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Victims of a Cold War Long Over: Red Army Deserters Told to Go Home

October 26, 1996

STADE, Germany (AP) _ It was 1991 in East Germany. A Russian officer, Rif Akhmetganeyev, had just deserted his Red Army post and was being interrogated by an American intelligence officer.

The Russian can still picture the American’s reassuring smile.

Akhmetganeyev says he told the American everything he wanted to know about weapons at the Russian garrison he had helped command. He says he thought that if he cooperated, he and his family could stay in Germany.

Five years later, it turns out he was wrong.

In April, German authorities rejected Akhmetganeyev’s application for asylum and told him that he and his family will have to leave the country.

``I feel betrayed by America. When I fled my garrison it was `Welcome, Ivan’ because I was a source of information. Now it’s `Ivan, go home,‴ says 47 year old, shaking his head in despair inside his family’s tiny housing project apartment outside Hamburg.

Life in Germany _ even on welfare _ is something Akhmetganeyev does not want to give up.

`My children are beginning to feel more like Germans than Russians,″ says Akhmetganeyev. Compact discs of rap music lie on an inexpensive stereo, evidence of his children’s preference for the West.

``They are getting good grades. They have German friends. This is where they belong.″

Some 340,000 Red Army soldiers were stationed in former East Germany during the Cold War. The last of them went home in August 1994, but before the bases closed about 600 men deserted and asked for political asylum in Germany.

Dozens of the defectors have called the Frankfurt office of the International Society for Human Rights this year ``in panic″ after their asylum applications were rejected, said spokeswoman Wanda Wahnsiedler.

The deserters were allowed to stay in Germany after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 because it was not clear what their fates would be if they were sent home, said Michael Griesbeck, spokesman for the Federal Office for the Recognition of Refugees.

Earlier this year, Griesbeck said, authorities decided to examine individual cases of Russian deserters and reject the asylum applications of those whose lives would not be in danger if they were sent home.

Akhmetganeyev says it is morally wrong for Germany _ a NATO country _ to deport deserters like himself who gave military information to the alliance. And like other deserters, he is trying to fight deportation in court.

``I’d be thrown into jail in Russia, maybe for a long time,″ he explained. Desertion carries a maximum sentence of seven years in Russia, and Akhmetganeyev worries he could face an even stiffer sentence because he spoke with NATO officers.

To help his case, Akhmetganeyev has formed a nonprofit organization of deserters called ``Hope,″ which is pooling its resources and seeking donations so it can hire attorneys.

Many of the defectors _ mainly officers with access to sensitive information _ were interrogated by NATO military intelligence in Germany, according to a retired American military intelligence officer, who asked not to be identified because he feared getting in trouble with German and U.S. authorities.

``We were trying to gather all kinds of information about Russia, trying to find out its weaknesses and its strengths,″ said the American, who said he was involved in a number of the interrogations.

``Defectors,″ he said, ``spilled their guts.″

Many of the defectors were ``little fish″ but others had key information that ``gave us a very good look at what exactly the Soviet army was about,″ the officer said. He said deserters revealed details including names of commanders, what kind of training they had and strengths of Soviet battalions.

Gathered at Akhmetganeyev’s apartment recently were three other Russian deserters, all members of his non-profit group.

They say they also were questioned by British and German intelligence officers based in Germany. And they say they were led to believe that if they talked, asylum would be guaranteed.

These former soldiers seem adrift, spending more time with each other than with Germans as their children become increasingly German and their wives do what they can to provide moral support.

``We are men without a state,″ muses Oleg Sukhankin, a 34-year-old former captain who defected from his supply unit on the Polish border in 1992.

Akhmetganeyev, a lieutenant colonel, says he went AWOL from tank depot near Frankfurt an der Oder in October 1991. Carrying a picnic basket, he walked up to the sentries with his wife and children and said his family was going to pick mushrooms. Instead, they hitchhiked to the west German city of Braunschweig.

Akhmetganeyev says he fled because the KGB ordered him to spy on German army officers who were his friends. Others said they fled because of cruelties within the Red Army or unstable conditions within the crumbling Soviet Union.

Akhmetganeyev and his comrades can no longer work because they have been denied asylum. Their families try to make do on welfare, or about $933 a month.

The stress of facing deportation can be seen in the eyes Sergei Suslin, a 33-year-old former Red Army captain and tank commander. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out four medals, one for being wounded in Afghanistan.

``These are memories of lost years,″ he said, laying the medals onto the kitchen table.

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