NALCHIK, Russia — As awkwardly as a newborn foal struggling on spindly legs, Lena Meshcheryakova is learning how to curl her lips up at the corners to make a smile.
Drifting just beneath the surface of her 5-year-old world are the memories of a darker place: the cellar in Chechnya where she was held prisoner by kidnappers for nine months.
When she was freed at age 3, she had forgotten how to smile. She could barely even speak. But she knew how to pray like the devout Muslim Chechen men who had imprisoned her. The words she kept shouting out were "Allahu akbar!" (God is great!)
Lena, kidnapped from her Russian mother's home in Grozny, the Chechen capital, was a victim of Chechnya's most voracious industry, the trade in hostages and slaves. Thousands of people have been gobbled up by the Chechen kidnapping machine, which has ravaged Russia since 1994.
The stories of survivors are like the relics of some wild, half-forgotten era of warlords and lawless barbarism. Victims have been kept in earthen pits or small cells that are often scrawled with the initials of hundreds of earlier captives. They have been used as slaves to dig trenches or build large houses for relatives of the kidnappers.
The kidnappers have been known to mutilate their captives, even children, severing their ears or fingers. Gangs have sent videotaped recordings of mutilations and beheadings to relatives to terrify them into finding the ransom. Russian authorities have used the gruesome videos to feed anti-Chechen sentiment and boost public support for Moscow's latest war in the separatist republic.
When the kidnapping industry reached its peak a few years ago, there was even a relatively open "slave market" in Grozny, near Minutka Square, where the names and details of human livestock circulated on lists for interested buyers. Gangs often traded hostages or stole them from one another.
In the years between Russia's first war in Chechnya, from 1994 to 1996, and Moscow's launch of a new war against Chechen rebels last fall, kidnapping was one of the biggest sources of enrichment for criminal gangs in an economy that had little else to offer but oil theft, arms trade, counterfeiting and drug smuggling.
The highly organized gangs hunted for victims among the wealthy clans from Chechnya and neighboring republics in southern Russia. Foreigners and Russian television journalists were in high demand.
There were even professional go-betweens who took a commission on ransom deals, visited victims in their cells and dictated the despairing letters that captives sent to relatives pleading for the ransom to be paid.
Nearly a thousand hostages are still being held or are dead, according to Russian Interior Ministry figures.
Most of the victims were kidnapped in Chechnya or nearby. But dozens of people were seized in Moscow and other cities and traveled under guard to Chechnya in trucks with hidden cells, buried under potatoes or furniture.
In at least one case, a hostage was doped and transported in a suitcase.
Piecing Together a Child's Lost Months
In her new hometown of Prokhladny, near Nalchik in southern Russia, Lena Meshcheryakova is rediscovering a childhood world of smiling suns painted on kindergarten doors, posters with cotton ball sheep and lunchtime milk ladled from an enamel pail. Her mother, Tatyana, 44, is gradually putting together the jagged puzzle of what happened to Lena in the lost nine months of her captivity.
Back in her Grozny neighborhood, Tatyana Meshcheryakova, a kindergarten director, was resented as a Russian woman teaching the children of Chechens. She thinks that her family was a target for Chechen extremists because of it.
At 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 9, 1998, she awoke to the sounds of the neighborhood dogs barking. Then four armed men were in her room. They took away her child and a pair of inexpensive gold earrings.
The initial ransom, $15,000, might as well have been a million dollars for a woman who hadn't been paid in four years. Nine months later, it had fallen to $1,000, and neighbors, colleagues and friends helped scrape together the money to buy her child's life.
Before Meshcheryakova was reunited with Lena, doctors warned her to show no emotion and to get no closer than a handshake, in case of infection.
"But I decided to hug her, and when I did she was just skin and bone," Meshcheryakova says. The child had lost all her hair. "She was a pitiful sight, all covered in scabies, her skin hanging loose. She had deep bedsores and could barely move. She weighed 9 kilograms [20 pounds] at 3 years of age."
Lena couldn't tell her mother the story. It finally emerged in painful scraps. She spoke of people named Ruslan and Shamil, who carried machine guns, and a bad-tempered woman called Larisa.
Lena's ear was ripped, and she had a deep scar on her finger. "Larisa hit me with a knife for losing a slipper," Lena explained to her mother.