`What do I care about elections? My son is dead'

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TWO DAYS before parliamentary elections, in which the Kremlin hopes for the success of a new party it has created, Russian television showed relieved and happy women meeting a train carrying their men back from Chechnya, safe and sound.

At Moscow's Paveletsky Station yesterday, alone and unnoticed, Galina Matafonova took receipt of a load from the cargo wagon: the coffin of her 19-year-old son, Alexei, who died in Chechnya under circumstances the military have yet to explain. "This is my burden," she said bitterly. "I brought him into the world and brought him up and now my life is meaningless."

Unlike other Russian women who have lost their men since the new war began this autumn, Ms Matafonova, 40, does not intend to bear her suffering in silence. She spent all night in the station waiting room, afraid to miss the train that came in at 7am from Rostov-on-Don, where one of Russia's main military hospitals and morgues is based. She was then planning to take the body to her village of Knyazhie Gori in Tver region for a civilian funeral today at which she would break Russian tradition.

The Russians look death in the face only if the body is fit to be presented in public. "There will be no Orthodox priest, preaching meek acceptance," she said. "I will open his coffin and show how my lad, who was six feet tall, is now reduced to a pile of ash and bone that would fill nothing bigger than a plastic bag. I will show as many people as possible. Let the whole world know. If they [the Russian authorities] wanted, they could catch the terrorists in Chechnya but it is easier for them to send our sons into the meat grinder.

"And when I am out of this circle of hell, when I have buried Alexei, I will write an open letter to the chief commander of Russian forces in Chechnya. I will say that the people in power, who started this war for their own profit, caring nothing about our poor sons, are not human beings but jackals. It will not be a petition but my own letter. If others care to sign it, that is up to them."

Ms Matafonova never wanted her son to go into the army. "From the day I gave birth to him, I wanted to save him from that climate of brutality, the heavy drinking. I was afraid the army would spoil him, and he was such a good lad."

Ms Matafonova, who earns 800 roubles (pounds 20) a month chopping wood, could not afford to pay a bribe to get her son out of military service. In any case, hewanted to serve in the army. "He wanted to be a driver. And he said the discipline would make a man of him. His friends said all the talk about bullying was just rubbish. The army was great. That's the fashion now, to be patriotic."

Alexei joined the 245th Gneznensky Guard, based in Nizhny Novgorod. He trained as a driver of armoured cars for an intelligence unit. He was killed on 9 October while on a forward reconnaissance mission that, according to the news agency Reuters, was involved in a deadly clash with the Chechens. He was burnt to death.

On 14 October, his mother received a telegram, but not from the military. A civilian friend heard a rumour that "something had happened to Alexei". Ms Matafonova began a frantic search but discovered nothing. At the end of October, the army confirmed by telephone that her son had died but would not say exactly where or how. She received a short official notice "begging to inform her that her son, Alexei Matafonov, dog tag number 926411, had died heroically". That was all.

Ms Matafonova is haunted by her son's last letter to her, which arrived in September. "Dear Mum, Sorry I could not write earlier but there were problems with the post. I am posting this from the railway station. I don't know how to tell you but we're going to Mozdok [base for the Chechnya operation in the neighbouring region of North Ossetia]. Don't worry. I'll be OK. But I have understood now that there's nothing good for me in the army."

Ms Matafonova has taken unpaid leave from her job and, pending the one- off compensation payment she is due from the army, she is penniless. But she is determined to get to the bottom of her son's tragedy.

"They will be obliged to give me his possessions. I know he kept a diary. If he mentioned his comrades, then perhaps he wrote down their addresses. I will find someone who can tell me what happened to him." More than that, she will speak out against the war, fearing nothing because she has nothing left to lose.

"[The Prime Minister, Vladimir] Putin, or those who stand behind him, started this war for their own political purposes. I do not even rule out the possibility that the FSB [Russian security service] planted the bombs in Moscow in September as a pretext to go into Chechnya. The West is right to criticise us...

"I do not know how long the war will go on... But I will campaign for peace - I will be like water, dropping on stone." And needless to say, Ms Matafonova will not be voting in the elections.

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