to do. They would beat you up and return you to your hosts. There were smart guys who contacted them, but they ended up losing. Life is expensive there.” Each night the captors would check if the beggars hid any of the money they earned. The shame and embarrassment that he was playing a false role was too hard to bear. A slave with a beggar’s sack cursed the day he was born, all his ill-fated life when ten years before he had left his native village in the Starokostiantyniv rayon for the Donbas. He began to work in a coal mine but lost his legs on a railway: “I had a drink with friends, went somewhere and came to myself in a hospital, without legs.” On returning to his village, Sasha soon began to feel he was a burden to his relatives who were preoccupied with their eternal worries about livestock, vegetable gardens, and crops. They sent him to the charity shelter.
Sasha sits in his wheelchair under a high tree in the shelter yard. The birds are singing goodbye to the last days of the summer. I face him. Women and men in wheelchairs remind me of birds on high wires. As our talk goes on for quite some time, they seem to have lost any interest in our meeting. They are all in the know about Sasha’s misfortunes. The shelter director warned them not to believe those who try to talk invalids into leaving the shelter, promising a life in paradise, citing Sasha as a living example. “When a month passed, and I reminded my captors about my colonel brother, saying they would be looking for me, they bought me a rail ticket, gave some money, and sent me back to Khmelnytsky,” Sasha continues. After he returned home, another fugitive from slavery, an older person, came from Moscow. “I was begging at a gas station in a Moscow suburb. Once I had a word with a driver of a fashionable foreign car, telling him I’d pay him well if he gave me a lift out of there. I got into his car and was gone.”
Feeling some danger, the other fugitive from slavery did not stay long in Khmelnytsky. He was dispatched, presumably to another shelter in a faraway village. The Day’s correspondent called the shelter, giving the name of the other fugitive and inquired if he was on the list of residents. Then it became quiet at the other end of the telephone line and the person who picked up the phone responded in a somewhat frightened way that no such person is listed and advised to forget the number, hanging up.
No one knows for certain how many of the unfortunate left their shelters or homes to participate in the “technological process of developing artificial limbs” and where they are at present. In the wake of the scandal that erupted, Khmelnytsky oblast labor and social protection department official Nadiya Halanda told The Day that they are running corresponding educational programs for invalids shelters to reject any offers of those who are looking only for crippled people. But she is not sure these programs are 100% effective, saying that you cannot keep invalids in the shelter by force. Once they make up their minds, they drop out and go anywhere in this wild world with no one taking any interest where they have gone and what happened to them.
Khmelnytsky oblast chief investigating officer Vadym Hrabust knows about Sasha’s misfortunes. Lt. Col. Hrabust is responsible for seeking missing people. According to him, there are even sadder stories. Still, many are not sought by the police and Sasha was one of them, as only those officially reported as missing by their relatives or host institutions get on the wanted list.
Lt. Col. Hrabust says that the list of missing persons wanted by the police is growing. “Since early this year, we have received 361 reports, 38 more on the same period of last year. We have not found ten persons. Unfortunately, not all found are alive. We are using Interpol, requesting colleagues in the cities where missing persons presumably went, and publicize the list in the media.
It makes one’s blood run cold to read statements made by grief- struck relatives from Kamyanets- Podilsky, Letychiv, and Slavuta to the police about their kin who went to work in Moscow and did not return, with no known location. This is the latest report dated August 2001 about someone who back in 1993 went for seasonal work in Yakutiya and was lost for good. Many of the relatives still have hope that their missing kin would eventually come back. They keep retelling a case when some seasonal worker finally came back after four years of being kept and led to work in chains, like a slave, somewhere near Moscow. He managed to escape but is tightlipped about what had happened to him and how he finally managed to run away. He keeps saying much the same words as Sasha does: they have long arms.
“They” means for slave owners that came unpunished from the distant past right into the second and now into the third millennium. “What kind of advice could I give? The best seems to be to look before you leap,” is Lt. Col. Hrabust’s only recipe for solving this unexpected problem.