CHISINAU -- No one knows exactly why 25-year-old Alexandru Rjavitin snuck back into the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester late last year. After all, the self-proclaimed authorities in the territory had earlier filed criminal charges against him for allegedly "deserting" from the region's illegal paramilitary formation -- charges that carried a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
When Rjavitin disappeared from his relatives' home in the Transdniestrian village of Pervomaisc on December 18, his family immediately suspected he'd been abducted by local security forces.
The case, which has become something of a cause celebre among Moldovan rights activists, has thrown a harsh spotlight on widespread allegations of abuse, hazing, and torture inside Transdniester's unrecognized paramilitary.
On January 15, the de facto authorities in Transdniester finally acknowledged that Rjavitin was in their custody. According to Alexandru Postica, director of the human rights program of the Chisinau-based Promo-Lex Association, Rjavitin's mother was allowed a supervised visit with her son on January 20 or 21.
"From what she was able to tell her lawyers, Rjavitin was in [a prison] in Tiraspol," he told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service on January 30, referring to the main city of the breakaway region. "During the meeting, there was an officer of the authorities present, so Rjavitin did not provide any detailed information about his case."
On January 27, Postica said, Rjavitin's mother visited her son again, this time at the same paramilitary base from which he fled in 2015. The "desertion" charges against her son had been dropped, she learned, and he had been returned to serve out the rest of his conscription.
"We are nonetheless repeating our demands for access to him," Postica told RFE/RL, "because we have no evidence that his rights were observed except for the illegal conclusions [of the Transdniestrian authorities]. We need to determine that he was not tortured or otherwise intimidated."
In the meantime, prosecutors in Chisinau have opened a criminal case in the matter looking into suspicions that Rjavitin had been kidnapped.
Alexandru Rjavitin's story really began in August 2015, when he escaped from the paramilitary unit into which he'd been conscripted and swam across the Dniester River. In his separatist military uniform and light indoor shoes, he walked for three days to the capital, Chisinau.
"I was wearing a military uniform and showing up in public like that wasn't a good idea," Rjavitin said in a short 2017 documentary film produced by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service. "There are plenty of Transdniestrians in those villages, so I had to be careful. I was frightened.... I was in Moldova for the first time in my life."
When he reached the capital, Rjavitin found his way to the rights activists at Promo-Lex and unfolded a tale of horrific abuse in Transdniester's paramilitary.
"Soldiers are very often beaten up, humiliated, and blackmailed for money," Rjavitin said in the RFE/RL documentary. "Newcomers are first broken and mocked, and forced to pay. The amount varies -- 20 rubles [$1.25 according to the official exchange rate the de facto authorities have established for the nonconvertible currency] and up. Some boys even had to pay $100 to $150. [The officers] don't care where or how you got the money. But if you come up empty, you are guaranteed a beating."
Rjavitin detailed the many ways fellow soldiers had devised to beat and torture conscripts without leaving telltale marks. Nonetheless, he showed the scars of the abuse he'd suffered.
"Here I have a scar from a bayonet. He was fooling around," Rjavitin said, showing the side of his hand and gesturing to show how his attacker was stabbing between Rjavitin's fingers with his weapon. "And he cut my hand. He was drunk out of his mind."
"Those guys drink hard and beat us regularly," he concluded.
'That's Just The Way It Is'
Rjavitin's accusations have been echoed by the statements of many people displaced from the unrecognized Transdniester region.
"Fugitives from Transdniester tell their own stories and those of other people, of young men who are abused but who remain silent because they might be killed," Promo-Lex lawyer Vadim Vieru said in the 2017 documentary. "In addition, you can't really call it an 'army.' It is actually an illegal paramilitary formation that unlawfully takes away the liberty of these young men. It is grounds for criminal charges It would be more accurate to call it an organized criminal group and its purpose is to extort money from fresh servicemen."
Earlier this year, a book titled A Year Of Youth was released with the support of the Czech nongovernmental aid organization People in Need. The book details the stories of 12 former Transdniester conscripts and is available in full online in Russian. The accounts were assembled by Larisa Kalik, an activist from Tiraspol.
"This book is my attempt to give voice to people who are never asked about this important subject," Kalik told RFE/RL on January 12. "Behind the glitz of propaganda stories shown on regional television about how great it is to be a defender of the motherland stands people who have no love for their motherland. For them, their motherland is just a place to get your first gray hairs at the age of 20, to lose your teeth, to be disenchanted, and to develop the desire to buy a one-way ticket out of the country."
"This project began more than a year ago," Kalik said. "In November 2018 I met a young man who served in the Transdniester army. He half-jokingly told me about his service -- about the lack of hygiene, the hazing, the disgusting food. When I asked him how he could stand such humiliating treatment...he just answered the same way that many people do: 'Nothing will change in the army. That's the way it is, the way it was, the way it is going to be.'"
'We Are Moldova'
Pro-Russian separatists in Transdniester declared independence from Moldova in 1990 amid concerns that officials in Chisinau would seek reunification with Romania as the Soviet Union disintegrated.
The separatists fought a war against government forces two years later in which about 1,000 people were killed.
The conflict has been frozen since Soviet troops stationed in Transdniester intervened on the side of the separatists. Since then, Russia continues to provide military, economic, and political support to the unrecognized de facto administration. Moscow maintains troops in the region, despite Chisinau's repeated requests for them to be withdrawn and replaced by international peacekeepers.
Young men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to completed one year of service in the region's illegal paramilitary organization.
Rjavitin said the experience reinforced the narrative of the de facto authorities that the Moldovan government is their enemy. He described how one captain told the troops not to worry about a possible war with neighboring Ukraine.
"'Moldova will attack us first. Moldova is our enemy,'" Rjavitin quoted the captain as saying.
"People get this idea nailed into their heads from their first breath," Rjavitin said in the 2017 documentary. "All the stations air this idea. 'Moldova is the enemy. If a war begins against Moldova, you must fight to the end because this is your home.' If Moldovan television stations were there, it would stabilize the situation, and Transdniestrians themselves would want to return to Moldova."
"They call me a traitor and say I betrayed my motherland," Rjavitin said. "In reality, though, I have not betrayed my motherland. Moldova is my motherland. We were born in Moldova. We are Moldova, part of Moldova."