Deadly charade of Russia's boy soldiers

Children as young as nine are gearing up for war, writes Phil Reeves

Tucked away in a silver birch wood in the Russian countryside, a handful of military veterans are merrily playing soldiers. But their troops are not; they are children, some as young as nine, who are being trained to take part in genuine war.

The children, all boys, study mine-laying, hand-to-hand combat, and karate. Their instructors videotape them as they crawl on their bellies through swamps, wearing steel helmets and carrying replica submachine guns that are heavier than the real thing. Every night boys do sentry duty, armed with rubber batons against intruders in the unlikely event that any outsider should feel inclined to creep past the electric alarm which surrounds the periphery.

They run for miles; they march everywhere. Such are the summer delights of the orphans and others - mostly sons of single mothers - unfortunate enough to be sent to join the Kaskad, a military unit for children, for their annual three- week summer camp at Boyarkino, 120 kilometres southeast of Moscow. One was particularly unlucky: two weeks ago, he died.

The outfit is run by a man who had no war of his own. Capt Gennady Korotayev, 36, was a deputy commander of a unit in the Russian army's political education unit for four years. After failing to persuade the authorities to send him to Chechnya, he has turned to his volunteer work: drilling and marching his children's army. That, and brooding over the terrible decline of the Russian army.

There is a bluff, swaggering air about the captain as he strides around camouflaged tents, wearing light green fatigues opened at the chest, carrying a long hunting knife at his hip. His aides show off a grenade launcher, albeit unoperational. They have a collection of disarmed mines for their mine-laying lessons, rubber knifes for fighting practice and air rifles for shooting.

Capt Korotayev is surprisingly lighthearted. A fortnight ago one of his group died. An announcement on the camp noticeboard shows a black and white photograph, the pudgy child's face of 16-year-old Valery Logvinov. In the pompous language of the pseudo-military, the legend says he was "a serious person, disciplined and hard-working", a "section commander" who "died in service". This refers to a boy who was supposed to be on his summer holidays.

A small bunch of yellow marigolds lies at the foot of the silver birch tree where the accident happened, next to the camp gate. Staff say he was run over by a truck, which the children were trying to push start in thick mud. The story is jumbled, but it is clear there was a break- down of supervision. Afterwards more than half the camp's inmates went home, but a corps of 18 boys stayed on.

The camp is run by a voluntary organisation, ROSTO (Russian Defence Sporting and Technical), a network across Russia that was set up under Stalin to forge a link between youth and military. Until the end of the Soviet Union, civil defence lessons - including drilling with wooden guns - were routine for every school child. It taps into a tradition which goes back to Peter the Great who, as a youth, created armed children's regiments.

The group, the captain boasts, is even tougher than Peter's children. "They just played around in those days," he says. "But we are getting ready for real war." They need no motto or mascot, he says. "We prove everything with deeds."

One such deed took place last summer when the group was dispatched to see if they could target a local electricity generating station. The captain says that they were out for 18 hours, pursued by 120 policemen and 20 security forces. They yomped across a river and over 96km of countryside before they returned. You see his kids are tough: "They are the best of the best."

They don't look that way when they shamble out of their tents and assemble for afternoon parade. They look the weariest of the weary, lean and sullen kids who have nowhere else to go. "Quicker, quicker," mutters the captain irritably, as one youth struggles to do up his boot laces.

Questioning them is not particularly enlightening. While we were there, they never seemed out of the earshot of their adult instructors. They say they are happy enough. What's it like here, we asked a pale and exhausted- looking boy called Kolya? He looked 10, but was 14. The daily regime cannot help. Bawled from their beds at eight with a military command of "Company, Get Up!", the boys line up on parade and are sent off, shirtless, on a three kilometre run. This is followed by a half hour of physical exercises, and - finally - breakfast.

The food, like almost everything else, appears to be army fare. "We had porridge for breakfast and fish soup for lunch," explained a fair-haired 10-year old boy called Alyosha, who was acting as sentry - complete with red armband, peaked hat, and baton - when we arrived. And dinner, we asked? "Oh, porridge," he replied. He was the only cheerful little boy we met.

The captain and his fellow vets come up with several justifications for this charade. It keeps the children off the streets, away from drugs and crime. It teaches them how to defend themselves in a hostile world. The children have fun - they are allowed to hold evening discos with girls from a nearby summer camp.

Their main thrust is that these kids will one day have to serve in the Russian military: better to be prepared than be cannon fodder. News that Boris Yeltsin has announced an end to military conscription by the close of the century does not appear to have reached the captain or his kids.

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