NAZRAN, Russia -- Denis Pyzhenov had been a prisoner for 47 days in the breakaway Chechen capital Grozny, sharing basements and bunkers with other Russian captives and with Chechen fighters, when he heard an unbelieveable sound. Russian artillery, which for days had blasted the city, unexpectedly tailed off, and there was silence. Then, 19-year-old Pyzhenov heard his mother's voice. 'I almost fell over,' Pyzhenov said, speaking this week in nearby Nazran after his release. It was his first meeting with his mother since he was drafted 13 months ago for two years of military service. Prisoner exchanges have become one of the most acute problems of the Chechen war, which began Dec. 11 when Russian troops invaded the separatist Chechen republic to restore Moscow's rule. An unknown number of Russian soldiers -- mostly raw recruits who were unaware they were being sent into battle -- are being held by Chechen forces. Russia accuses Chechnya of refusing to exchange prisoners, but the Chechens -- with the support of some Russian lawmakers and activist groups of soldiers' mothers -- charge that the Russian government is uninterested in exchanges as part of an effort to keep Russian prisoner and casualty numbers secret, as the Soviets did during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. So far, a few dozen prisoners have been exchanged. Chechen authorities have refused to release prisoners unilaterally -- except to parents who have been coming to the region in large numbers looking for their sons. Every day come new reports of groups of unarmed mothers from across Russian heading into the war zone in search of their soldier-sons -- creating an unusual battlefield spectacle and illustrating popular discontent with the Moscow military operation.
'My mother is great,' Pyzhenov said. His mother Zoya, 46, an economist, traveled 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from their central Russian home in Yekaterinburg after learning he was a prisoner-of-war. 'I knew the conditions would be difficult,' she said, 'but I didn't expect to be bombarded by my own country's military.' Before finding her son last week, Zoya Pyzhenova and 37 other mothers spent a harrowing three days in southwest Grozny, waiting out Russian artillery barrages in a bomb shelter. Pyzhenov said he surrendered, along with his entire unit of Interior Ministry soldiers, to unarmed civilians who blocked their route to Grozny during the initial invasion. 'We had only one choice, to shoot them, and we couldn't do that,' Pyzhenov said. 'So we surrendered and gave up our weapons.' Pyzhenov appeared to have been well-treated and decently fed by his Chechen captors who transported him to Grozny. But he said he suffered a real fear of the bombs and shells that rained down on the city. As the Pyzhenovs and five other mother-son pairs shared the joyous relief of reunion, hundreds of other mothers of Russian soldiers were shuttling around the northern Caucasusseeking news of their missing sons. With sullen, misery-filled eyes, they travel back and forth between Mozdok -- the Russian military headquarters for the Chechen operation in nearby North Ossetia -- and the Chechen conflict zone. Alexandra Sherbokova, a seismologist, has heard nothing about her twin 19-year-old sons who have been missing since Jan. 12, despite appeals to military officials. Ironically, after months of lobbying, Sherbokova's request to have her sons placed in the same unit was granted in September -- three months before Russia invaded Chechnya. Now, both are gone. At the village of Assinovskaya, near where her sons last served, she appealed to three Russian officers for information, but she said the officers were drunk and rudely accused her of being a spy. 'I have hope. Hope always dies last,' she said, her eyes reflecting despair. The industrial Chelyabinsk region of the Urals has been especially hard hit. Ludmilla Zincherenko, chairwoman of the Association of Soldiers' Mothers in Chelyabinsk, leafed through lists containing names and serial numbers of 300 soldiers from the city. At least 76 of them -- none older than 20 and many in the army less than a month -- were killed on New Year's eve when Russian forces made a mass abortive assault on Grozny. 'We're afraid there's more,' Zincherenko said, 'that maybe they were crushed under tank treads and we will never find them.' A group of 11 soldiers' mothers from Chelyabinsk made the three-day journey to Nazran in Ingushetia, west of Chechnya, to launch their search. 'They have been pushed to the edge, they are ready for anything,' Zincherenko said. 'If you said, 'Tomorrow, we're going to walk into Grozny,' they'd go, without thinking or caring...because they have seen this fear and horror, and they know their sons are in there.' Russian troops stopped the Chelyabinsk mothers 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from Grozny -- where the women saw and heard for themselves the shells and rockets pounding the city where their sons are allegedly being kept. For the lucky ones, the resolution of one ordeal may lead to another -- keeping them from out of the army for good. The Russian military could force former POWs back into service, even back into the fighting in Chechnya, or even press desertion charges. Zoya and Denis Pyzhenov said the future may be rough, but that after what they went through, they're not afraid. 'The worst is behind me,' the son said. 'The important thing was getting out of Grozny.' Said his mother: 'I won't give him away again for anything.'