As Kazakhstan mourns the loss of 14 border guards and a forest ranger in a mysterious mass killing along the country's Chinese border, all eyes have turned to the man who has reportedly confessed to the crime -- the 15th border guard.
Who is Vladislav Chelakh and what light can he shed on what happened that fatal night of May 27-28 at the Arkankergen checkpoint, high in the Tien Shan Mountains of southeastern Kazakhstan?
Nearly as soon as Chelakh was discovered on June 5 wearing civilian clothing and carrying his commander's gun in a village not far from the scene of the crime, he became the prime suspect in the eyes of the public. Those suspicions were confirmed a day later when the 19-year-old reportedly confessed and was formally arrested.
Vladislav Chelakh (family photo)
Now, as his high-profile case enters the justice system, the question on Kazakhs' minds is what might have driven the young man from the central city of Qaraghandy to commit such a crime.
His family has painted him as someone incapable of murder -- a "very ordinary boy who always dreamt of becoming a border guard," says his mother, Svetlana Vashenko.
In a country where many young people try to avoid service in the conscript military, Chelakh signed up voluntarily. Sobbing, Vashenko shows the reporters what she says is her son's last letter from Arkankergen.
"Dear Mom, I'm writing you from Kazakhstan's borders," reads the handwritten letter, penned on a sheet of notebook paper. "I'm finally here. Now I'm a member of the Border Guard Service."
He goes on to describe his beautiful surroundings in the remote mountainous area that clearly captivated his imagination.
"It's beautiful here," he writes. "There are all mountains around us -- Chinese [mountains] on one side, our [mountains] on the other side, and there is a hill in between where my checkpoint is located."
The letter suggests Chelakh was content with his life as a soldier. "It's very good here," he writes. "It's quiet and peaceful. Now I know what serving in the army really means."
Family In Disbelief
Before the army, Chelakh completed special courses to become a train engineer, following in his father's footsteps.
His most immediate plan, however, was to return home for a 10-day vacation to see his baby brother, Pavlik, according to Vashenko. The family was expecting him to come home in July, his mother says.
Vladislav Chelakh's grandfather Vladimir says he can no longer eat or sleep.
Chelakh's relatives said ahead of the reported confession that they hadn't seen or spoken to their son since news of the slayings broke. Security officials first informed them about the killings and then later about their son's reappearance.
The family said they had mixed feelings -- on the one hand happy that Chelakh was alive; on the other fear that their teenage son could face a life in prison.
Chelakh's grandfather Vladimir, speaking after Chelakh emerged on June 5, expressed the belief that his grandson was being made a "scapegoat for some crime."
"I don't sleep at nights, or during the day," Vladimir Chelakh said. "I can't eat, I can't sleep, I don't know how I managed to survive. My will is keeping me alive."
Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Yelena Veber in Karagandy