BONN -- So many soldiers had fled from the Soviet barracks at Meissen in what used to be East Germany that the officers finally assembled the men and laid down the law: Deserters would be caught and sent to army units in Siberia that specialize in chemical weapons, units from which hardly anyone returned alive.
Janis Kalkis heard the threat. He even had participated with his unit in a manhunt for three Lithuanians who deserted after their republic declared independence from the Soviet Union. It took two days of searching, but the army -- figuring the Lithuanians were heading east toward their homeland -- found the deserters.
"Two were left in Germany, but the one who organized it was sent to the tundra," Kalkis said.
The experience taught Kalkis a lesson. If you're going to desert, don't go east. Go west.
A few weeks later, Kalkis did. The 21-year-old draftee from Latvia had watched for night after night to be sure where the guards were stationed. On Sunday, Aug. 26, at 4 p.m., his unit was given three hours off. Then they were to see a movie. Kalkis knew no one would do a head count until 10 p.m.
He strolled over to the fence surrounding the barracks. He knew there was a hole, a shortcut officers used to sneak out to town. In uniform, carrying nothing whatever, he walked out and kept going, through fields and meadows, heading toward the sun.
Kalkis became one of about 700 Soviet soldiers who have escaped from the Soviet army since the two Germanys began the process of reuniting earlier this year. In the six weeks since East Germany ceased to exist, more than 50 Soviet soldiers have applied for asylum in the new country. Hundreds more are believed to be in hiding or back in their barracks, captured by the embarrassed Soviets.
Some soldiers became enraptured by the material plenty that now surrounds them in the shops of eastern Germany; the Soviets are paid in hard currency, but their wages are so low that they can only afford the occasional beer, candy bar or package of toilet paper.
Other conscripts found a strong market for their weapons and uniforms. Others want only to return home, to get away from the hardship of army life, away from the notion of serving in an army stationed in enemy territory, amid hostile civilians, with hardly anything to do.
Kalkis, a shy, awkward, baby-faced conscript, said he fled because he feared for his life. Like many others, Kalkis's unit of 250 men is racked with ethnic strife, an especially tense microcosm of the Soviet Union's nationalist divisions.
His unit was dominated by central Asians. The handful of soldiers from the Baltic states were regularly picked on by the men whom Kalkis called "the blacks" -- Uzbeks and other Asians.
"They said I'd stolen some things, sewing materials and two radios," Kalkis said of a recent confrontation. "The Uzbeks said they were going to hang me." Previously, Kalkis said, he had been threatened, but never like this. He ran.
For five days, Kalkis slept on the ground and wandered through forests, trying to avoid cities, where a Soviet uniform was bound to attract attention. He was, he realized, totally lost. He knew not one word of German. He had no papers, no passport -- the Soviet army had kept them.
On Aug. 31, he emerged alongside a highway near Gera, about 80 miles southwest of his base.
A West German motorist named Manfred picked him up. "I saw this Soviet soldier on the side of the road, and he didn't look very well, so I figured he had an auto accident and needed help," Manfred said.
They had no language in common, but Manfred had a multilingual dictionary in his luggage. They struggled through a few words of German and Russian.
"I quickly learned how dangerous his situation was," Manfred said. "I believed that his life, or at least his health, was threatened, so I thought he had a right to desert, and a right to asylum."
The German ended up devoting himself to Kalkis for week after week. "I only wanted to take him a few kilometers and I had him for two months," Manfred said.
His first priority was to get Kalkis into civilian clothes. They parked alongside the autobahn and Kalkis put on some extra clothes Manfred kept in the back of the car; in exchange, the soldier gladly gave the German his uniform as a souvenir.
Kalkis quickly realized he could not simply walk home. Without a passport, there was no way to get past the Polish border. Manfred drove Kalkis to the Baltic Sea port of Rostock, where he tried unsuccessfully to find the deserter a free place on a ship to the Latvian capital of Riga.
So Manfred took the Latvian home to the West. Manfred contacted German Latvian organizations and asked for help. Kalkis wrote to his mother in Riga, telling her he was all right. She sent his birth certificate to Germany so her son could begin constructing a new life.
It was a frightening time. KGB agents visited Kalkis's mother and even his grandmother in the Latvian countryside, looking for him.
Soviet deserters face the death penalty. But given the unique situation in eastern Germany, a Soviet official at the embassy office in Berlin said, Moscow is handling desertions there "with extra sensitivity. I'm sure we won't be executing such people."
Early this month, Kalkis found a new sponsor, a Latvian activist in Bonn named Paulis Klavins, who is helping to push the deserter's asylum application through the bureaucracy.
There will be no quick answer. "It can take nine or 10 months," said Wolfgang Weickhart, spokesman for Germany's Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees. "Soviet deserters are treated as any other asylum applicant. We will investigate whether they have reason to fear political oppression if they return home."
Latvian activists have collected information on nearly 100 cases of Latvian soldiers who have fled. The German authorities first told Klavins that Kalkis would probably be sent back to the Soviets. German-Soviet relations are beginning to flourish, and the Bonn government is reluctant to anger Moscow.
But Klavins argued that soldiers from the Baltic states are different because Germany never formally recognized the Soviet annexation of the three northern republics. "After we made that argument, they said he will not be sent back," Klavins said.
But Weickhart, the German official, said Soviet deserters will be treated like soldiers from Iran and Afghanistan who came to Germany in recent years. Their cases will be decided according to a determination of what fate awaits them at home; their desire to avoid military service is not a ground for winning political asylum, he said.
Only 3.6 percent of 120,000 asylum cases decided this year have ended with permission to stay in Germany, Weickhart said. Kalkis has no more or less reason than anyone else to be optimistic, he added.
While he waits, Kalkis, a mechanic with an 11th-grade education, cannot work -- the result of a new German policy designed to make immigration to the country less attractive.
So he sits in a suburban house wearing over-long jeans and brand-new sneakers, watching TV, soaking in Western ways and waiting for a decision on his asylum application or a further collapse of the Soviet Union that might allow him to sneak back home.
"I'd be arrested immediately if I went back now," he said. "Maybe I can go one day. At least I'm out of the army. That's the worst -- the clothes, the shoes, the food, everything. The absolute worst."