By Yevgeny POGORELOV and LINDA JONES
St. Petersburg Press The war in Chechnya is six weeks old. Already international audiences are growing tired of the haunting images of combat in a faraway rebel republic. But the human cost continues to rise. Last week one anguished St Petersburg family told how it was praying for the safe return of a treasured son.
Alexei Abaturov, 19, is feared missing in action. With each day that passes the heartache increases for his family.
Three weeks ago, his mother Tatyana joined a group of women who have launched a desperate search for their sons. She traveled to Mazdok, about 2,200 kilometers south of her St Petersburg home.
She has contacted her family since to say she has been able to piece together some of Alexei's movements -- but his latest whereabouts remain a mystery.
Alexei started his national service in a 100-strong Russian guard company in November 1993. He was due to leave the army in a few months' time.
Tatyana did not know her son was in Chechnya until after he had left for the war-devastated region.
Now she has followed him to the front-line where she discovered that he was first assigned to guard the airport in the besieged capital of Grozny, but has since been moved elsewhere.
The Abaturov family has grown more and more anxious due to sparse or contradictory official information and escalating rumors about the horrors of war.
A friend of Alexei's, who has left Chechnya, told Tatyana that the two draftees were more used to arming themselves with a snow shovel than a gun. Yet on their arrival in the combat zone they were immediately handed an automatic rifle and a sniper's weapon.
A recent letter received from Alexei bears no relation to the teenager they know. They suspect the letter was censored or tampered with.
According to Alexei's father, Vladimir, the letter says, "the situation in Chechnya is getting better." But, complains the father, it is strikingly untypical of his son's usual sincere and long messages.
Vladimir says he has turned to drink since his son was sent to war. His health has suffered and he wanders aimlessly around his apartment each day.
He says he spends his time talking to equally desperate people and watching TV news reports which he does not believe.
During the interview with Vladimir Abaturov, Alexei's sister, Lyudmila, 21, came home. She had been to a military hospital where her brother's close friend Dima, just sent back from the battlefields, was reported to be.
"He is suffering from a terrible poisoning. They are almost all suffering from stomach illnesses, dysentery and cholera cases are rampant. He did not dare tell me what they had been eating or drinking," said Lyuda.
Dima blasted official death figures, saying Kamaz trucks piled high with bodies told a different, more shocking, story.
But he did have good news about Alexei. Dima said that a week ago, when he saw him last, he was fine.
Unlike her father, Lyuda can no longer watch television. Tears instantly stain her eyes when she sees pictures of soldiers. Each and every one of them reminds her of her beloved "Lyosha."
"Since his 16th birthday he has been my closest friend, much closer than Mum. I told him things I wouldn't dare tell any of my female friends," she says.
"I can't imagine what I would feel if something happens to him. I go to church, pray and light candles to God, and to the Russian saints Georgy Pobedonosets (The Victory Carrier) and Nikolai Chudotvorets (The Miracle Worker). I hope they will help."
However, the family does have hope. One reassuring piece of news they have heard is that Alexei's name was not listed among an "official" list of dead or wounded.