STARY ATAGI, Russia — Is he a prisoner in a horrible war? Or a valued house guest? Or a mascot that everybody loves and pities?
Sergei Sofronov, 19, is all three. He is also a husband and the father of a 14-month-old son, and once a tank driver in the Russian army, although he looks far too young to be any of these.
Sofronov, a draftee, was wounded in the arm and chest during the army's disastrous New Year's Eve tank assault on Grozny, capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
"I climbed out of my tank and fell down. The Chechens were all standing there and I gave up," he recounted quietly, sitting in the kitchen of a home in this small village 10 miles south of Grozny.
His audience included three of Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev's resistance fighters, three children, two young women and an elderly couple--a grandfather and grandmother. Sofronov sat upright on a wooden chair, his back against the wall, his arm leaning on the rickety kitchen table--a pose struck to suggest he was relaxed (he was not). He wore his army boots and yellowish khakis with a navy sweater under a jacket.
One young woman and the grandmother peeled potatoes while the other woman put steaming soup before the children and urged, "Eat, my little ones." In a village without electricity, the kitchen was dim but warm from the wood-burning stove.
The three Chechen fighters, one cradling a Kalashnikov rifle in his arms, sat on wooden chairs and listened to Sofronov's story, which they knew by heart.
After capturing him, the Chechens put Sofronov in a makeshift POW hospital in the basement of the presidential palace in Grozny. "They took me calmly. They didn't tie me up, and they never beat me," Sofronov said. "They fed me well in the hospital and took good care of me."
Last week he was moved from Grozny to Stary Atagi. "I'm waiting here," he said. "I work. I help with the cooking. I chop wood."
One of the women interjected: "He eats what our men eat, with them, and where we sleep, he sleeps. The fellows take him everywhere."
Sofronov agreed quietly that he was well cared for, and he managed an occasional smile. But he swallowed hard and his voice cracked when discussing his family: his wife, Natalya, 19, his son, Artyem, and mother, Maria. The Sofronovs are from the Russian village of Tavda, in the Ural Mountains near Yekaterinburg.
"His mother visited him last week, when we were still in Grozny," said Khalid, an engineer turned fighter. His words were meant more for Sofronov--as a reminder, a kindness to check Sofronov's grief.
Sofronov's mother had seen her son's name listed in a Russian newspaper among the missing in action and had come to Grozny in a desperate effort to find him.
"She lucked into the right person, and he took her to her son," Khalid said. "We never hide where our POWs are; we always let the mothers see them."
But Sofronov's mother hasn't heard from or about her son since he was moved from Grozny. Talk of her quickly grew uncomfortable, not only for Sofronov but for his captor/hosts--Khalid in particular, who at 41 was the oldest of the fighters in the kitchen.
"Hell, Sergei's been visited by everyone," said Amirkhan, 26, a Chechen fighter with a gold-toothed grin. "He's been interviewed by Estonian journalists, by Russians, by a Canadian."
Amirkhan turned to Sofronov. "Seryozha," he said, using the diminutive Russian form of his name. "You're already a TV star."
Sofronov managed a brief smile before lapsing into a nervous quiet.
The Muslim Chechen fighters took over the conversation. They discussed the need for Stinger missiles and the price of a Kalashnikov, which has fallen in Chechnya from two million rubles (about $500) before the war to half that now.
"The market is glutted, we've taken so many machine guns from the Russians," Amirkhan said.
When the talk turned again to Sofronov, he sat up with a small start.
"We didn't take him prisoner ourselves. We had nothing to do with that," Khalid said. "They told us: 'There's nowhere to keep him in Grozny. The conditions here aren't suitable.' So we took him in here and care for him."
Yemi, 34, the third Chechen fighter, volunteered that "after the war we'll let him go, that's 100%."
Khalid jumped in. "Hell, we'll let him go now." Gesturing toward me, he added, "You can take him!"
Amirkhan corrected him. "We'd have to ask the chiefs first."
"He eats what we eat," Khalid continued.
"His mother is in the city," Amirkhan said.
"Hang his name on the wall," said Amirkhan, referring to the movie theater wall in Mozdok, 50 miles from Grozny, where mothers of missing soldiers exchange information about their sons. "Tell the mothers, 'Sergei is OK.' "
In the courtyard, Sofronov, Khalid and Amirkhan gathered for a photograph, but no one put an arm around the person next to him.
Out of Sofronov's earshot, Amirkhan explained what nobody had been willing to say inside--why Sofronov was not free to go.
"Before, we always gave (our prisoners) to the mothers who came to us. We've already given many away. But we got nothing in return, and now we understand we cannot do that," Amirkhan said.
"We want the mothers to put pressure on the Russians to end the war, or at least to help achieve cease-fires . . . We need to exchange our prisoners for theirs, and the same with corpses."
After the photo, Sofronov was alone for a moment in the courtyard. Was there anything he wanted to say in private?
"Yes, if you could tell my mother where I am, and ask her to come here. And sooner would be better," he said.