Ildar and Dima were filled with apprehension as they loaded their artillery pieces on a rubble-strewn street on the outskirts of Grozny. After marching through the northern plains of Chechnya almost unchallenged, their unit of roughly 150 men seemed to be falling apart as it approached the rebellious region's capital. The commander and first officer were hospitalized with pneumonia, and the soldiers refused to listen to the other officers. Emboldened by drink, they threatened the "bossy" ones with their weapons.
"We didn't even understand where we were supposed to advance to," said Ildar from his hospital bed here. "We had no leader," said Dima, who lay in a neighboring bed.
The Chechens seemingly did. According to the two soldiers, 20 minutes after the artillery assault began, seven of the nine men in their detail were wounded in a salvo of mortar fire. The rocket and grenade launchers that were supposed to protect them went up in flames. What was left of the battalion quickly retreated.
Two weeks later, speaking in a Moscow-area military hospital, the two 19-year-olds snorted at the Russian generals they see predicting quick victory to TV newscasters. Their pessimism is shared by their two roommates, infantrymen wounded in the next two days of the same ill-fated Grozny assault.
"It will be guerrilla warfare for years," predicted Yuri, lying in white hospital draw-string pants, a sock lying under his narrow cot.
The latest polls show Russians still solidly behind the four-month-old Chechnya war. Callers to one recent Moscow television program were 9 to 2 in favor of it. Rightly or not, many Russians are afraid that if the separatist region is not restrained, the terrorists whom Russian authorities say it harbors may blow up their apartment buildings.
At the same time, there is a growing public realization that the easy victories of the war's first 90 days are over and the "final phase," as the Russian government calls it, could involve the 100,000 troops now stationed there for many more months. Setbacks over the last week have given more weight to the views of experts like Alexander Iskandarian, head of the Center for Caucasian Studies, who warn that the conflict will be bloody and long-lived.
"This is the beginning of real war," he said in an interview.
That is precisely the fear of the middle-aged women who line the corridor outside the Moscow office of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, which tries to help soldiers' families negotiate the military bureaucracy. The internationally funded committee says Russia has lost 3,000 soldiers since the start of ground combat, compared with an official count of 712.
Ludmila Kosenkova donned her good wool coat and traveled an hour and a half from her tiny village Thursday to the organization's cluttered office, hoping to get news of her 19-year-old son, Denis. She carried his last letter in her big black purse. When she received it a week ago, she went to the post office to call the number he wrote down. As she feared, it was a hospital.
"There was some kind of fire," she said. "He just had time to get out of the armored personnel carrier."
He told her he was "intact" and might be sent back to Chechnya. All she knows now is he has left the hospital in Novorossiysk. "He said, 'Don't worry about me,' " said Kosenkova. "But how can I not worry?"
Lydia Nikova, the organization's black-haired counselor, gave Kosenkova a hug of encouragement. "We were surprised when the war first broke out; the mothers weren't coming in," Nikova said, scrolling through screen after computer screen of names of soldiers' mothers. "Well, the storm has broken."
A group of more anxious Russian women would be hard to find. These are mothers who get through the night with sleeping pills and schedule their days around newscasts they fear are all too upbeat.
Marina Glazkova, a self-described patriot, supports the war more than most of them. From her apartment in eastern Moscow, she said she heard the explosion of a bomb that destroyed a city apartment building Sept. 9, killing 94 people--the work of Chechen terrorists, according to the Russian government.
But while she wants Chechnya subdued, Glazkova said, "I want everything to be finished fast." She hasn't heard from her only son, Yevgeny, a 20-year-old medic, in two months, she said, and "the kind of state I am in I wouldn't wish on anyone."
Tamara Kuznetsova, 48, also thinks the Chechen terrorists should be restrained, but not by 18-year-old conscripts like her son, Alexei. Less than three months after he was drafted in June, he was shipped off to Chechnya, despite an order that says soldiers must receive six months of training before combat. Five days later, she said, she suffered a minor heart attack.
She traveled to the Russian military headquarters in Mozdok, near the Chechen border, and convinced the command her son belonged back with his unit in Nizhny Novgorod. Now the six-month training period is up and he is eligible for combat. "I don't sleep at all," she said. "I just pace around until 4 in the morning."
An anti-draft group that advertises in Moscow subway stations reported 20 calls a day from young men wanting to know how to avoid conscription. Parents anxiously trade advice on how to get their sons student deferments or bribe doctors into declaring them medically unfit.
The accounts of the four friendly 19-year-olds in the Moscow-area military hospital would only worry those families more. They described the Chechen guerrillas as better trained, better equipped and more disciplined than Russian soldiers.
"They are not boys," said Ildar, whose dark brown eyes and dark hair stand out against the white sheets, spotted with blood. "They are grown-up men."
"Actually, we were not prepared to go into Chechnya," he said. "We shoot 10 times and hit once. They hit almost every time."
The four of them agreed that losses are higher than the official count. "That's all lies," said Yuri, who was shot in the hip. "They are concealing information.
"As many people are lost in a single battalion as they say are lost in the whole army," said Alexei, whose cotton shirt is stained from his shoulder wound. He added quietly, "I think people want to know the truth."
They talked about the war matter-of-factly, without bitterness. Asked about his wound, Ildar hopped out of bed, opened a drawer and displayed the inch-long piece of blackish metal that hit him in the buttock.
Dinner is mashed potatoes and fried fish. Then comes a round of injections, just before the nightly newscast. Tonight, the Russian generals predict a new victorious assault on Grozny in a few days.
They've heard that before. Asked who will win the war, Alexei is silent for a moment. "Hard to tell," he said.
CAPTION: Rinat Semeneev, left, who doesn't want to be soldier anymore because of his bad health, seeks support from the Soldiers' Mothers Committee in Moscow.
CAPTION: A soldier's mother in the Mothers Committee office holds the last letter from her son in Chechnya.
CAPTION: A staff member of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee displays photos of Russian soldiers who have been killed.