Soldier escapes slavery after 11 years – and is arrested for desertion

A Russian soldier who says he escaped after spending the past 11 years as a slave in the North Caucasus, could face charges of desertion from the Russian army in a case that has shocked the country.

Alexei Popov turned up at his mother's home late last month after a 20-day journey from Dagestan, the restless republic in the south of Russia, where he says he was kept captive and forced to work at a brick factory after being kidnapped in 2000.

Popov told Russian papers that, less than a year into his national service, officers took him to do construction work at a dacha where he was offered a drink after work. The next thing he remembers is waking up with a headache in a lorry transporting labourers to the factory in Kaspiisk, a city on the Caspian Sea, 24 hours' drive away.

At the final destination, all of them were told to get out with the words, "You are nobody here and nobody will look for you", Mr Popov said.

The workerswere woken at 5am and forced to work till 10pm every day.

"We woke up and went to bed hungry. Cigarettes saved us," he said. "We were given three packs of Prima cigarettes a week and we killed the hunger with them. Now I can't smoke and my stomach is barely alive."

Prima are the roughest and cheapest cigarettes sold in Russia, costing about 8p a packet. Mr Popov said he was sick when his family gave him real food and was now on a special diet.

When he turned up on his mother's doorstep, she didn't recognise him. "She looked at me for five minutes and did not understand who I was. My younger brother recognised me by my eyes. When I left he was seven or eight years old," Mr Popova told a news conference in Saratov.

Instead of receiving medical and psychological help, he now faces criminal charges for desertion and the prospect that he may have to finish his army service. He was released from prison into the care of the army only after the Russian press wrote about his story.

There have been several previous cases in which soldiers or civilians have been kept in forced labour conditions.

"There are lots like him, maybe they are not all soldiers," said Valentina Melnikova, head of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia. It usually happened in "remote districts where the government has no control", she said.

"In our country it is normal. It shouldn't be but it happens all the time," said Dmitry Yefimovich, also from the soldiers' mothers' group. "We've become used to it. The government doesn't care if they disappear or don't disappear."

In some cases, army officers are suspected of selling the soldiers. An army base in the North Caucasus sold soldiers as far back as 1989, said Ms Melnikova. "Officers think they can treat soldiers like slaves," she said. "Nobody pays attention."

Some have accused Mr Popov of inventing his story and two owners of brick factories in Dagestan on Friday accused him of slander on Russian television. Others are sceptical about why he didn't escape before.

Mr Popov said he had escaped twice before but was caught. Local sportsmen were used as guards, he said and would severely beat anyone who tried to escape.

"I escaped to the local police and they put me in a car and brought me – you won't believe it – right back," he said. "Everyone is bought. Then they really beat me up. Dislocated my jaw, broke an arm, a rib."

He said he finally escaped only after being helped by a local, whom he refused to name. "Now I have to prove that I am not a deserter. I didn't think that it would be like this ... I thought they were looking for me," he said.

While has his own fight, Mr Popov says he is also thinking of those he left behind. "I'm scared for the lads who are still there. There are a lot of them ... They need to be got out of there," he said. "Somebody who loves them is waiting for them at home too."